Attacks on School Boards

Several dozen crowd the lobby of the Vail Education Center and begin “electing” their own board of governors after the Vail School District governing board meeting was shut down before it could begin, Tucson, Ariz., April 27, 2021.Kelly Presnell, Arizona Daily Star

School Boards are under assault. Opponents argue against the teaching of critical race theory; they rally against mask and vaccine mandates even as Delta causes another surge and children remain hospitalized with Covid in record numbers.

In many states, including my own state of Illinois, school board members remain unpaid volunteers who generously give their time and expertise. But the polarization of our country and this ongoing lack of civility now plague their meetings.

A friend who is a school board member in a nearby town says, “This is a really tough time for everybody. There’s a lot of fear and anger and misinformation, so governing is really hard. I’m trying to be a good listener, and I’ve reached out to people I don’t agree with so we can have a dialogue. The compassion between people is completely gone. We’ve put everybody into boxes and we assume a lot.”

This summer Pam Lindbergh, a school board member for six years in Robbinsdale, Minnesota, resigned her position, saying, “I will not continue to accept that hateful and disrespectful behavior with my service to the community … The hate is too much. I no longer feel respected nor effective.” [Sun Sailor] Suspending the public comment portion of school board meetings, the Carmel Clay, Indiana, schools “sent an Aug. 18 email to parents that stated the new measures are in response to disruptions, verbal attacks, intimidation, inappropriate behavior and the presence of a firearm by an attendee at recent school board meetings” [youarecurrent.com].

Tulsa, Oklahoma, is concerned enough to have developed a specific policy: “The individual dignity of board members, district employees, students, and members of the public must be respected by all speakers. Board members, employees, students, nor members of the public will be subjected to verbal abuse” [tulsaschoolboards.org]. Places as diverse as Vail, Colorado; Hartford County, Maryland; and the Louisiana State School Board have had to suspend meetings because of protesters’ behavior.

The New York Times takes a national perspective in “The School Culture Wars.” “In Williamson County, Tennessee, protesters outside a packed, hours-long school board meeting last week shouted, ‘No more masks, no more masks.’” The decision of the Loudon County, Virginia, school board to allow transgender students to join sports that match their gender identity and to have chosen pronouns honored “brought raucous crowds to school board meetings this summer, culminating last week with dueling parking lot rallies.” A Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, parent yelled at the school board about critical race theory so viciously that the school board president took the parent’s microphone away and had her escorted from the lectern [nytimes.com].

“‘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 in Brainerd, Minn., who said he recently received 80 emails in three days about face masks. He described being followed to his car and called ‘evil’ after a board meeting where he supported a commitment to equity. Another time, a man speaking to the board about race quoted the Bible and said he would ‘dump hot coals on all your heads’” [Ibid.].

The article reminds us that schools, already hampered by the pandemic’s forcing closures and virtual learning, are trying to reopen just as the Delta surge becomes a serious threat. School officials should be focused on keeping students safe, improving their mental health, and making up academic gaps. “But at this critical moment, many school officials find themselves engulfed in highly partisan battles, which often have distracted from the most urgent issues. The tense environment comes amid a growing movement to recall school board officials, over everything from teachings on race to school closures. Nationwide, there have been at least 58 recall efforts targeting more than 140 officials this year, more than the previous two years combined, according to Ballotpedia” [Ibid.].

The Times article offers some perspective, reminding readers about the 1920s pushback over the teaching of evolution and the 1950s fights over school desegregation. “’Schools are particularly fraught spaces because they represent a potential challenge to the family and the authority of parents,’ said Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, an associate professor of history at the New School in New York City [Ibid.].

This time feels different, though, as politicians and political groups stoke these divides. “The two biggest divides in schools today are also highly volatile because they challenge fundamental narratives of what it means to be an American. The debate over mask mandates puts two values into conflict, collective responsibility versus personal liberty. And an examination of the country’s history of racism challenges cherished ideas about America’s founding” [Ibid.]. Any internet search turns up these conflicts around the country.

This situation is not sustainable. School officials and educators are distracted from urgent decisions and actions. They are resigning after being attacked personally. Who will run our schools if this trend continues?

