OP-ED | How Will the Culture Wars Affect the New School Year?

Credit: Composite / File / CTNewsJunkie and Shutterstock
Barth KeckBARTH KECK

The new school year is upon us and it feels like the first “normal” one in a while. The controversies surrounding COVID vaccines and “unmasking our children” could be in the past. (underline “it could be.”) Even so, the problems that must affect public schools this year are anything but common, thanks to the cultural wars that are unleashed throughout the country. How might these issues affect the upcoming school year in Connecticut?

Curricular debates

“Critical race theory” (CRT) became a hot topic in several Connecticut cities last year, most notably Guilford and Coventry, where local elections saw candidates running anti-CRT campaigns. Never mind that these candidates offer no discernible evidence of CRT in Connecticut schools; the national controversy over critical race theory he had found his way here.

This development was an example of so-called “fathers’ rights,” an idea repeated often and usually without embellishment by prominent Republicans. It’s sure to be a topic of conversation as we approach November’s midterm elections. Parents have always had a voice in public education, and last year they used it in a powerful way. Among the biggest concerns: “objective” school books.

Brookfield and Shelton’s parents took exception to certain books in the library and school curriculum, respectively, saying they focused too graphically on sexual orientation and family dysfunction. More recently, the first selected Colchester brought out “Who is RuPaul?” out of circulation at the local public library after a parent complained that it contained “some potentially sexual and suggestive images”.

We will likely see more book challenges in Connecticut this year, an activity that saw a four times nationally in 2021 and which usually includes texts about gender identity, another prevalent topic in schools.

Socio-emotional learning or gender identity?

Last week, the Hartford Board of Education established a new policy to make schools safer for transgender and gender nonconforming students.

“Under policy, student privacy is protected and staff are told not to disclose information that could reveal a student’s transgender status or gender non-confirming presentation to others, unless legally required or if a student authorizes it.” WTNH reported. “The policy also gives students the right to request to change their name on school records and allows them to be addressed by the pronoun that corresponds to their gender identity.”

These policies, including guidelines similar to New Haven – lack of universal support, to put it mildly. When the Killingly school board in March rejected plans to create a fully funded school-based mental health center, many citizens cried foul, accusing the board of putting politics before the needs of students.

“What’s happening in Killingly is not unique,” he reported Hartford Courant. “In communities across the country, conservative parents and school board members have rejected school-based mental health supports, such as social-emotional learning, as a subversive way to introduce lessons about Critical Theory of Race and Gender Identity in Public Schools.”

It’s clear that students have shown significant emotional needs throughout the pandemic, prompting many Connecticut schools to adopt these “social-emotional” programs. Detractors might see these initiatives as a devious plan to “indoctrinate students,” but a survey of 477 students in Killingly found that 28.2% “have thoughts of harming themselves.” Similarly, 40% of students nationwide said they “felt persistently sad or hopeless during the pandemic”.

This year is likely to see a continued effort by schools to address the emotional needs of children. Will these efforts lead to more controversies like Killingly’s? Time will tell. Meanwhile, the most pressing issue facing schools may be the emotional state of teachers.

Teachers in short supply

As I wrote in June, teachers needed this summer vacation more than any other I can remember. This fact should not surprise anyone.

“Before the pandemic, teaching was one of the most stressful occupations, just like nursing,” explains the education journalist. Stephen Thoughts. “But there are signs that it has only gotten worse since COVID-19 entered the profession. Teaching may now be the most stressful time in the profession, according to a June 2021 RAND survey, which found, among other things, that teachers were almost three times more likely to report symptoms of depression than other adults.”

My fellow CT News Junkie Susan Campbell underscored the point in a recent op-ed: “What’s been lost in much of the discussion is that teachers are also going through the pandemic, and if services of support are often lacking for students, they are almost non-existent for most teachers”.

Consequently, a good number of public school teachers have left the profession. Currently, 1,200 to 1,600 locations have opened statewide, according to Kate Dias, president of the Connecticut Education Association. Specifically, the State Department of Education (SDE) has identified teacher shortages in math, science, technology, world languages, and special education, among others.

“We really need to think a lot about how we support this profession and how we encourage people to not only come into it, but to stay in the profession,” Dias said.

As the culture wars add to the challenges already facing beleaguered students and teachers, perhaps the best advice comes from Governor Ned Lamont, who addressed educators at SDE’s annual back-to-school meeting last week.

“You have the best teachers in the world,” Lamont said. “They are role models, they understand these kids and we need to give them the freedom to teach and the freedom to teach, and I strongly believe that we will continue to attract the best and brightest teachers in the world right here to Connecticut. Show them the respect, show them the dignity of everything they are doing in the name of our children”.

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