Nearly everyone in Minnesota wants our students safe and learning in their classrooms during this pandemic, and no one wants that more than the professionals educating our students this fall. But there's a real chance some schools will break down under the pressure they're experiencing right now.
There will always be differences of opinion about what educators teach and how we teach it. Debate and disagreement are inevitable, even useful. Finding the best ways to teach students safely during the worst pandemic in a century was always going to be messy.
However, the threats to educators and violent disruptions of school board meetings that began this fall must stop. Online and in-person abuse is not acceptable. The human cost of operating in this environment is too high for schools to sustain for the rest of the year, especially with so many new challenges on the horizon.
There will be a push to vaccinate younger children against COVID-19; the Biden administration's vaccine mandate will soon affect educators in the largest school districts, and the well-orchestrated campaign against teaching a more complete account of race in American history will reach its crescendo when the Legislature comes back next year and debates the new social studies standards, to name just a few of those challenges.
The recent past makes me nervous about the future. It's October and Minnesotans have already seen the news accounts of a man violently grabbing a phone away from another man at a school board meeting in the Eastern Carver County school district.
Fewer people noticed the pushing and yelling at a southeastern Minnesota school board meeting the week before. Before that, there was little news coverage of the man in the western suburbs banging the podium with his shoe and reading a threatening manifesto until police arrived, or the anti-mask protest that got out of hand outside a school in north-central Minnesota.
And that list doesn't include dozens of school boards trying to accommodate public comment sessions that have turned accusatory, abusive and even cruel — as when a group in Anoka-Hennepin district booed an immunocompromised sophomore who advocated for a mask mandate.
Nor does it include the growing number of instances when teachers who spoke up for their students of color at one of those school board meetings were harassed and threatened. In a few instances, teachers have needed a police escort from the meeting room to their vehicles. A group of self-proclaimed suburban "patriots" targeted one teacher for wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt.
The new aggressive and pervasive bullying is taking a toll on the volunteers and professionals who sit on school boards, manage the budgets and educate Minnesota's children.
The Minnesota School Boards Association reports nearly 70 school board members have resigned their seats in 2021, three times the resignations of a normal year. Other longtime, caring board members have decided not to run for re-election in November.
There are reports of experienced teachers walking off the job already this year. Our union is hearing from districts all over the state about teachers who have filed papers to leave at the winter break.
Sometimes the reason is the stress of working extra hours covering for unfilled job openings and the lack of substitute teachers, but we can't ignore the vitriol coming from a few belligerent adults.
I will leave it to others to explain the causes of the blazing anger that's lighting up our schools this fall, but there are steps we all, as Minnesotans, can take to restore civility and raise the discussion about how to educate our children.
Reject the overheated rhetoric of any politician, school board candidate, or big money group whose goal is to disrupt the work of our public schools. In particular, watch out for the national campaign that's deliberately misrepresenting the vital work of transforming our schools to become more welcoming and effective for students of color.
Before you decide to attack an educator of any kind, try to remember who we are. We're your neighbors, the folks in the next booth at the coffee shop, the fans in the stands with you at the basketball game. We're all part of the same communities.
Finally, consider the effect of more educators and school leaders leaving their jobs. Minnesota has had a teacher shortage for many years, but this is the worst it has ever been. Many buildings are only a resignation or two away from being unable to function.
I believe the adults in our communities can still come together with mutual respect, good faith and verifiable facts to keep every child safe, in school and learning for the rest of the year — even when we disagree — but only if we agree to model the behavior we want to see in Minnesota's students.
Denise Specht is the president of Education Minnesota, the labor union of 86,000 educators in Minnesota's public E-12 schools and college campuses.