New Head Of National School Boards Association Talks Masks, Critical Race Theory And Ways Forward Post-Pandemic
K-12 education across the country has been through a lot this past year-and-a-half.
While this fall looks different from fall 2020, there are still many uncertainties surrounding the coronavirus pandemic and schools.
In this week’s special, two-part installment of our summer education series, “Closing the COVID Gap,” education reporter Liz McCormick sat down over Skype with Grafton, West Virginia native and new head of the National School Boards Association (NSBA) Chip Slaven.
They discussed the mounting challenges ahead in education, including the debate over mask-wearing, critical race theory, bans on transgender athletes and ways the nation can get past the pandemic.
This transcript from the original broadcasts has been lightly edited for clarity.
LIZ MCCORMICK: You've come into this role as interim executive director and CEO at a very critical time in education for our country. We're still in the throes of a global health pandemic. There are great political divides across our country. There's a debate over mask-wearing in schools right now, and debates over the teaching of critical race theory, and there's also debate about allowing transgender athletes to compete in school sports. There's a lot in education right now. Do you feel prepared for what's ahead?
CHIP SLAVEN: Well, yes, I do feel prepared. There's certainly a number of challenges, as you just pointed out, to public schools right now. The word unprecedented gets used a lot, but it is an unprecedented time. Particularly so for public schools. Because never before have we had a national emergency like what we're seeing right now, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, in which schools are forced to make such drastic changes in how they do things and how they operate. It's a huge challenge for anyone involved in public schools. It’s certainly a big challenge for me.
There's also opportunities that can come out of moments like this, and so pivoting on how we can take the lessons we are learning during the pandemic and apply them in new ways to actually make learning an even better experience for students, particularly as we begin to focus on the future of what public school should look like.
MCCORMICK: Chip, you're a native of West Virginia. Why do you think you're uniquely qualified to represent school boards across the country? What do you think you bring to the table as a West Virginian?
SLAVEN: Well, what I bring in my background is that practical sense that West Virginians have about what we need to do to adapt during challenging times. And that's what we're in right now, a very challenging time. Schools have to be flexible, and they have to be adaptable to make the best decisions for their students, and then for their community, based on whatever the local conditions are right now. So I think it's those kinds of things that will help me do my job.
Growing up in a state that's got such a strong sense of community around it, in particular, I think is helpful. Being a native in Grafton, the schools were the center of the community, and I think you see that throughout West Virginia. My mother was a native of Grafton as well, my father was a native of Rainelle in Greenbrier County. One really important distinction is that whether you go to Grafton High School, or whether you go to Robert F, Kennedy High School in Los Angeles, some of the issues that are impacting public schools are the same whether you're in a big district or a smaller district. There are still issues with the digital divide, with some students not having the access they need when they're not in school, to technology and to high speed broadband that we now know is really important because of the pandemic. We know that there are challenges to attracting and keeping high quality teachers in schools.
Those are things you can point to. Two very different parts of the nation in two very different types of regions and say, ‘we're going through the same issues.’ Same thing with students with disabilities. There are students in Taylor County that have disabilities, there are students in Los Angeles or Chicago or New York that have disabilities, and the teachers and the educators are all dealing with those same types of problems.
MCCORMICK: Here in West Virginia, Gov. Jim Justice and the West Virginia Department of Education announced that mask-wearing in schools this fall would be left up to local school districts, and that no statewide mask mandate would be issued at this time. I want to ask what your stance is on this. Kids under 12, of course, are not yet eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, and the much more contagious delta variant is surging across the country. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that K-12 students and staff, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks. So I'm wondering where you fall on this issue. Do you think West Virginia should follow the CDC recommendations?
SLAVEN: Well, we believe at NSBA, that local decisions generally need to be made by local school boards. So the idea that West Virginia is letting local boards of education make that decision, I think is appropriate. Now, if there was a resurgence in West Virginia, to the point where there were outbreaks all over the state -- and I know that the governor and the state board of education are looking at that -- and the governor decided we have to issue some kind of mask mandate to protect everyone, that's the thing kind of thing governors will do. Where I would be concerned is when a governor says, ‘your local school can't make that decision and issue a mandate to wear masks based on local conditions.’ That would concern me more.
I think in terms of the CDC guidance, I do encourage school board members to very carefully think about that guidance when they're making local decisions. They should consult with their local health department. They should be looking at the community transmission rate, and they need to weigh the risks. Now, I would also add that if we could increase vaccinations among those who are eligible to be vaccinated, and we can encourage people to wear masks where it is recommended, that will help us get to a point where we can return to a more normal state of operations.
