Again-To-College A Playground For Extra Partisan Politics Over COVID

ACROSS AMERICA — Last year, the superintendent of Iowa’s largest school district found himself spending less time helping students and staff navigate a tumultuous year and more time defending himself amid a collision of public health and partisan politics.

The conservative state went after Des Moines Superintendent Thomas Ahart’s administrator’s license.

His transgression? Defying conservative Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds and keeping students at home as positive COVID-19 cases soared in the state’s capital city. Reynolds was adamant Iowa’s public school students get at least some in-person learning.

In the end, Ahart was only reprimanded and didn’t lose his license. What happened to him is an extreme — but by no means isolated — example of how the pandemic is thrusting administrators like him into an increasingly partisan battle over the health of America’s public school officials.

Ahart told The Associated Press he’s eager to get back to the “real work to be done for students” — something educators across America have been struggling with over the past 16 months.

Iowa is among seven states that have banned school districts from implementing mask mandates, even as the highly contagious delta variant sweeps across the United States as students head back to school. By July’s end, the number of new daily coronavirus cases surpassed 100,000 for the first time in months, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now recommends everyone over age 2 wear a mask while indoors, regardless of vaccination status.

In Florida, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has threatened to withhold state funding to any district that implements a mask mandate. He also threatened to withhold pay from superintendents who impose mandates anyway.

In Tennessee, crowds gathered outside a Williamson County school board meeting, heckling masked people leaving the meeting. One man could be heard saying, “We know who you are. You can leave freely, but we will find you.”

In Arizona, a teacher is suing the Phoenix Union High School District because its mask mandate defies Gov. Doug Ducey’s ban.

And in Georgia, more than 5,000 people have signed a petition demanding the Cobb County School District superintendent resign over COVID-19 protocols.

These are just a few examples of where parents and politicians, determined to take a stand and refusing to kowtow to differing ideologies, have turned school board meetings into stages and school districts into places where partisan rituals of agreement, disagreement, rebellion and compliance are performed.

And it’s likely to get worse before it gets better

In fact, all evidence points to the collision of school policy and partisan politics becoming more and more common, according to Dr. Paul Hill, an education professor at the University of Washington and founder of the Center on Reinventing Public Education.

“School board meetings are being blown up, superintendents are being fired,” Hill told Patch. “There are serious problems to be solved in schools right now — things that are really important and things you want school boards and superintendents to manage — but kids are simply being blown away by these political issues.”

Schools Endure Threats, Backlash

The struggle in Des Moines schools, a district of approximately 32,000 students, happened at the beginning of the 2020-21 academic year as Iowa faced some of the nation’s highest rates of coronavirus infections.

Reynolds, the Iowa governor, insisted students should be in a physical classroom at least half the time and
Gov. Kim Reynolds ordered that schools provide students with in-person learning at least half the time. She said the risks of being infected with the coronavirus were outweighed by the need to give parents and students the choice to go to school.

Des Moines and a handful of other schools pushed back, arguing in a state that prizes local control that the decisions be made by school boards, not the Statehouse. In Des Moines, school officials said aging facilities and inadequate air-filtering systems required a different tack.

Des Moines school board members backed up Ahart, the superintendent, lambasting an attack on his career for back-to-school protocols designed to fit the local situation.

This year, Republican leaders in other parts of the country are waging war in heavily Democratic districts with surging coronavirus cases.

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster recently threatened to withhold funding to schools in his state’s capital of Columbia over masking rules. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has promised to enforce a similar order against mask mandates despite large school districts around the state, including Dallas and Austin, moving forward with classroom face covering requirements.

A recent report by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association found that nearly 4.4 million U.S. COVID-19 cases have affected children. That’s about 14 percent of all cases nationwide, though the report said hospitalization and death among children is “uncommon.”

Still, the delta variant has been described as a “serious threat” to kids, who until age 12 are not eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. The variant now makes up more than 90 percent of all new cases in the United States.

Yet the Republican Party’s base has long opposed mask rules, a stance championed by former President Donald Trump. In fact, a recently released Monmouth University poll found that 73 percent of Republicans oppose bringing back masking and social distancing guidelines, while 85 percent of Democrats support doing so. Independents were more deeply divided, with 42 percent in support and 55 percent opposed.

Support for masks in classrooms is higher. A Gallup survey conducted in July found that 57 percent of parents with school-age children favor mask mandates for unvaccinated students.

Within the Republican Party, there’s clear opposition to words such as “mandate,” yet some education experts believe it has little to do with the well-being of kids, teachers and schools.

“This is all part of the left-right polarization — the residue of Trump’s presidency and the resentment there,” Hill told Patch. “It’s all being played out in different ways and in a much bigger frame.”

So far, only one Republican leader has backtracked.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson tried to do so, but ultimately didn’t have enough support in a special session of the Legislature to reverse the ban on mask mandates in school. “In hindsight,” he said, “I wish that it had not become law.”

State governments stepping in to make decisions on behalf of school districts is nothing new, despite the long-held GOP belief championing local control and limited government.

In fact, the interest has always been there, according to Colin Sharkey, executive director of the Association of American Educators. He cited the implementation of the Common Core State Standards Initiative as an example.

The pandemic is only accelerating the trend, he said.

“The decision-making has slowly gravitated away from local classrooms and communities and families to capitols,” Sharkey told Patch. “Partisan politics are coming into play when it’s really about the next election or raising money other than what’s best for kids.”

Hill agreed; however, past debates usually centered on specific communities and weren’t connected to national politics in any big way, he said.

