As the new school year begins in the midst of the pandemic, students and teachers are adjusting to a multitude of changes, with districts nationwide shifting to distance learning systems.
But in addition to coping with remote instruction, many teachers are trying to address the summer of protests for racial justice in their classrooms. And some of them are being persecuted for it.
Recently, a teacher at Gwinnett County Public Schools in Georgia experienced backlash from parents and administrators for having a Black Lives Matter poster visible in her the background of her virtual classroom. While not told to remove it, she was reportedly told by administrators the poster impacted her “effectiveness as a teacher” and was a distraction to students—despite the fact that multiple students and other teachers had reportedly expressed appreciation for her displaying the poster (which she has refused to remove).
A Texas teacher who also placed a Black Lives Matter poster in her virtual classroom was not as lucky—Taylor Lifka, a High School teacher in Roma, Texas, was placed on administrative leave after parents complained about the posters. Her story received attention online after Marian Knowlton, a current Republican candidate for the Texas House of Representatives, shared a screenshot of Lifka’s classroom alongside a post (which has since been removed) in which she referred to the BLM movement as a “radical Marxist movement” and criticized Lifka’s policy of asking students’ pronouns. Fortunately, Lifka was eventually reinstated—after significant public outcry.
Similarly, a teacher at Richards High School in Oak Lawn, Ill., faced vitriol on social media after posting a photo on social media of her Zoom background: a Black Lives Matter flag, which, after the backlash, was changed to a neutral background for the first day of classes. The school district claims that its “neutral background” policy is in place to promote equity.
Education Has Always Been a Political Battleground
But what statements of so-called neutrality like this one fail to recognize is that education has always been a political battleground. The classroom has never been a neutral environment, devoid of ideology (see: the Pledge of Allegiance)—and policies such as mandated neutral backgrounds merely serve to deny the role that politics and policy play in determining what is and isn’t allowed in school environments.
If school districts and administrators had students’ best interests at heart, they would understand: Students need to learn in an environment in which they are safe, and their identities are supported.
And they would acknowledge that children are smart, and capable of understanding the complex racial histories and dynamics of the world we live in—and that they deserve to understand them, too.
School desegregation and the Civil Rights Movement, when they are taught in schools, are often taught as though they are distant events—and as if racial justice is not something still being fought for today.
In the face of this historical amnesia, it’s good to remember that Ruby Bridges turned 66 just yesterday. Her name serves as a reminder that segregation is recent U.S. history.
Having Black Lives Matter posters in classrooms is only a small piece of a much larger shift that must occur in order for education equity to be reached. Schools need to stand by their duty to create an environment that supports and uplifts Black students—one that doesn’t confine their history to the shortest month of the year.