“You brought us division” – Baltimore Sun
July and August are supposed to be the quietest months of the school year. But not this time.
In Williamson County, Tennessee, protesters outside a crowded hour-long school board meeting last week shouted, “No more masks, no more masks.”
In Loudoun County, Va., a debate over transgender rights drew rowdy crowds to school board meetings this summer, culminating last week in dueling rallies in parking lots. The board has approved a policy that allows transgender students to join sports teams that match their gender identity and requires teachers to use transgender student pronouns.
And, in a particularly low point for school board-parent relations, one woman railed against critical race theory at a Philadelphia-area meeting, shouting, “You’ve brought us the division.” After the allotted time, the school board president left the stage, entered the audience and removed the microphone. She was escorted out of the desk by security.
As summer turns into fall, nearly every major issue dividing the country has fallen like an anvil on America’s schools.
“The water pressure is higher than it has ever been and there are more leaks than I have fingers,” said Kevin Boyles, a school board official from Brainerd, Minnesota, who said he recently received 80 emails in three days regarding face masks. He described being followed to his car and called “evil” after a board meeting where he backed a commitment to fairness. Another time, a man speaking to the council about race quoted the Bible and said he would “spill hot coals on all your heads.”
“You’re just trying to keep everything from falling apart,” Boyles said.
Schools were already facing a crisis of historic proportions. They are reopening just as a highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus is tearing communities apart. They must create a safe environment for teachers and students, while helping children who have suffered major trauma.
And then there are the education gaps that need to be closed: for many of the country’s 56 million schoolchildren, this has been a year of lost learning and growing inequality.
But at this critical juncture, many school officials find themselves embroiled in highly partisan battles, which have often diverted attention from more pressing issues. The tense environment comes amid a growing backlash from school board officials on everything from lessons on race to school closures. Nationwide, there have been at least 58 recall efforts targeting more than 140 public servants this year, more than the previous two years combined, according to Ballotpedia.
As superintendent in Albany, Oregon, Melissa Goff first noticed a setback when her district closed classrooms during the pandemic. A slate of candidates presented itself to the school board largely on a platform to open schools.
But by the time students returned this spring, a new flashpoint had arisen: Should police officers welcome students back to campus? Although it’s a local tradition, some parents said their children, sensitive after a year of Black Lives Matter protests, were scared.
Goff asked the police to stand down. Dozens of people – including a school board candidate in a military vehicle – demonstrated outside the district office, some calling for her resignation.
Then in May, Goff said she had come under fire for a plan to hold vaccination clinics at local high schools. Although she said the clinics were meant to reach low-income families and people of color, Goff said some people see the effort as “getting kids vaccinated.”
By summer, a new school board had taken over, and Goff was fired without cause. The school board president, in an email, said Goff was not fired for her stance on equity and diversity, but pointed to the “division” and “underlying issues created by the ‘district administration’.
Goff, who has worked in education for 26 years, said she has never seen so many political issues converge on schools. There was not just one contentious issue, she said. “It was every place you shot.”
This is not the first time that the classroom has become the center of civil conflict. From the teaching of evolution in the 1920s to the push for school desegregation in the 1950s, schools have often been at the center of major social conflicts.
“Schools are particularly challenging spaces because they pose a potential challenge to family and parental authority,” said Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, associate professor of history at The New School in New York.
The two biggest divisions in schools today are also highly volatile as they challenge fundamental narratives of what it means to be an American. The debate over mask mandates brings two values into conflict, collective responsibility versus individual freedom. And an examination of the country’s history of racism challenges cherished ideas about America’s founding.
The debates have been fueled largely by politicians and political groups injecting partisanship into issues of education and public health.
At least nine states have banned or rescinded school mask mandates, including Texas, where Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, is locked in a tug of war with local school districts that openly defy his order.
The battles have been particularly bitter in Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, has threatened to cut funding to schools that impose mask mandates.
“I want my child to go to school for free and without a mask,” a woman shouted at a Broward County union official last week, as protesters held up signs reading “My body, my choice” and “ Masks = child abuse”. Broward County voted to require masks despite the governor’s order.
The rhetoric was also inflammatory 300 miles away in St. Johns County, where masked parents demonstrated alongside young children and urged school officials to disobey the governor’s order. “Dead children are not acceptable losses,” read one sign. After a school board meeting that lasted more than seven hours last week, masks remained optional.
“We were handcuffed,” the school board president said.
At the same time, at least 28 states, largely controlled by Republicans, have moved to restrict education about race and history. According to Chalkbeat, a nonprofit education outlet, 15 other states, mostly run by Democrats, have moved to expand racial education.
Much of the debate has focused on critical race theory, an advanced academic concept that analyzes racism at systemic levels and is not usually taught until college.
“It’s not really about critical race theory,” said Dorinda Carter Andrews, professor of race, culture and equity at Michigan State University, where she teaches such a course. “It’s really a distraction,” she said, “to suppress the ways educators engage young people in racial dialogue.”
Keith Ammon, a Republican state representative from New Hampshire, is among those who have sought to regulate how teachers talk about race. He said concepts such as white privilege can create a “dividing worldview” and that he is wary of teachers who “bring their activism to the classroom”.
As a legislator, he said, his job is “to set guidelines for how taxpayers’ money is used.”
As these laws come into effect, educators may increasingly find themselves in the crosshairs.
Matthew Hawn had been teaching contemporary issues since 2010 at Sullivan Central High School in rural Blountville, Tennessee, addressing topics such as immigration, same-sex marriage and abortion with his students, who were mostly whites and conservatives.
“I wanted to make sure my students had the perspective on the issues we talked about,” said Hawn, who is white. “And I wanted it to come from a good source.”
But in June, the school board fired Hawn after she assigned an essay by black author Ta-Nehisi Coates that examines the role of race in Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency, and performed “White Privilege,” a spoken word poem in which Kyla Jenée Lacey, a black performer, uses several swear words and a racial slur.
Hawn was fired for violating the state’s teacher code of ethics, including denying students access to different viewpoints. He is appealing, paid in part by parents and students who protested the dismissal.
Meanwhile, Tennessee has enacted a law that restricts teachings about race and privilege.
Underlying some of these debates are questions about what is age-appropriate for children. Is it okay to teach younger elementary school students about police killings and systemic racism? What about gender identity?
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A usually routine agenda item — a local library board meeting — went up in smoke in Hamilton County, Indiana, last month when a woman who s is identified as an 11-year-old grandmother objected to a picture book she said she found at her local library. . When she read aloud the book “When Aidan Became a Brother,” about a transgender boy, school officials cut her microphone and walked out as the crowd chanted, “We pay you! “
Marcus Belin, a black principal at a predominantly white high school in Huntley, Illinois, described being turned down last year from an English assignment that involved an excerpt from ‘The Hate U Give,’ a book about a teenage girl. black girl who witnesses a white policeman fatally shooting her black friend.
At a recent school board meeting, a parent who said she was a police officer complained that the assignment was inappropriate and one-sided. “Unmask our children and stop dividing us with critical race theory,” she said, drawing cheers from the crowd.
But even as those debates swirl around him, Belin says he’s focused on other issues.
School starts this week. He is preparing for a mental health crisis after more than a year of distance and hybrid learning. And he worries about the delta variant of the coronavirus. Although the risk of serious illness and death for the children remains low, he feels responsible if the worst happens on his watch.
“It’s like being in the eye of a storm,” he says.
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