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Public Schools, Politics and the Pandemic: When the political world enters the classroom

Graphic by Cassie McGarty

On Friday, March 13, 2020, Carmi Scheller, a fourth-grade teacher at Star Elementary, said goodbye to her class for the weekend with a declaration of “see you Monday.” 

On Monday, March 16, West Ada School District moved online. 

With a trembling voice and tears in her eyes, Scheller said, “We didn’t ever see those kids again, as a class … there’s [been] no closure. We haven’t had time to process it or deal with everything that’s happened.”

Many Idaho teachers have been left feeling exhausted and overwhelmed by the pandemic. COVID guidelines, in addition to accusations of indoctrination, have brought political attacks into the classroom more directly than ever before.

Idaho has also been struggling with a teacher shortage, and these issues will only intensify as these politicized issues continue to gain traction. The result is an uncertain future filled with both hope and hopelessness.

“I have seen no evidence of indoctrination…”

On a normal day, in a normal year, teachers already deal with a host of issues — issues that have only been exacerbated by the pandemic.

“There simply isn’t enough time,” said Sarah Royter, a sixth-grade teacher in the Boise School District. “I can’t grade papers, and prep activities and assignments, and counsel kids and sanitize my classroom in all the time that I have.” 

Many teachers find that they have to work outside their contract hours to complete all the necessary tasks. 

According to Scheller and Royter, there are not enough hours in the day to accomplish what needs to be done, particularly when considering the amount of time required to adjust to COVID guidelines.

Idaho capitol building and public school children
[Graphic depicting school children running towards the Idaho State Capitol building]
Graphic by Cassie McGarty | The Arbiter

In a press release from August 2020, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra said, “We continue to struggle with a teacher shortage in Idaho, and the fear and confusion caused by the pandemic have likely aggravated that shortage.”

In April 2021, the Idaho House killed a $1.1 billion teacher pay bill supported by Superintendent Ybarra. 

The bill’s opposition came from legislators who were concerned about “critical race theory” and indoctrination. 

In an interview with KTVB7 in April of this year, Superintendent Ybarra said, “I have seen no evidence of indoctrination or politically motivated teaching.” 

When asked about indoctrination, Royter commented with a chuckle, “If I could indoctrinate my students, I would indoctrinate them to come to school on time and complete their assignments.”

Accusations of indoctrination started with criticism of higher education, particularly Boise State. In the past two years, the university has been on thin ice with a lawsuit from Big City Coffee and accusations around University Foundations classes

However, third-year Boise State student and education major Julia Zickefoose said, “In all my classes, it’s expressed pretty explicitly: you set aside [your political views], and you go off of what’s best for the students and for the parents.” 

Even teachers at Boise State who teach about race feel the accusations of indoctrination are unfounded.

“[Students] learn about things that will create cohesiveness, not divisiveness … In my classes, there is no ‘right answer’ or ‘wrong answer,’” said Dr. Dora Ramirez, sociology professor and director of ethnic studies at Boise State. “I’m not in a classroom to change their perspective or position. I’m there to [add to] their understanding of that moment … to add complexity.” 

“I’m exhausted, and I’m overwhelmed, and I’m frightened…” 

The volley of unrelenting political attacks, on top of normal teaching responsibilities, have led many dedicated teachers to lose hope.

“I know several teachers … that are on a two to three-year plan out of education. It’s fairly horrifying the number of people working their way to something else … and I think it’s a loss of hope,” Scheller said. 

In an essay published by Idaho Ed News, Morgan Stewart, a second-year special education teacher in Nampa School District, described how working in Idaho education is “like being in a toxic relationship.” 

“I have been gaslit into believing I’m not doing enough after working myself into tears — trying to perfect my instruction, meet the deadlines, push an endless pile of paperwork, navigate the adults and support my students,” Stewart said. “My sad reality is I often have nothing left to offer when I get home to my own small children.”

Still, many teachers try to weather the storm. 

“We adapt,” Royter said. “I’m exhausted, and I’m overwhelmed and I’m frightened, but I still love hanging out with my kids every day.” 

Royter must change her group activities to fit with COVID-19 guidelines. She explains these adjustments by saying “because we live in ‘COVID-land’…,” and the kids take it in stride.

“It’s overwhelming,” Zickefoose said. “It can be really hard, but that is why we need to keep learning and keep doing. I just hope that I maintain an excitement for education, despite all the new obstacles we’re gonna face.” 

Scheller said that at parent-teacher conferences, parents showed appreciation beyond the normal “thanks.” They would make very clear statements of gratitude, an important antidote to the public animosity directed at teachers. 

“They’re never my students. They’re my kids.” 

“As the world becomes more divided [and] more polarized … People are looking to educators to cultivate children into this new world, this new way we are living,” Zickefoose said. 

Four retired Idaho superintendents wrote in an essay that “support for public education is the tie that binds Idahoans together.”

There is a disconnect between the politics of education and the support of the public. Where children are involved, it is impossible to get away from the fears that a pandemic and political unrest have wreaked in our society.

“If we don’t have teachers, then it has a negative impact on all of society,” Scheller said. “Public schools make a difference in the world, and we need teachers, especially good ones.” 

According to both Scheller and Royter, many teachers are afraid to speak up for fear of retaliation. 

“Over the years it’s felt like we’re an easy target. We’re busy all day. We’re interacting with people about their children, so it’s not a position where we can become the enemy and stand up for ourselves,” Scheller said. 

The burden of looking after and educating children is not an easy one. Many teachers feel this responsibility personally, as Sarah Royter does. 

“They’re never my students. They’re my kids,” Royter said. 

Supporting Idaho students and education is not only teachers’ responsibility, but also the responsibility of Idaho communities and the legislature.  
In a public statement, Superintendent Ybarra said, “This is about the well-being of Idaho’s… students, who are the future of this state. Please call your local school or district office today. You are needed!”

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