As high school geography teacher Dave Borash returns to see his students this week, he wishes for three things.
"My wish is we'll be in-person. My wish is we are wearing masks. And my wish is everyone who can vaccinate will vaccinate," he told me.
It seems at least two of the three are coming true: Borash will indeed teach in front of a full classroom at Brainerd High School, and aside from some exceptions, face coverings will be required for staff and students.
But the school board's decision to mandate masks has splintered his community despite Borash's best efforts to put a public face on the seriousness of COVID-19.
Last October this healthy 53-year-old with no pre-existing conditions spent five days in the ICU after contracting the coronavirus. His lungs started to fill up with fluid, and he was coughing so hard he thought he would pass out. Both he and his wife, Amy Borash, posted about their journey on social media in hopes of slaying misinformation about the disease.
"I was angry," Amy said. "I was tired of people saying it wasn't real, or it was just like a cold or the flu. It's a selfish way to think, that you don't need to worry because it's not going to affect your family. At the end of the day, it's going to affect someone's family."
Nearly a year later, Amy is again feeling compelled to speak, most recently at a local school board meeting where one anti-masking parent compared the situation to Nazi Germany. Amy walked up to the podium right after the gavel holder tried to cut off the last speaker, a mom who went beyond her three minutes while invoking the phrase "unjustified tyranny." Another woman in the unmasked crowd waved her finger at a school board member and admonished: "You don't own my child."
Amy, a dance teacher, wasn't planning to talk that day. As soon as she got to the mic, she turned around to address the other parents, townspeople she's known for years.
"I understand. I hate this thing," she told them, gesturing to her mask. "I've taught dance classes with this on, I'm going through menopause. Y'all, it's hot."
But then she shared with them the other side of the argument. The agony of watching her husband struggle to breathe or walk across the room. The shock of seeing their 23-year-old daughter — a fitness instructor — also become sickened with COVID-19.
"It's not going to happen to most people," she said. "But what if it's you? Or your child? Or your husband? Or what if it's a little kid who can't fight this?"
Amy told me Brainerd was filled with good, decent and "deeply loving people" with whom the Borashes have more in common than not. And yet some heckled her at the meeting because she said masks help prevent the spread of the virus.
Forever a student of human geography — the study of people in relationship with their communities and cultures — Dave has geeked out with his class while tracing the virus' path around the world. He also has a theory for why something as simple as mask-wearing has polarized the Brainerds across the country.
"It became political right from the start," he said. "That was the biggest mistake."
Last week, while Dave was getting pumped for the school year, I also swung into the familiar rhythms of fall. I forced my older son to hold a first-day-of-third-grade sign, as if I were snapping his jail booking photo (it's a tradition!). We both felt what he called "the jitters," but my reasons went beyond the regular back-to-school butterflies.
When the pandemic forced physical classrooms to close in March 2020, I remember him pulling away from me. A once joyful child who thrived in school was ripping up his homework and resenting his new, mean, home-school teacher.
Fortunately this fall, our school district has mandated masks. That means my kid, who is too young to be vaccinated, will have some level of defense as we try to march toward normalcy.
We mask because we know that children belong in the classroom. We mask because we have more than a year of research that suggests schools can operate relatively safely, as long as they layer protection. The run-amok delta variant could change that, but imperfect masking is a better choice than none.
In the age of COVID-19, school board meetings like that heated hearing in Brainerd have become ground zero for our nation's culture wars. Even if we're reading different studies and citing different data points, most parents do want what's best for their kids. When we spar, we need to remember that.
Like Amy, I hate the mask. Yet I am relieved that my kid, and hundreds like him in his school, will be wearing that politicized piece of fabric this fall.
And Amy will continue to tell her family's story, about how she was fraught with worry and unable to hold her husband's hand when he fought the virus in a lonely hospital room.
"People can be angry all they want in my town for me speaking out, and advocating for vaccination and mask use," she says. "I'm not doing this because it's us-against-them. It's because I don't want to see another family have to go through this. I don't want people to say, 'God, I wish I would have known.' "