To prevent the spread of COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) first recommended the wearing of face masks in all public settings in April 2020. Ultimately, this led to long-term mask mandates across the country — including in most schools.
It also sparked an often contentious divide between parents who supported the mandates and those who opposed it.
Ginny Lauren Dowden, 40, of Arkansas fought for her daughter to be able to remain mask-free — a hard-won battle that took an emotional toll.
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It was just a few months before the pandemic when Dowden and her family moved from Dallas, Texas, to Fayetteville, Arkansas.
She enrolled her older daughter, Rosalyn, 8, in second grade at the local public school. (Her younger daughter was just an infant at the time.) Then when COVID hit, the schools in Northwest Arkansas abruptly closed.
After several months of online learning, young Rosalyn was excited to return to in-person school in third grade — until the mask mandate was announced.
Right away, Dowden started the process of seeking a mask exemption.
"Rosalyn has asthma, takes daily medication and uses an inhaler," Dowden told Fox News Digital in a phone interview.
"Common sense tells you that a child with asthma should not be in a mask for eight hours a day."
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Multiple studies have shown that face masks are safe for children with asthma to wear and do not cause respiratory issues or worsen underlying lung conditions.
The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, headquartered in Milwaukee, has said that wearing a mask doesn’t affect oxygen saturation, while the American Lung Association of Chicago states on its website that "children with asthma should be able to wear a non-N95 facial covering without affecting their oxygen levels."
Even so, Dowden was not comfortable with her daughter wearing a mask for long periods of time.
She started by asking her daughter’s pediatrician’s office to approve the exemption, but the office refused.
"The medical industrial complex here in town works collectively with the school district, so I think they were under pressure to deny all exemption requests," said Dowden.
Next, Dowden visited a doctor outside her school district, where she was finally able to get an exemption note.
"The doctors that I truly trusted — and who were not just spewing out the same CDC talking points — never encouraged me to mask my daughter because of her asthma," she said.
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However, even after the doctor signed off, the elementary school still pushed back.
Although the school’s policy stated that only a doctor’s note was required, the administration told Dowden she would also have to provide an "asthma action plan" outlining how Rosalyn’s asthma was controlled.
Dowden returned to the doctor for the extra documentation. After several more emails and phone calls, Rosalyn’s exemption was finally granted.
But the struggle was far from over.
The next day, for the first time since the start of COVID, Dowden's daughter Rosalyn was excited to go back to school without a mask — but it wasn’t the positive experience they’d expected.
Since moving to Fayetteville, both Dowden and her daughter had made many new friends, primarily other mothers and daughters from school.
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But when Rosalyn showed up to class without a mask, that all changed.
"Every day, she would lose more friends," said Dowden, becoming emotional in the interview.
"Many of the other kids just wouldn’t come near her anymore."
Dowden also experienced social fallout of her own, she said, as she was ridiculed by other mothers who had once been her friends.
"It’s one thing for me to lose friends — I'll be fine — but it’s much harder for an 8-year-old girl," Dowden said.
"They treated her terribly. Their parents were telling them not to go near Rosalyn because she would make them sick."
Despite the poor treatment she experienced, young Rosalyn never wavered in her decision to not wear a mask.
"There were days when she was nervous about not wearing one. I made sure to continuously check in with her and her heart," Dowden said.
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"I would ask about how she was feeling and how difficult things were for her. I asked if she’d feel more comfortable just going along with it and wearing one."
Rosalyn’s answer was always an emphatic "no," said Dowden.
A recent scientific review indicated that mask mandates may have done little to nothing to curb the spread of COVID. Based on the outbreaks at her daughter's school, Dowden believes that’s true.
"They took all of the precautions — checking kids’ temperatures, having them use hand sanitizer and making sure their masks were pulled up over their noses — but then there would be a positive case and the whole class would have to stay home and quarantine," she said. "It completely disrupted the entire year."
"The masks did nothing," she added. "Everyone knew it, but they still went along with the narrative."
Dowden doesn’t believe that everyone was being deliberately cruel. She said some were acting out of genuine fear, in her view.
"Fear can be paralyzing," she said. "I can absolutely understand and empathize with those who were truly scared about the well-being and health of their kids."
"But there was no space — and no grace — extended to those of us who genuinely questioned things," Dowden continued. "Like them, we truly felt we were doing what was best for our children. But we were categorized as selfish, unkind, negligent and possibly [even] capable of killing others."
Rosalyn Dowden regularly came home from school with new stories of repercussions for not covering her face.
