While Politics Consume School Board Meetings, a Very Different Crisis Festers

In a wealthy suburban Philadelphia district, schools are struggling with shortages of all sorts. Behavioral problems have mushroomed. “We are in triage mode,” one teacher said.,

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DOYLESTOWN, Pa. — Early in the November school board meeting, a few of the departing members made farewell remarks, talking of things that they believed still need addressing: more special education programs, mental health initiatives, a program for high school students to take college classes. There was a long list, but over the past two years other things had gotten in the way.

When the meeting opened up to public comments, there was an indication of what those other things might be. Parents and other residents took turns standing before the board, speaking about Zionism, Maoism, slavery, freedom, the Holocaust, critical race theory, the illegality of mask requirements, supposed Jewish ties to organized crime and the viral falsehood that transgender students were raping people in bathrooms. “I fight here week after week,” one woman said, “to ensure that my children will never be subject to having their freedom taken from them.”

In the Central Bucks School District, a hot spot in the national school board wars just outside of Philadelphia, there is a striking disconnect between the crises that have consumed school board meetings for well more than a year and the emergencies that teachers, nurses, custodians, secretaries and other staff members say they are facing when they show up at school each morning.

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Parents lined up outside the Central Bucks School District administration building in Doylestown, Pa. At issue was whether schools would open with or without a mask mandate.Credit…Emma Lee/WHYY

Schools across the country are dealing with an array of urgent challenges this year, and Central Bucks, one of the largest and wealthiest districts in Pennsylvania, is no exception. In nearly two dozen interviews, school workers described shortages everywhere, from bus drivers to substitute teachers to support staff to milk. Nurses are overwhelmed with the demands of contact tracing from Covid-19 cases and paperwork for hundreds of requested exemptions from a school mask requirement. Custodians, after more than a year of deep-cleaning classrooms, are now cleaning up broken sinks and disgusting messes after a spate of TikTok challenges, viral dares on social media that led to so much vandalism that nearly all of the bathrooms in some schools had to be closed.

And with the ranks of classroom support staff worryingly thin, everyone talks of an alarming crisis in student mental health, a concern already serious before the disruptions of Covid-19. Behavioral problems have mushroomed, there have been suicides and attempted suicides, and a huge share of students seem to have become disconnected, at a loss when asked to do things as simple as gather into groups.

“We are in triage mode,” said Elizabeth Coyne, a family consumer science teacher whose teaching partner went on maternity leave, leaving a vacancy that no appropriately certified substitute showed up to fill.

But even as debates about schools have consumed the community, the reality of what is going on inside them has remained largely overlooked, school employees said. The disputes at school board meetings, though still framed as disagreements over what is best for students, have grown into a virtually self-perpetuating conflict, with parents rising to decry their opponents’ posts on social media or list the insults that have been directed their way.

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Elizabeth Coyne, 41, teaches family and consumer science at Lenape Middle School. When her teaching partner went on maternity leave, there was no appropriately certified substitute to take her place.Credit…Michelle Gustafson for The New York Times

“You want to jump up and say, ‘This is not really what we need to be talking about!'” said Deborah Wysocki, who teaches eighth-grade science. “We really need to be talking about the fact that there are 29 students in a room that holds 24. Or we need to be talking about the fact that your learning support students” — children who need the attention of education assistants — “aren’t getting it so that those assistants can go babysit kids in the auditorium who don’t have a substitute.”

The conflicts over schools began brewing here as soon as the pandemic arrived, starting with disagreements over plans for reopening schools. Teachers and others in the schools readily acknowledge that these decisions entailed difficult trade-offs, with repercussions they are now dealing with in the classroom.

“You need to teach kids in school,” said Bob Martin, a third-grade teacher who described signs of learning loss shown by some students who had been in school remotely. But it also became clear in those early days how many people had health conditions that left them vulnerable to Covid-19. “You start to realize a lot of people are compromised in one way or another.”

The district ultimately offered in-person instruction at least part time for nearly all of last year. But in the comments sections of private Facebook groups, amid an ever-polarizing national political climate, positions in the community quickly calcified across a broad range of issues, from masks and vaccines to curriculum and library books. Board meetings grew long and raucous; neighbors who were once friendly became committed foes, death threats were issued, and harassment spread to board members and even to their families. By the summer, police officers were at the school board meetings. A rally before one meeting was canceled when alarms went up about the possible presence of a militia.

While some school employees lament the lack of attention on pressing issues amid all the fury, others have found themselves under a scrutiny they had never experienced before. For years, a middle school chapter of the Gay-Straight Alliance kept a small library; in October, the library showed up in an anonymous video, accompanied by horror movie music, that circulated in the district and prompted a review of the library’s contents by the school.

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Parents gathered outside a Central Bucks school board meeting where face masks were debated.Credit…Emma Lee/WHYY

“I wish coming into my classroom doing a lesson these days could be the first thing on my mind, but it isn’t,” said Keith Willard, a social studies teacher for 21 years and the chapter’s sponsor. “Over the past few months, I’ve really begun to reconsider my career.”

The superintendent, Abram Lucabaugh, said he was spending a lot of time with lawyers these days, with the district now facing several lawsuits. He would rather be addressing urgent school matters, he said, the most serious of which is the state of student mental health. He attributed student struggles partly to reacclimation after the disruptions of Covid-19, but also to the “vitriolic” political atmosphere surrounding schools these days.

“I’m seeing that play out among the adults far more than among the students,” he said. But he said it naturally affected the students, too.

In early November, elections took place for the Central Bucks school board. This year’s races were fueled by big-money PACs and featured attack websites and fake campaign fliers. The candidates running against a mask requirement won three of the five seats up for election, victories that supporters hailed as a long overdue return to normalcy.

But as they head into work each day, exhausted and overstretched, the school staff are left to consider what normalcy might now actually look like.

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Lisa Rothenberger, 59, an education assistant in special education at Bridge Valley Elementary School. Her union hasn’t had a contract for months.Credit…Michelle Gustafson for The New York Times

All throughout the pandemic, Lisa Rothenberger, an education assistant who works with students with special needs, has spent her days with children requiring constant face-to-face attention. Some of them could never wear masks, regardless of their parents’ views. It is unclear to her whether people are aware of the work she does — her union, which represents the assistants, custodians and other support staff, has not had a contract for months.

But she does not have time, she said, to think much about what is happening at the school board meetings. And anyway, the feeling appears to be mutual.

“I just don’t think they’re thinking about us,” she said.

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