Virginia’s Fight Over ‘Beloved’

Glenn Youngkin leveraged “parents’ rights” to win the governor’s race.,

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This is the Education Briefing, a weekly update on the most important news in U.S. education. Sign up here to get this newsletter in your inbox.

Today, we look at the fight over “parents’ rights” in Virginia and the future of masks in schools — and readers offer their homework tips.

Virginia’s fight over ‘Beloved’

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Glenn Youngkin highlighted schools in his bid for governor of Virginia.Credit…Melissa Lyttle for The New York Times

Glenn Youngkin, who was elected governor of Virginia last night, built his campaign in part on school issues. Along with other Republicans, he argued against “critical race theory” and for “parents’ rights.” He made an issue of the state’s slow reopening of schools during the pandemic.

The governor’s race was widely seen as both a referendum on the nation’s mood and a test of the Republican school strategy with suburban swing voters, particularly white women.

One book became a specific target of Republicans: “Beloved,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Toni Morrison.

The book, which has become a fixture of the American literary canon since it was published in 1987, conveys the horrors of slavery, a subject with obvious historical resonance in Virginia. It details episodes of sexual violence.

Eight years ago, a Virginia parent pushed to ban it from her son’s curriculum, after learning he was assigned the book for his senior-year AP English class.

The parent, Laura Murphy, took her campaign to the Republican-controlled General Assembly. Lawmakers passed what became known as the “Beloved bill,” which would have given parents the right to opt their children out of reading books with “sexually explicit content.” Terry McAuliffe, then the governor, vetoed the legislation.

On Tuesday, McAuliffe lost to Youngkin, and that veto played a role.

As Election Day inched closer, Murphy appeared in an ad for Youngkin.

“It gave parents a say — the option to choose an alternative for my children,” Murphy said in the ad, speaking of the vetoed bill. McAuliffe, she said, “doesn’t think parents should have a say.” In the ad, she didn’t mention that the book was “Beloved.”

Many educators have pushed back on this campaign against the book.

“What Morrison does is ask that the reader look at the horrors of slavery without any blinders on,” Emily Knox, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s School of Information Sciences, told Slate. “It’s so graphic because that’s what Morrison was trying to do.”

For the midterm elections next year, there are signs that Republicans may step up their campaign on educational issues.

In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott is pushing to block books in school libraries with “pornography or other inappropriate content,” following up on state legislation that banned “critical race theory.” A state representative, Matt Krause, is also launching a probe into books in school libraries. Krause, a Republican, asked school leaders to identify copies of about 850 specific books and report how much they cost the districts.

Turning schools into a cultural war zone by railing against equity initiatives, books with sexual content and public health measures is a way to avoid tackling issues like budget cuts and the other thornier problems facing American education.

And in Virginia, the strategy paid off: He won Republican voters both devoted to and disdainful of Donald Trump. And in cities, suburbs and exurbs that President Biden had handily carried, McAuliffe’s margins shrank dramatically.

“It’s not like, ‘Oh, I’m against the debt ceiling,'” said John Whitbeck, a former chairman of the Republican Party from Loudoun County, Va., a center of school board fights. “This is like, ‘You’re destroying our children’s education.’ And, look, angry people vote.”

An off-ramp for school masks?

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Masks up, as the school day starts in Brooklyn, N.Y.Credit…Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

On Tuesday, the C.D.C. formally endorsed the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine for 5- to 11-year-olds. More than 28 million children are now eligible for shots.

Pediatric vaccinations could buttress national defenses against a possible winter surge. And they could change the debate around mask mandates in schools, my colleague Jessica Grose wrote in an Opinion column.

“Maybe the carrot of mask-free schools will inspire some more hesitant families to get their children vaccinated,” she wrote.

Jessica interviewed 11 experts, and they had mixed opinions on whether masks would remain necessary in schools.

Some thought masks should stay on, especially to protect immuno-compromised children and those under 5. Others were more skeptical: Masks may have long-term costs — especially for children with speech difficulties, autism or sensory challenges.

But most agreed that the vaccine would change the game. A few experts suggested that districts lift mandates after children have time to get both doses of Pfizer’s vaccine.

Takeaways From the 2021 Elections

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A G.O.P. pathway in Virginia. The win by Glenn Youngkin, who campaigned heavily in the governor’s race on education and who evaded the shadow of Donald Trump, could serve as a blueprint for Republicans in the midterms.

A rightward shift emerges. Mr. Youngkin outperformed Mr. Trump’s 2020 results across Virginia, while a surprisingly strong showing in the New Jersey governor’s race by the G.O.P. candidate is unsettling Democrats.

