Muzzled: COVID-19 and controversy in Tennessee
In part three of ‘A darker shade of red,’ the rise of anti-masking groups and a physician in the crosshairs
Dr. Michelle Fiscus was fired from her role as Tennessee’s chief immunization official amid fallout over COVID-19 vaccines. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Around 8, maybe 8:30 a.m. on July 6, 2021, Dr. Michelle Fiscus got to her office at the Tennessee Department of Health. She was running late. Normally, Fiscus would get there around 7 a.m., but that morning, she had a doctor’s appointment.
It was her first day back in the office after visiting family out of state over the July 4 holiday. Fiscus’s office was typical for a government official in Tennessee. Small. Cozy. No frills.
Waiting on her desk were a plate of scones and a potted orchid — presents and a show of support from her boss. She sat down and started getting ready to dive into work. That’s when she spotted a yellow, medium-sized Amazon envelope also on her desk. It didn’t have a note. It didn’t have a gift receipt. It didn’t have a return address.
“To be honest, in my position, you’re always a little bit leery of packages that you’re not expecting because of the whole anti-vaxxer thing,” Fiscus notes. “I’ve received books from anti-vaxxers before with hate mail in them.”
Tearing into the package, the now-54-year-old found a black dog muzzle. Basket-style. Made of silicon. Size three, for beagles.
Less than a week later, Fiscus was fired from her post as Tennessee’s chief immunization official.
In May 2021, ahead of Pfizer-BioNTech’s emergency authorization in the U.S. for use of the companies’ joint COVID-19 vaccine on children aged 12 to 17, Fiscus started getting asked by medical providers from around Tennessee about what they were supposed to do if a minor showed up on their own wanting to get vaccinated. Fiscus knew Tennessee had a state “mature minor” doctrine — allowing “healthcare providers to treat certain minors without consent,” citing a 1987 Tennessee legal case — and she went to the state health department’s chief legal counsel to get the doctrine’s legal language. Afterward, Fiscus wrote up a memo to physicians, which, went out May 12 with her name on it.
The memo was run-of-the-mill, just like others she had written during the pandemic about vaccine-related matters. However, this one sparked an uproar on the political right. Fiscus alleges a far-right activist group called Tennessee Stands found out about it.
Around June 21, Fiscus was summoned to her boss’s office, where she was told there was a good chance she was going to be fired because of the memo. Fiscus says she was told that Gov. Bill Lee’s office wasn’t happy that members of the state legislature were upset, that at least one person in the state legislature was applying pressure on Lee and that the governor was applying pressure on the health commissioner to fire her.
Fiscus was fired July 12, 2021, after, she says, she refused to resign.
In a letter to the state’s health commissioner dated just three days prior to the firing, Fiscus’s boss — Dr. Tim Jones — recommended that she get terminated “based on Dr. Fiscus’s failure to maintain good working relationships with members of her team, her lack of effective leadership, her lack of appropriate management and unwillingness to consult with superiors and other internal stakeholders on VPDIP projects.” However, an analysis of a number of Fiscus’s official work-performance evaluations — dating 2016-2017, 2017-2018, 2019-2020 and two interim 2020-2021 evaluations — showed that she was in good standing.
Clashes over diversity measures and COVID-19 protections in schools
She wasn’t the only Fiscus who would encounter the far right. Her husband, Brad, would, too.
Brad Fiscus is 57 years old. He taught biology for 13 years. He also used to coach wrestling and football.
In 2018, Brad Fiscus was elected to the Williamson County School Board. When it comes to politics, he’s middle-of-the-road. The school district had an enrollment of around 41,500 students from a total of 51 schools for the 2021-2022 academic year, according to data from the district.
The far-right activist group Moms for Liberty — designated as an extremist, anti-government group by the Southern Poverty Law Center — launched in Jan. 2021. Moms for Liberty reported having 165 chapters in 33 states in 2021. It claimed having 70,000 members nationally that year along with 75,000 social-media followers and winning 56 school board seats. Its Williamson County chapter was founded on April 6, 2021.
The chapter hit the ground running. During its first few weeks, members started networking. They connected with individuals tied to Williamson County’s branch of the Republican party as well as Gary Humble, a local conservative activist who has spent weekends serving as a worship leader at Generations Church in Franklin. Moms for Liberty-Williamson County also had meetings with members of Williamson County Schools’ school board.
Meetings with the school board, at least in part, were about keeping Critical Race Theory as well as Diversity, Equity and Inclusion out of the district’s schools.
According to the civil-rights group the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, “Critical Race Theory, or CRT, is an academic and legal framework that denotes that systemic racism is part of American society — from education and housing to employment and healthcare. Critical Race Theory recognizes that racism is more than the result of individual bias and prejudice.”
