Connecticut's education path forward as a question mark concept.
Credit: Composite / File / CTNewsJunkie & Shutterstock
Barth Keck

The new school year is upon us, and it looks like the first “regular” one in a while. Controversies surrounding COVID vaccines and “unmasking our kids” could be in the past. (I emphasize “could be.”) Even so, the issues bound to affect public schools this year are anything but regular, thanks to the culture wars raging nationwide. How might these issues affect the upcoming school year in Connecticut?

Curriculum Debates

“Critical Race Theory” (CRT) became a heated topic in several Connecticut towns last year, notably Guilford and Coventry, where local elections saw candidates running anti-CRT campaigns. Never mind that these candidates offered no discernible evidence of CRT in Connecticut schools; the national controversy over Critical Race Theory had found its way here.

This development was an example of so-called “parents’ rights,” an idea repeated often and usually without embellishment by prominent Republicans. Guaranteed, it’ll be a talking point as we approach the mid-term elections in November. Parents have always had a voice in public education, and they used it emphatically last year. Among the biggest concerns: “objectionable” school books.

Parents in Brookfield and Shelton took exception to certain books in the school library and curriculum, respectively, saying they focused too graphically on sexual orientation and family dysfunction. More recently, the first selectman in Colchester pulled “Who is RuPaul?” out of circulation in the local public library following a parent’s complaint that it contained “some potentially sexually, suggestive imagery.”

We will probably see more book challenges in Connecticut this year – an activity that saw a four-fold increase nationally in 2021 and which typically involves texts about gender identity, another prevalent issue for schools.

Social-Emotional Learning or Gender Identity?

Just last week, the Hartford Board of Education established a new policy to make schools safer for transgender and gender non-conforming students.

“Under the policy, students’ privacy is protected, and personnel are told not to disclose information that may reveal a student’s transgender status or gender non-confirming presentation to others unless legally required, or if a student authorizes it,” reported WTNH. “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 similar guidelines in New Haven – lack 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 placing politics over student needs.

“What is happening in Killingly is not unique,” reported the Hartford Courant. “In communities across the country, conservative parents and school board members have pushed back against school-based mental health supports such as social-emotional learning, saying they are a subversive way to sneak teachings on critical race theory and gender identity into public schools.”

Clearly, students have exhibited 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 hurting themselves.” Similarly, 40% of students across the country have said they “felt persistently sad or hopeless during the pandemic.”

Most likely, we’ll see a continuing effort by schools to address kids’ emotional needs this year. Will those efforts stoke more controversies like the one in Killingly? Time will tell. In the meantime, the most urgent issue facing schools might be the emotional status of teachers.

Teachers in Short Supply

As I wrote back in June, teachers needed this summer break more than any other I can remember. That fact should surprise no one.

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

My CT News Junkie colleague Susan Campbell underscored the point in a recent op-ed: “What’s been lost in a lot of the discussions is that teachers are going through the pandemic, as well, and if support services are too often lacking for students, they are nearly non-existent for most teachers.”

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

“We really have to do some hard thinking about how this profession is supported and how we encourage people to not just come in, 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 Gov. Ned Lamont, who addressed educators at SDE’s annual back-to-school meeting last week.

“You’ve got the greatest teachers in the world,” said Lamont. “They’re role models, they understand these kids, and we ought to give them the freedom to teach and the latitude to teach, and I strongly believe we’ll continue to attract the best and the brightest teachers in the world right here to Connecticut. Show them the respect, show them the dignity of everything they’re doing on behalf of our kids.”

Barth Keck is in his 32nd year as an English teacher and 18th year as an assistant football coach at Haddam-Killingworth High School where he teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition. Follow Barth on Twitter @keckb33 or email him here.

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