Aug. 4 — Jeff Essary and the other four school board members in the small village of Floyd are suspended by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration. The board rebelled against state public health orders intended to blunt the spread of COVID-19.
Thursday — Essary marks his 11th day as a patient in Roosevelt General Hospital in Portales. He is being treated for COVID-19 and a related case of pneumonia.
Essary admits he feared for his life, even as he continues to criticize the Democratic governor for what he claims is an abuse of power.
“We all get scared when we can’t breathe,” Essary wrote to me. “My situation was quite advanced and scary.”
He is sheepish about only one part of his behavior in recent weeks. Essary called his care at Roosevelt General “substandard,” an assessment he’s lived to regret.
“I feel humbled with my previous statements against RGH. When you’re scared, you always want better care,” he wrote. “I apologize wholeheartedly to staff and doctors if that’s what you want to print.”
Essary, 48, feels no such remorse for opposing Lujan Grisham’s orders on masks and vaccinations.
He says the governor crossed a line. Instead of respecting local control of public schools, he says, Lujan Grisham forced her beliefs on Floyd residents.
“I still hold fast and true to my stance,” Essary wrote. “It should be up to the individual, parent or guardian of children on how we go about its handling, especially in my school district.”
His idea amounts to a risky proposition in small-town New Mexico. The village of Floyd has a population of 110. Farm kids from the surrounding area give the Floyd Municipal Schools twice that many students.
Essary’s wife, Jenny, who’s been a bus driver for the school district, also tested positive for COVID-19. By Essary’s account, her symptoms were mild and she’s a candidate to interact again with kids.
“She had a fever for a day. She feels fine and can go back to work next week due to the state Public Education Department guidelines, I believe.”
Floyd is Essary’s hometown, a place where everyone knows everyone. Residents still remember him playing basketball for the Floyd High School Broncos when coach Dwayne Kibbe had a powerhouse program in the 1980s.
And Kibbe remembers Essary as anything but a rebel, be it one with or without a cause.
“He was a unique kid, very upbeat. He was never negative, and he worked hard,” Kibbe said by phone from his home in Portales.
How good a player was Essary?
“Jeffrey was average,” Kibbe said, but part of a memorable clan. “I coached seven Essarys, Jeffrey and six of his first cousins.”
The old coach is only partly on board with his former player’s stand against the governor.
“I do believe in personal choice, yet it’s a touch-and-go situation,” Kibbe said. “All the people I know in the Clovis and Portales area who are getting COVID didn’t get the shots. Lots of people are going to disagree with me, but a fact’s a fact.”
Leon Nall, ousted as Floyd’s school board president, is optimistic that he, Essary and the other deposed members will be reinstated by a judge.
“The issue isn’t masks. This is about local control,” Nall said Thursday.
Speaking of control, a quarantine prevents Nall from visiting his hospitalized colleague. The irony of litigating for reinstatement as school board members while Essary recovers from COVID-19 hasn’t eluded either of them.
Essary says he’s feeling better. Even from a hospital bed, he won’t second-guess his decision to reject preventive measures.
“I still don’t personally believe in the vaccine or masks. But if that’s the way you feel then that is your right as an American.”
Essary makes his living as a farmer. He’s been on his own in the agriculture business since 1997. He also has worked as a correctional officer, a milk transport driver and a firefighter.
He became a school board member in 2005. Stripped of his seat and infected with COVID-19 in the same month, Essary says he followed his conscience in defying the governor.
“I’ve been open with you,” he wrote. “I pray and hope you give me an open and honest interview. I’m just a man living in a small Eastern New Mexico community trying to raise a family and help my neighbors.”
He closed by saying he wants everyone to get through the pandemic healthy.
It’s a line the governor herself uses in one form or another. Somehow, it sounds different coming from an unvaccinated, hospitalized COVID-19 patient who thought he might not make it home alive.