Parents refusing to send their sons and daughters to school because their school board approved a new set of textbooks from national publishers? Coal miners striking in support of parents refusing to send their children to school? Shots fired in protest crowds protesting the new textbooks? A school superintendent sprayed with mace?
Public schools have become vortexes of conflict in American society repeatedly. From the Scopes trial in the mid-1920s over teaching the theory of evolution in Tennessee to the rooting out of Communists from government posts and schools across the nation in the 1950s amid fears of Soviet Russia’s undermining the nation were other instances of U.S. value conflicts spilling over unto public schools.
In West Virginia’s Kanawha County in 1974, the board of education approved new textbooks reflecting substantial changes in math, the sciences, social studies, and other domains of knowledge. That county board decision led to protests, riots, and strikes. County parents didn’t want their individual rights to rear children in traditional ways that they thought best be subverted by educational experts who wanted the newest knowledge to be available to school children and youth. It became another example drawn from the history of U.S. public schools when political, social, and economic changes in the larger society during the 1950s and 1960s led to later turmoil in schools.
And in 2021, amid the twists and turns of a virus that keeps evolving, civic and school officials have split into support for and opposition to children wearing masks in school. Florida, Texas, and Arizona governors (all Republicans), for example, have banned school districts from mandating students wearing masks (see here and here). Let individual parents decide the matter, they argue. Of course, in each state, some school districts objected to the governors’ bans and required all students in their district schools to wear masks. While there is much variation in gubernatorial direction across the 50 states and territories, the pattern of Democratic governors’ adherence and GOP opposition to the guidelines issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control on masking are evident.
Yes, we are in another culture war. This one is partisan, however. Democrats and Republican legislators and executives in local, state, and federal jurisdictions largely split over the degree to which they follow the scientific evidence about the changing virus, whether or not to issue mandates to prevent spread of the disease and deciding upon which treatments to pursue. Equally disturbing is that the Covid-19 pandemic has revealed casualties in student losses in academic content and skills and the heightening of already existing inequalities between white, Hispanic, and Black students (e.g.,low-income minority students were far more likely to be directed toward remote instruction rather than face-to-face teaching for longer periods of time than middle- and upper-middle class white children)
Into the existing political divide that has deepened over the past two decades, masking and getting vaccinated have become the most recent instance of warring camps. Yet the conflicting values continue to be present: individual liberty to determine what is best for one’s self and one’s children vs. cooperating with one another to protect the health and safety of the community.
In a democracy where individual and community values inexorably conflict, these contentious debates spilled over schools and caused much torment if not havoc. Those debates and turmoil will slowly resolve as deliberations continue in communities over what is best to do in schooling America’s children during this health crisis. Compromises bridging these values where opposing sides get a half loaf of bread rather than a full one will be struck by political factions. Partisan divides may or may not close as Covid-19 eases, even passes, as vaccinations spread globally but the ongoing threat of future pandemics persists.
Whether the next culture war in the nation will spread to schools as had Covid-19 depends mightily on national leadership and a faith in democratic mechanisms for defusing conflict since, historically, when the nation has a cold, schools sneeze.