MCCORMICK: Chip, I want to touch on a topic that has seen a lot of contention and that is critical race theory. What are your feelings on this instruction? Should schools in West Virginia consider it? I say this noting that we've seen divisive examples of school boards across the country being confronted by parents and even students. It seems like now more than ever, our school boards are under fire and under scrutiny. Can you speak to what you’re seeing at this tough time around the country?
SLAVEN: Sure. I would start off by saying, there are a lot of critical issues facing public schools right now, but one of them that's actually not critical is whether or not they are teaching critical race theory. Critical race theory is not a public school curriculum. It is not being taught in public schools. Critical race theory is a law school theory debated by upper level law students and law professors, typically, concerning whether or not there's systemic racism that occurs naturally throughout our government, our systems.
So I think it's important first to talk about what it isn't. It's not something being taught in public schools, and so whenever I hear these concerns over banning critical race theory, or we're not going to let it be taught in public schools -- it isn't being taught in public schools, as far as I know, anywhere. So while I appreciate the engagement that is occurring around that issue in the nation, it's misplaced guidance on what we need to be focused on.
The actual critical issues in school are dealing with the pandemic and making sure students have a safe environment. It's the critical shortage of teachers, and of keeping our teachers in the profession. It's the millions of students -- one estimate, last summer, had as many as 17 million students lacking internet -- they needed at home, to be able to do their school, whether they were in a fully online environment, or whether they were simply trying to do their supplemental schoolwork using their computer. So those are the things that are really important to public education and the public schools. And I believe they're important in every single school district.
MCCORMICK: So it sounds like this is a topic that should remain in the higher education levels. Is that your feeling on that?
SLAVEN: It is something in the higher education level. It's not something that would be easily adapted to K-12 public schools. So I don't even think you can debate whether it's something that should be brought up in public schools. It's something that's brought up in law schools. It's, again, it's something that people who are aspiring to be lawyers, and are learning about the law and the legal processes discuss as a thought piece, as much as anything else, and there are different opinions from different scholars on whether critical race theory is accurate or not. I think it’s something that should be left to legal scholars to debate and not for us to try and debate in a local school board meeting, when it's not something that local schools are doing.
MCCORMICK: Chip, one final issue that has shown up a lot in headlines and across the country, as well as in West Virginia, is this question over whether or not to allow transgender athletes to compete in school sports. West Virginia passed a bill this past legislative session that was signed by the governor that is related to this. Does the National School Boards Association have a stance on this issue? Where do you stand on this?
SLAVEN: Well, I mean, we're following these issues. It's not just West Virginia; it's happening in other places. I think what's important to note, I believe, in West Virginia, there's now been a judicial ruling on the law that passed, and we're seeing that other places. I think that school districts and legislatures and others involved in this issue need to realize they're responsible for the education of every student in their system, however they identify. So my point of caution to local school districts, or states, in the case of West Virginia, is look at what's going on in the courts. These are being overturned a lot of places, and I anticipate there's going to be a lot more legal challenges. So as you're putting into place a wall like this, you need to think about the constitutional ramifications of what is happening.
Every student is entitled to an excellent public education in the United States. And that's what we really, really need to be thinking about going forward. What I would encourage policymakers to be thinking about as they're implementing a new law, or restrictive law like this, is think about all of the ramifications, the moral ramifications, the equity ramifications for the smaller number of students that may be impacted by it. But you also have to think about the practical implications that you're likely going to end up going to court over it and potentially losing.
MCCORMICK: Our summer education series at West Virginia Public Broadcasting has been about how we as a state tackle the impacts of the pandemic and close the COVID gap. Do you have any final thoughts for West Virginians on ways we move forward in doing that?
SLAVEN: I think my message to West Virginia would really be to focus on that future way forward. What are schools going to need to look like for our students to be successful in today's world? It's that concept of looking at, what can we do at a local high school or middle school or elementary school to really get at reaching every student so that that concept of personalized learning is, I think, the future for public education and public schools.
It's how you can reach every child, you can learn more about what makes them tick, what they're good at, where they may have challenges, where they can improve, what they like to do. Let's talk about new ways to do things. And sometimes they won't work, but sometimes they will work. And that's really, I think, the spirit that we need to get to, as we think about the future of school in West Virginia and throughout the nation.