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At least once a day, a teacher would approach her in the hall and tell her to put on a mask. The girl would have to explain, over and over again, why she didn’t have to wear one.
"There was no reason the teachers had to keep asking her about it every day — they should have known about her exemption," Dowden said. "Every day, this 8-year-old was forced to defend herself to adults and other students. There was no support system for her."
In one example, another student told Rosalyn, "I have to wear two masks every day because you won’t wear one. You could kill me."
In her own classroom, Rosalyn’s third-grade teacher didn’t offer much support. She even seemed to avoid her as much as possible, Dowden said.
"It was almost like Rosalyn was invisible," Dowden said through tears. "The teacher made her sit in the back of the class away from all the other kids. It’s just cruel to single children out intentionally and make them feel ‘less than.’"
Added Dowden, "Honestly, everything she went through — it was like child abuse."
However, Dowden pointed out that there were also some great teachers at the school who were put in a tough position.
"They were simply enforcing what they had been required to do by the district," she said.
As the other parents and students continued to distance themselves, Dowden figured she had nothing to lose.
She started the state’s first chapter of Moms for Liberty. It's a nonprofit national organization dedicated to "fighting for the survival of America by unifying, educating and empowering parents to defend their parental rights at all levels of government," according to its website.
Dowden also started speaking at school board meetings about not only the mask mandates, but about changes to the curriculum that made her uncomfortable.
"They were introducing the kids to topics that have no place in schools," she said. "I got the feeling that these changes would impact the children more than a mask ever could."
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In addition, Dowden started a grassroots group with some other parents who were also against the mask mandates and other changes happening in the schools.
In July 2021, over 250 parents from the community showed up to a meeting, said Dowden.
She has spoken in front of the Senate Education Committee at the Arkansas State Capitol. And through Conduit News, the nonprofit news network where she works as the communications director, she collaborates with legislators and other counties to activate change.
In the spring of her daughter's third-grade year, things started to improve. The other kids started to tell Rosalyn that she was lucky that she didn’t have to wear a mask — which made her feel a little better.
But then, that summer, Dowden learned the school would not be lifting the mask mandate going into Rosalyn’s fourth-grade year.
"And so I started the same old song and dance again with the doctors and the exemption documentation," Dowden said.
"But between the masks and what I was learning about what they were teaching in the classrooms, I just felt so heavy-hearted about sending my daughter back there."
Around that time, Dowden heard about a new classical Christian school that had just opened up in the area. It was small, with just a few dozen students.
Ginny Dowden applied to it for her daughter, who was granted a scholarship — and the mom then pulled Rosalyn out of the public school in the middle of the fall semester.
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"She was able to go to the new school unmasked, without being treated any differently," Dowden said. "All the other kids and teachers welcomed her with open arms. It was a real godsend."
Today, Rosalyn Dowden is thriving in her fifth-grade class, her mom said.
"She's much more lighthearted," Dowden said. "Children aren’t supposed to have to carry these types of burdens and see such public discourse from parents. They're not equipped to handle that. Now, she is in an environment that encourages her to thrive, one that talks about beauty and goodness and truth."
Dowden firmly believes the masks caused immeasurable mental and emotional turmoil for kids, not to mention a loss of learning.
Even so, despite all the stress and anxiety her daughter experienced, she said her daughter never felt like a victim.
"Even though she was discriminated against, treated poorly, made fun of — even accused of being able to kill other kids because she didn’t wear a mask — she never had a victim’s mentality," said Dowden.
"She was so mentally strong. It was hard and scary, but she stood her ground, even though many people would have caved to the peer pressure."
"She understood that sometimes you have to swim against the current — that doing the right thing, more often than not, is hard and unpopular," Dowden said.
"She showed more fortitude, courage and backbone than the majority of adults."
In some ways, Dowden feels that the school’s handling of COVID and mask mandates served as an important lesson for parents.
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"It gave us a really clear picture of how political interests were put ahead of what was best for our kids," she said.
"They were teaching our kids what to think, not how to think. I think by the end, it really opened so many parents’ eyes."
Through her advocacy efforts, Dowden has made a new circle of friends.
"I found that [as] I stood up and spoke out, people I’d never met started reaching out to me," she said.
Now, going into the second year of her Moms for Liberty group, Dowden is seeing a shift as local parents become more involved — but it’s still a slow process.
If she could send a message to other parents, it would be, "Don’t forget what they did."
"They were basically tyrants who put unconstitutional mandates in place, and everyone just took it," said Dowden.
"It’s important to continue to fight. There's still an ongoing battle in our schools right now, and you can't be complacent, not even now that the masks are gone."