Covering School Board Meetings? Tips to Tackle the COVID-19, Critical Race Theory Culture Wars
Attending hyper politicized school board meetings in this day and age requires much preparation.
Division over COVID-19 and racial justice is playing out in school board meetings across the country, turning typically sleepy gatherings into politicized and, at times, volatile events.
When meetings turn contentious, reporters need to take care to avoid amplifying misinformation, and provide context on key issues and the board’s authority.
Tensions lingering from months of virtual instruction have reignited as school boards decide if they should require masks or COVID-19 vaccinations, often pitting public health guidance against parents demanding choice.
Concerns about how students are learning about race add to already fraught public comment portions of meetings.
Board members’ spot at the center of a culture war has led to some giving up their seats, facing recall or dealing with harassment. Others are concerned if things could escalate in the runup to the 2022 elections, as political activists push their followers to run for local school board seats.
Journalists attending these meetings may find the need to plan ahead as much as possible. Here are four things to consider before covering a school board meeting.
1. What to Know Before You Go
Understanding how the school board works and who has influence is critical to fully and accurately reporting about board decisions.
Know the school board
Who are the board members?
- Knowing members’ stances, personalities and how they work with each other (or if they don’t) adds nuance to reporting.
What is the board’s political
- Does the board skew conservative or liberal? Check out their endorsements and campaign contributions. Additionally, research if they’re backed by any influence groups, such as the local teachers’ union and others with a political or policy agenda.
Who has the power?
Who has final say over policies, such as the social studies curriculum or mask requirements?
- Answering this question may include learning about the power dynamic between the school board and the superintendent. Do they tend to agree?
Look for local or state-level entities that can
override the school board.
- In Kentucky, for example, school-level councils decide on the curriculum that is adopted.
Who are the outside players?
Does the district have a teachers’ union?
- If it does, see if the union has taken a stance on any controversial issues at stake. A union’s bargaining agreement with the district offers details of what each side can and can’t do, including if teachers can strike in opposition to a policy.
- Look out for additional unions that represent other school and district staff.
- Parent groups, political organizations, activists and religious leaders may also carry weight over the board’s decision.
2. The Key Issues
School boards are encountering pushback and division especially around two issues: COVID-19 policies and critical race theory.
As the delta variant spreads, school boards are debating whether or not to require face masks and vaccines. Districts are also re-examining quarantine policies, as students quickly miss in-person class time due to potential COVID-19 exposure.
As of Sept. 10, at least seven states had banned districts from requiring masks, while 14 states plus Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico had required them in schools, USA TODAY reported.
Guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that anyone inside a school building wear a mask, regardless of vaccination status. Districts, though, are facing parents who argue mask decisions should be made by parents.
Things to consider:
- What are the COVID-19 levels in the area? It also helps to research how many cases and quarantines are related to schools.
- What is the district’s mask policy? Some districts may have little say over their policy due to local or state requirements.
- How many staff and students are vaccinated? Students under the age of 12 are not old enough to be vaccinated against COVID-19. District leaders or local public health officials may be able to share how many kids older than 12 are vaccinated.
- What voices are missing? Be wary of assuming the loudest voices represent the majority. District surveys of parents and national polls can show a more complete picture.
Critical race theory
Many school districts began racial equity efforts following 2020’s racial justice reckoning. Such programs quickly became politicized, being inaccurately dubbed “critical race theory.”
Critical race theory, or CRT, examines how institutions and systems, rather than individuals, perpetuate racial inequities. Opponents often believe critical race theory teaches students to see things solely on the basis of skin color, or that they should feel ashamed due to their race. That is not true, scholars have said.
Things to consider:
- Does the district actually teach critical race theory? CRT isn’t taught in K-12 settings.
- Has the district implemented any racial equity or diversity efforts? Understanding what the district is doing, why and how it impacts kids can help clear up confusion.
- What terms are important to know? Many opponents use critical race theory as a catchall term for race-related efforts they find problematic. Know the difference between racial equity, white privilege and similar terms.
- Know the district’s racial demographics.
3. How to Cover Hot-Button Issues Responsibly
Think before reporting a claim made during a school board meeting. Is it true? Can you fact-check it? Label misinformation and share accurate information in the same paragraph. If possible, include a link to evidence.
Have links to reputable sources ready to share or use for quick fact-checks. The Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource is one example. Explainer pieces, like this one on critical race theory from Education Week, are also helpful to have.
“As far as covering charged meetings, it’s good to plan for as much as you can ahead of time since so much will be unexpected,” said Emily Bloch, the youth culture and education reporter for the Florida Times-Union.
Bloch has covered policy debates over mask mandates and critical race theory in a state frequently making national headlines for each.
Bloch recommended moving past quoting the loudest voices. Center those most impacted by the policies, especially students, she said.
Like Bloch, María Méndez covers K-12 education in a state with high-profile education policy decisions. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott previously banned mask mandates in the state, and Texas was one of the first to implement a law curbing what teachers can say about race. Abbott signed the law in June, and it went into effect on Sept. 1.
“I’ve found it helpful to stay calm, courteous and mostly just listen and ask questions to understand where people are coming from rather than focusing on and quoting the misinformation they may say,” said Méndez, who writes for The Austin American-Statesman.
4. How to Prepare for a School Board Meeting
- Be ready for potential harassment: Consider locking down personal social media accounts and review portfolio sites and resumes for any personal contact information.
- Consider physical safety: Talk to your editors about any potential physical safety threats and develop a plan.
- Prepare for a long night: Snacks, water and extra battery packs help keep the energy up.