The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund adds: “[Racism] is embedded in laws, policies and institutions that uphold and reproduce racial inequalities. According to CRT, societal issues like Black Americans’ higher mortality rate, outsized exposure to police violence, the school-to-prison pipeline, denial of affordable housing, and the rates of the death of Black women in childbirth are not unrelated anomalies.”
Brad Fiscus says a CRT-based curriculum was never taught in Williamson County Schools during his time on the school board. And, to his knowledge, no primary public school nor secondary public school in Tennessee taught CRT while he was a member of Williamson County Schools’ school board.
As for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion — or DEI — Brad Fiscus says that wasn’t going to be a curriculum in Williamson County Schools. Instead, it would be something that would hopefully help students feel that they have an equitable as well as equal experience and access to education, that hopefully they would feel safer and in a better position to succeed in the classroom, regardless of things like race, ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic status, gender, sexuality.
Neither CRT nor DEI are bad things. But among the far right, they’re boogeymen. As for Mom’s for Liberty-Williamson County’s chair at the time, Robin Steenman, well, she didn’t even know the difference between the two. She thought DEI was CRT.
It was about 1 a.m. on April 19, 2021, when Steenman started recording. She was doing a Facebook Live video on Moms for Liberty-Williamson County’s private Facebook group. Nighttime, after her children were asleep, was when she did a lot of her work for the chapter.
“I look at my little kindergartener, and I think, ‘What would I do if I were a fly on the wall when somebody started teaching her this poison?’” Steenman said at one point in the video about DEI, emotionally upset. “And it’s a poison that’ll kill the soul of a child. It damages them. It tells them that they can’t dream big, that the world is not their oyster, that they can’t work hard and achieve their dreams, it’s — it’s limiting and it’s poison and it damages their minds, their little hearts.”
Originally from Austin, Texas, Steenman lives in Franklin. Previously, she served as an instructor pilot/operational test manager in the Air Force.
“It seems like she thinks that she’s not racist, but her behavior speaks racism,” Brad Fiscus says. “She believes that she has the ability to — I don’t know, say whatever she wants without any kind of rebuttal or any kind of pushback from it.”
He wasn’t done: “She’s gonna push the agenda that’s whatever the hot-button agenda is nationally.”
The state’s Republican governor, Bill Lee, signed legislation into law on May 25, 2021, that banned teaching CRT in Tennessee’s public schools. It would go into effect a week later.
Moms for Liberty-Williamson County also would set its sights on Wit and Wisdom, a set of English language arts curriculum for kindergarten through fifth grade.
Steenman met with Tennessee’s commissioner of education on June 30, 2021, to complain that Wit and Wisdom allegedly violated the state’s new anti-CRT law. Armed with a letter on behalf of Moms for Liberty-Williamson County, she singled out four books in the curriculum for second-graders. One was about former civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
“The classroom books and teacher manuals reveal both explicit and implicit Anti-American, Anti-White, and Anti-Mexican teaching,” Steenman alleged in the 11-page letter. “Additionally, it implies to second grade children that people of color continue to be oppressed by an oppressive ‘angry, vicious, scary, mean, loud, violent [rude], and [hateful]’ white population (Attachment 1 – Teacher’s Manual) and teaches that the racial injustice of the 1960s exists today . . . The narrow and slanted obsession on historical mistakes reveals a heavily biased agenda, one that makes children hate their country, each other, and/or themselves.”
“Trying to ban books about MLK and Ruby Bridges” — Bridges, at 6 years old in 1960, became one of the first Black children to attend an all-white public school in New Orleans — “in the schools is straight-up racism, without a doubt,” Franklin Community Church’s Kevin Riggs says. “But they’re going to argue with you that it’s not. And they’re going to rationalize why it’s not.”
On Aug. 7, 2021, Steenman posted again in the Facebook group. She bemoaned that one of Williamson County Schools’ high schools had sent an online form asking students which pronouns they would like used and that parents had been called “caregivers.” She complained about LGBTQ+ school clubs. She also warned about COVID-19 masks in schools and an upcoming emergency meeting of Williamson County Schools’ school board, set for three days later.
The school board meeting lasted nearly three hours. Public comment got crazy: yelling, threats, grandstanding. At least two anti-maskers were kicked out. At the end, the board voted seven to three in favor of a mask mandate — with exceptions, like religious- and health-related reasons — that would go into effect on Aug. 12, 2021, for staff, students and visitors at elementary-grade levels in all buildings and buses. It was set to stay in effect through Sept. 21, 2021.
Within days, Brad Fiscus got two anonymous voicemails. The Lookout obtained them. Both were vulgar. Both attacked him and his wife.
One ended: “Eat s—, Brad! Get the f— outta Tennessee, you pile of garbage. F— you.”
By then, the Fiscuses had already discussed moving. They ended up leaving Tennessee the following month.
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