The town of Doylestown, Pennsylvania There were a few farewell remarks at the beginning of the November school board meeting from departing members who talked about the things that still need to be addressed: more special education programmes, mental health initiatives, high school students taking college classes. There was a long list, but other things had taken precedence over the previous two years.
A hint was given as soon as the meeting opened up for public comments. As a group, parents and community members discussed a wide range of issues, including anti-Semitic racial stereotypes, the illegality of mask requirements, and the widely circulated myth that transgender students were raping people in the restrooms, they took turns speaking before the school board. “I fight here week after week,” one mother said, “to ensure that my children’s freedom will never be taken from them.”
For more than a year in the Central Buckland District, a battleground for school board members across the country, there has been an apparent divide between the issues that have dominated school board meetings and the problems that teachers, health care staffers, maintenance staffers and others face every day when they report to work.
A number of pressing issues confront schools across the country this year, and Central Bucks School District in Pennsylvania is no exception. There were shortages of everything, from bus drivers to substitute teachers to support staff to milk, in nearly two dozen interviews.
Covid-19 contact tracing and paperwork requests for hundreds of exemptions from a school mask requirement are putting a strain on nurses. It’s been more than a year since the TikTok challenges, viral dares on social media that led to so much vandalism in some schools that nearly all of the bathrooms had to be shut down. Custodians are now cleaning up broken sinks and disgusting messes.
And, with the number of classroom assistants dwindling, there is widespread concern about the mental health of students, a concern that existed even before Covid-19. When asked to do something as simple as form a group, a large number of students appear to be disconnected, unable to connect with one another.
Family consumer science teacher Elizabeth Coyne said, “We are in triage mode” because her teaching partner went on leave and no qualified substitutes showed up to fill the vacancy.
School employees, however, say that even as the public debates about schools have raged on, the reality of what is happening inside them has been largely ignored. It’s no longer about what’s in the best interest of students, but rather a self-perpetuating conflict between parents and school board members, with parents rising up to decry their opponents’ social media posts or list the insults that have been directed at them.
In the words of science teacher Deborah Wysocki, “This is not really what we need to be talking about!” you want to jump up and say. “The fact that there are 29 students in a room designed to hold 24 needs to be addressed. It’s also possible that we should address the issue of students who require the assistance of education assistants but aren’t receiving it, in order for those assistants to be free to watch over students in the auditorium who are in need of a babysitter.
As soon as the pandemic arrived, disagreements erupted over school reopening plans, and they quickly spiralled out of control. School administrators and teachers readily admit that these decisions had to be made, and that the consequences of those decisions are now being felt in the classroom.
Some students who had been in school remotely showed signs of learning loss, according to a third-grade teacher, Bob Martin. It was also evident in those early days how many people had health issues that made them susceptible to Covid-19. A lot of people are compromised in some way or another, you begin to realise.
Nearly the entire school year last year, students had the option of taking classes in person. With an ever-polarizing political climate, the community’s views on everything from vaccinations to library books quickly became calcified in the comments sections of private Facebook groups.
It became increasingly difficult to conduct business at board meetings; neighbours who were once friendly turned against each other, and death threats were made against board members and their families. The school board meetings were attended by police officers by the end of the summer. A rally prior to a meeting was cancelled due to concerns that a militia might be present.
While some school employees complain about the lack of attention given to pressing issues in the midst of the commotion, others have found themselves under a level of scrutiny they have never before experienced. Since an anonymous video with horror movie music circulated in the district in October, a middle school chapter of the Gay-Straight Alliance has maintained a small library. This has prompted the school to review the library’s contents.
Keith Willard, a social studies teacher for 21 years and the chapter’s sponsor, said, “I wish coming into my classroom doing a lesson these days could be the first thing on my mind, but it isn’t.” “I’ve started to rethink my career in the last few months.”
As a result, Abram Lucabaugh, the school district’s superintendent, has been spending a lot of time with attorneys. According to him, the most pressing issue at school right now is the mental health of students. After the Covid-19 disruptions, he attributed student difficulties in part to the “vitriolic” political climate surrounding schools.
As he put it, “I’m seeing that play out far more among the adults than the students.” He did, however, claim that it had an effect on the students as well.
Elections for the Central Bucks school board were held in early November. As a result of big-money campaigns, the elections this year featured fake campaign fliers, attack websites, and social media campaigns. As a result, three of the five seats up for election were won by candidates who were opposed to the requirement that they wear masks.
Staff members at the school, who are already exhausted and overburdened, must now wonder what “normalcy” might actually look like.
Lisa Rothenberger, an education assistant who works with students with special needs, has spent her days surrounded by children requiring constant face-to-face attention throughout the pandemic period. Despite their parents’ objections, some of them would never be able to wear masks. Assisting, cleaning, and other support staff have been working without a contract for months, so she doesn’t know if anyone knows what she does.
The school board meetings, on the other hand, she says she has no time to think about. Moreover, it appears that the two of them have a mutual admiration for each other.