Due largely to the continued dangers of the COVID-19 pandemic, this school year is among the most stressful and uncertain in many teachers' entire careers.
For some teachers in Newberg, those stresses have been compounded by the outside distraction of the Newberg school board's ban on Black Lives Matter and Pride symbols, which has ignited a political and legal firestorm in the weeks leading up to the first day of school.
Newberg students returned to classrooms on Sept. 8, masked up and ready to tackle the first entirely in-person school year before the pandemic began. However, some educators said they feel the school board controversy has created one more thing for staff to worry about as they try to get kids readjusted. The intensely political environment may add to the anxieties some students feel about returning to school.
"We're trying to start a school year positively, and the distractions these four people (on the school board) are putting out there are not making that very easy," Gail Grobey, an English teacher at Newberg High School and organizing chairperson for the Newberg teachers' union, said Sept. 7. "It's challenging to think about putting together the beginning of school but still feeling really compelled to take action as a body to show the kids and families how much we support them and who they are."
Grobey is referring to recent actions by the conservative wing of the nonpartisan school board that introduced and approved a resolution banning Black Lives Matter and Pride symbols in the schools. Although the legality of such an action remains to be determined, the school board tabled a motion that would have rescinded the ban while it waited for the district's policy committee to draft official language. As such, the board has directed Superintendent Joe Morelock to enact the ban on those specific symbols while the policy committee works to craft official language banning all that they refer to as political symbols. The district's legal counsel has advised Morelock that banning the BLM and Pride symbols would be illegal.
Grobey said the Newberg Education Association is forming an organizing committee to decide how union members will respond collectively to the school board's actions beyond the lawsuit already set to move forward after the NEA filed a tort claim notice last month. Actions by NEA members may include collective protests that could take a variety of forms in the coming weeks.
"We are certainly going to become very active in terms of supporting the community coalition that has formed against these actions by the board," Grobey said. "This is their fight almost more than it's ours, and we are ready to support them. There are groups out there in the community who have a stake in this as parents and community members of varying backgrounds."
The NEA speaks as a collective body, and although political opinions on the BLM/Pride matter vary among educators and administrators, Grobey said teachers in the district largely agree that the school board's actions are an unnecessary distraction. Most teachers in the district didn't have any BLM or Pride-specific signs or flags in their classrooms before, she said, and those who did only displayed what she characterized as harmless pieces of generally inclusive language that made students feel safer.
She added that suggesting that displays that affirm to students that their background or identity is acceptable are somehow harmful, as some school board members have said, is false.
"I'll say this personally: I've spent 23 years in this district and you can't tell me what to do," Grobey said. "I know my kids, and I know what's best for them and what to do to help them feel comfortable. I took the American flag down in my classroom because that's the most political symbol there is. When I see Trevor DeHart sitting there at those board meetings with that giant American flag behind him, it's terrifying. That symbol doesn't stand for freedom or justice or equality anymore. It stands for violence and menace and intolerance, and I will not fly that in my room.
"We want to be really excited about the kids coming in and there is already this ubiquitous apprehension around the risks of COVID. You throw in this other thing where Big Brother wants to control what we support or what we talk about. Are we going to cancel government classes? That is deeply political. What does civics mean? We can't have civil discourse on anything under this policy language, and it's frankly ridiculous."
Despite the attention directed toward Newberg in recent weeks, Grobey said the joy of returning to in-person learning remains for teachers in the district.
"Teachers are so excited to be back and seeing those faces in front of us again," she said. "We do this because we love kids. Curriculum is second to these kids. We are there for them no matter who they are or what their beliefs are. These board members have to stop looking at the labels and come into these spaces and see what it is we do on a day-to-day basis."
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