Democratic panic is rising. Less than a year after taking power in Washington, the party faces a grim immediate future as it struggles to energize voters and continues to lose messaging wars to Republicans.

A new direction in N.Y.C. Eric Adams will be the second Black mayor in the city’s history. The win for the former police captain sets in motion a more center-left Democratic leadership.

Mixed results for Democrats in cities. Voters in Minneapolis rejected an amendment to replace the Police Department while progressives scored a victory in Boston’s mayoral race.

“We haven’t been able to have a practical, nuanced and data-driven conversation about what a good masking policy would look like now that nearly all school-age kids can soon be vaccinated,” Jessica wrote.

School masking remains a politically charged issue. Many blue states and big cities require masks; many red states have banned them. Just last week, Massachusetts extended its universal mask mandate for most public schools through mid-January, while Florida stripped federal aid from schools with mandates. Tennessee may also make mask mandates more difficult to implement.

But with or without masks, this fall has been smoother sailing: A vast majority of students have been in classrooms full-time.

“We need to figure this out,” Linsey Marr, an engineering professor at Virginia Tech who studies the airborne transmission of viruses, told Jessica. “The vaccine should change things for us, and we don’t want kids to wear masks in school indefinitely.”

In other virus news:

Oakland, Calif., plans to transfer or unenroll public school students 12 and older who have not been vaccinated by Jan. 1.

The Arizona Supreme Court upheld a ruling that blocked bans on masks in schools.

Miami-Dade, the largest district in Florida, relaxed its mask mandate for older students as cases dropped.

Vermont has a new program to help children build social and emotional learning skills.

Teachers in Maryland are protesting staffing shortages.

What else we’re reading

College

Three University of Florida academics were told they could not participate in a voting rights lawsuit against the state. Now, the school faces an investigation.

Some students with disabilities are struggling to return to campuses.

Enrollment at Georgia‘s public universities shrank for the first time since 2013. Indiana saw another drop statewide, too.

Listen: Ezra Klein interviewed Louise Seamster, a sociologist at the University of Iowa, about the racial dimensions of the student debt crisis.

A great read: A 97-year-old billionaire designed a new dorm for the University of California, Santa Barbara. One problem: Few of the bedrooms have windows. Check out the floor plans, below.

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A proposed design for Munger Hall, which is projected to cost more than $1 billion.Credit…Van Tilburg, Banvard & Soderbergh, AIA

Social change and equity

New guidelines urge immigration officials to limit arrests at schools and other “protected” areas.

In Wisconsin, a Republican attempt to oust school board members over race curriculum failed.

A student-designed mural intended to reflect on social justice and racial equity was removed from a public school in Brooklyn, N.Y., setting off a finger-pointing firestorm.

In Opinion: “Divestment is a way to let a lot of people in on the climate fight, because they have a link to a pension fund, mutual fund, endowment or other pot of money,” Bill McKibben argues in a Times guest essay.

Violence and safety

Prosecutors said a former school safety officer who fatally shot an unarmed 18-year-old woman in Long Beach, Calif., has been charged with murder.

Philadelphia will spend about $1 million to pay community members to escort children to school.

A parent patrol — “Dads on Duty” — stopped kids from fighting on campus at a Louisiana high school.

Our critic called “Bulletproof,” a documentary about the industry surrounding school shootings, “a nightmarish vision — the military industrial complex deployed in the halls where children ought to roam.”

Tip: Getting through homework

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Kim Horrigan helps her son get through his homework.Credit…Steven Senne/Associated Press

Some parents take a hands-on approach to homework. Others prefer to stay out of their kids’ way. Whatever your style, here are three suggestions from readers of the Education Briefing to help your family get the job done.

Scheduled time: Amy Sullivan has instituted “office hours” for her kids, ages 10 and 12.

“It started when we home-schooled last year and the amount of actual work began to needlessly stretch throughout the day and I refused to become an on-demand resource,” Amy explained. “The outcome is (somewhat) improved planning and time management on their part, and more patience and focused time for me.”

Activation energy: Chris L., a teacher in Westchester, N.Y., suggested helping kids get over the anxiety that comes with just getting started.

“If you sit with them for just one or two questions, then you can often get them to do two or three more,” Chris wrote. “Then, they can finish on their own.”

Reading aloud: For Katie, who has an 11-year-old, a 7-year-old and a 2-month-old, “buddy reading” has really helped. (The big kids are supposed to read for about half an hour each night.) So they rotate, page by page.

“We are always sure to read expressively and do voices for the characters and stop and talk with each other about our questions and predictions,” Katie wrote. “Now that the kids are back in the school building, it gives us some quality time together. “

Thank you to all who shared. See you next week!

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