“With the mask mandate question, it’s right-wing politicians being performative and demonstrating their commitment and opposition to leftist ideas by doing this,” Hill said.

In ‘Survival Mode,’ Schools Fight Back

As coronavirus cases continue to rise in children, a growing number of school districts are pushing back. Districts in Phoenix, Dallas, Houston, Austin, San Antonio and Broward County, Florida, are among those defying state mask laws, according to the AP.

Among those speaking out is Alberto Carvalho, the superintendent of Miami-Dade schools, Florida’s largest school district.

“At no point shall I allow my decision to be influenced by a threat to my paycheck; a small price to pay considering the gravity of this issue and the potential impact to the health and well-being of our students and dedicated employees,” Carvalho said in a statement to the AP.

In Iowa, school districts feel as though their hands are tied, Mike Beranek, a third grade teacher from West Des Moines, told We Are Iowa. Beranek is also the president of the Iowa State Education Association.

“Local districts are the ones that are closest to what is happening in that community,” Beranek told the publication. “And if a school district, if families, if communities believe that the best way forward to make sure that everyone stays healthy and safe is to require mask mandates, then we should follow the philosophy of local control.”

Students at Denver Justice High School, a small alternative education school, will start this school year with masks. That’s because Denver Mayor Michael Hancock mandated that all teachers — in both public and private schools — be vaccinated against the coronavirus.

That doesn’t mean Denver Justice has been free from pushback, Principal Stephen Parce told Patch.

“We’ve seen a small level from parents who wanted something different at the time,” Parce said. “It’s been an interesting journey. I’ve referred to it as whitewater rafting because of all the different changes we’ve had to navigate.”

The intersection of politics, public health and school policy not only poses a viable threat to students but also the future of the nation, Parce told Patch.

“Our public education system benefits our society and our nation as a whole, not isolated groups and individuals,” Parce said. “If we choose to follow sound bites, to ignore science, to exclude individuals that we violate the rights of as our fellow citizens, we risk the dissolution of our society as a whole.”

Meanwhile, teachers and school leaders in other districts are heading back to classrooms sharing an overwhelming sentiment: They’re not being heard, according to Sharkey.

School districts are starting the year in “survival mode.”

“When people aren’t being heard or don’t feel like they’re being heard, that’s when things amp up,” Sharkey said. “We’ve gravitated toward this one-size-fits-all solution that ignores input from educators and parents and ignores flexible solutions. It may not be possible to adapt.”

As schools reopen, the pandemic has also exacerbated the sometimes starkly different viewpoints of teachers unions and the people they represent.

Teachers unions have clashed with state and local governments since the beginning of the pandemic. Chicago is one example. Despite the American Federation of Teachers — the parent organization of the Chicago Teachers Union — declaring there is “no doubt schools must be open” fully and safely by the start of the new school year, the Chicago union spent months pushing the idea that it’s unsafe to send kids back to school building this fall.

RELATED: CTU Leaders Continue Push To Leverage Pandemic For Political Gain

The Association of American Educators is a nonprofit organization that supports professional educators. Its goal, according to Sharkey, is to take partisan politics out of the classroom.

Membership is growing, especially as teachers become growingly frustrated with the unions that represent them.

“Unions at the state and national level have decided they speak on behalf of educators. In labor matters, that’s true, but they also speak on policy matters,” Sharkey said. “And there are a lot of policies unions advocate for that teachers don’t really support. Their voice has been co-opted.”

Kids, Teachers Will Suffer

What happens if the fighting worsens? What happens if communities lose sight of what’s truly important in schools?

Kids could be harmed in several ways, Hill told Patch. School reopenings may turn chaotic, and school districts might start the new year without the leaders needed to make decisions.

“That is not in anybody’s best interest, as far as I can tell,” Hill said.

Students also need consistency and continuity. If not, their mental health, emotional well-being or academic growth could suffer, according to Parce, the principal of Denver Justice High School.

“When partisan politics prevent the implementation of policies such as masks in schools, we’ve seen a greater number of exposures for both our students, our educators, our support members, and everyone’s extended families,” Parce said. “The sudden jolt of being told to switch back and forth from in-person and remote learning is a negative and jarring impact that is harmful.”

Sharkey also predicts two scenarios: Schools will struggle to find good teachers, and families will start choosing other types of education.

“The teachers we have will leave. The ones we would have had won’t show up,” Sharkey said. “Teachers are very aware of what is happening in the profession. Education is very public, and we’re already struggling.”

Meanwhile, public school enrollment in the United States dropped in nearly every state last year, according to a June analysis conducted by The Associated Press and Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news organization covering education.

Hawaii was the lone exception, where enrollment increased by a meager 0.2 percent.

The pandemic is the likely culprit behind the sharp declines. When schools moved online during the pandemic, many parents opted to send their kids elsewhere. While some pulled children out of public schools to home-school them, others enrolled their kids in private schools since many continued to offer in-person instruction.

Education experts are worried those students may never return, which could fundamentally change the demographics of U.S. public schools.

“It’s not equitably distributed,” Sharkey said. “What it leaves behind are families that don’t have an option. I would love to be wrong, but I just don’t see what would stop that trend if we don’t respond and provide choices for all families.”

Meanwhile, Sharkey said he and his organization will continue to fight and empower teachers to speak up and find their voice.

“We won’t change the entire system, but it makes a difference when we put educators in front of legislators,” Sharkey said. “Restoring that sense of empowerment to someone who has felt silenced and ignored is really meaningful, and it’s a hard thing to undo. We’re hoping all educators find that again.”

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