Reopening Schools

Students at a primary school in Bangkok returned on July 1, a delayed start to their academic year. Credit…Adam Dean for The New York Times

I have been struggling to write this blog entry for weeks. Each time I think I have a handle on what I believe makes sense, more news and differing advisories and opinion columns give me mental whiplash. I am now convinced that I don’t know the answer. I am convinced that there is no one right answer or one-size-fits-all. And I am convinced that local school districts absolutely need to figure out their best answers both for the children, parents, and communities they serve, and for the nation.

Schools remain critical for the well-being of all of those stakeholders and for the nation as a whole.  Advancing academic learning remains a primary goal, but schools serve many functions: development of social and emotional learning, mental health services, providing food as needed, development of compensatory skills for special needs, and learning about citizenship. And the pandemic has clearly demonstrated the role of schools in enabling parents to work outside the home. Students already have lost ground academically and are dealing with the emotional aftermath of the Spring’s unexpected shutdown and an atmosphere of fear. The pandemic has revealed gross inequities about access to remote learning that remain unresolved, and we have yet to educate teachers on effective remote learning strategies.

The arguments to reopen schools as quickly as is safely possible continue to be compelling.

But it is that qualifier, “as is safely possible,” that stumps educational leaders. Although children under 10 seem to spread the virus less, according to a new study from South Korea, children 10-19 are as contagious as adults[1]. The National Center for Education Statistics identifies almost 30% of teachers as high risk[2], and schools tend to be enclosed spaces where people spend hours in close proximity, increasing the likelihood of spreading the disease. Children may also take it home to older adults who remain vulnerable. Transporting students to and from school and feeding them lunch prove problematical.

The University of Washington’s study about school reopenings around the world lists several key factors to help reduce risks:

  • Reductions of class size
  • Increasing physical distance between students
  • Keeping students in defined groups with limited interaction between groups
  • Some degree of staggering the start, stop, and break times within the school
  • Alternate shifts (morning, afternoon) or alternate days
  • Opening schools only for younger or older students in order to accommodate the increase in resources (classroom space, teachers, etc.) required for smaller class sizes.
  • Requiring face masks for students and/or staff in schools
  • Systematic school-based testing for SARS-CoV-2 virus or antibodies [3]

School systems, already facing a loss of income from reduced tax receipts, will be hard pressed to bear the expense of such safety measures. The need for such protections also varies among communities based on their rate of Covid infections. Given the local control of schools, the variety of responses seems inevitable and appropriate. New York plans on a hybrid approach of in-person learning, while Los Angeles and San Diego plan online instruction only. The local school districts where we live, an hour west of Chicago, offer a variety of options. Every family must make a decision based on the options available, weighing a myriad of factors and accepting how much is unknown.

The American Academy of Pediatrics said last week: “The pandemic has reminded so many … that educators are invaluable in children’s lives and that attending school in person offers children a wide array of health and educational benefits. For our country to truly value children, elected leaders must come together to appropriately support schools in safely returning students to the classroom and reopening schools.”[4]  We need to reopen our schools. Can we do it safely?

I have missed classroom engagement since I retired. Now, for the first time, I am relieved to be retired. My heart aches for those who must make tough decisions when no clear answers emerge, at least for me.


[1]  https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/18/health/coronavirus-children-schools.html?campaign_id=9&emc=edit_nn_20200719&instance_id=20443&nl=the-morning&regi_id=71948775&segment_id=33788&te=1&user_id=a2c5403f90bf9a526413b15a7b86a2e2

[2] https://www.childtrends.org/nearly-one-third-of-u-s-teachers-are-at-higher-risk-of-severe-illness-from-covid-19-due-to-age

[3] https://globalhealth.washington.edu/sites/default/files/COVID-19%20Schools%20Summary%20%282%29.pdf?mkt_tok=eyJpIjoiTkRreE5XWXlORFF3TXpNeCIsInQiOiJIbVNQTTVySEo0Vzk1cHVBZVVqWnFGVmR1UEJxRGdpd01mTXg4OGw3Mk5nTnpmaUoyMGt2UXIwWVZBOE5GVjIybHA5aStrbzJ3MUxsanoxamZibmlocmpSbXZyVFVoV0VHYU1aTGx0RnpsMXlmOEtXSVJqaDJsZ0RJU1BQcVZjZSJ9

[4] https://services.aap.org/en/news-room/news-releases/aap/2020/pediatricians-educators-and-superintendents-urge-a-safe-return-to-school-this-fall/