“Won’t somebody please think of the children?”
— Helen Lovejoy, “The Simpsons”
August is Back to School Month for public school students in Utah. But, for many adults, especially those involved in politics, school is never out.
And not always in a good way.
Much of the summer has been filled with debate, rhetoric and more than a little foolishness at all levels of government, talking about education and the world in which it exists. We have seen nominal grown-ups try to score political points, often spouting fringe ideas and off-the-wall conspiracy theories, in performances that do little to help the education of the next generation because everyone is too busy trying to make the adults feel better.
Students who look up from their iPhones long enough to see what their elders have been on about are at risk of drawing the lesson that history, science and the responsibilities of citizenship are things to be cast aside when someone thinks they are awkward or inconvenient. Which is rather a waste, as middle schoolers can already be skilled at whining that life should be all rights and no responsibilities.
With the political class — professional and amateur — proving to be of little help, it falls to teachers, administrators, school boards and families to help students deal with two horrid diseases threatening their education: COVID-19 and racism.
A general understanding that young children are not as vulnerable to the coronavirus as their teachers or their grandparents wasn’t enough to keep many schools open last year, as people reasonably worried that even the most resilient young people might still carry the virus, from home to school or from school to home.
As this school year begins, we see more young people suffering, even dying, from the disease, and those under age 12 are still not eligible for vaccines. But we also have many reasons to want to bring students back into the classroom, face-to-face with teachers and peers, as remote learning proved to be academically inconsistent and emotionally ineffective for so many.
Going back to school would be so much easier now if the political wars had not done so much to undermine the best tools we have for making classrooms safe: masks and vaccines. Often those who demanded a return to in-person learning were the same people who objected to mask mandates or vaccination requirements. (We’re looking at you Utah Legislature.)
People who know what they are talking about, including experts from the Salt Lake County Health Department and Health Board, have urged mask-wearing in schools. People who know about talking, including members of the Legislature and of the Salt Lake County Council, oppose such requirements.
Gov. Spencer Cox remains limited to his repeated calls for people to do the right thing, even as the Legislature controlled by his own Republican Party has stood in the way of mask mandates in schools (or anywhere else) and done little to help convince people to accept the vaccine. The governor of Arkansas, also a Republican, supported such state preemption of local rules, and now wishes he hadn’t.
While, in Utah, House Speaker Brad Wilson, Senate President Stuart Adams and their caucuses have caved into the demands of a fringe wing of their party, which somehow sees even minimal efforts to protect the public health as a kind of slavery.
Not that slavery is something they generally want to talk about.
Legislative resolutions set the Utah State Board of Education off on a summer-long snipe hunt that, in the end, actually produced a rather reasonable set of standards that do little more than state the obvious. Schools mustn’t teach that any race is superior to any other or that anyone should feel bad about evil things their similarly hued ancestors might or might not have done.
The board was wise enough to ignore a substitute policy, 21 pages of thou shalt nots proposed by board member Natalie Cline, who continues to insist against all evidence and logic that Utah’s schools have become hotbeds of woke white-shaming.
This 21st century McCarthyism is far from dead — promoted also by U.S. Rep. Burgess Owens and state Rep. Steve Christiansen. But the board generally came down on the side of the reality-based teaching of history and civics, with no effort to ban or hide such truths as slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, mass incarceration and other things that are not all of what we are, but very much part of what we are, and what we still need to overcome.
Utah’s public schools this month face the most difficult reopening in memory. To help them, everyone from the governor to the PTO to Mom and Dad, should refuse to fall into right-wing rabbit holes and demand that the schools, and the society they serve, do all they can to protect students from the very real threat of coronavirus.