Teachers in Clay County are worried the new law prohibiting classroom discussion about sexual orientation and gender identity will cause more issues for teachers. The law goes into effect July 1 and Florida school districts are scrambling to meet expectations, despite the vague wording of the bill.
“This bill and any bill that uses the word ‘uncomfortable’ makes you a little bit uncomfortable,” Clay County Education Association President Vicki Kidwell said.
House Bill 1557, dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by critics states the law is an act relating to parental rights in education requiring district school boards to adopt procedures to “reinforce the fundamental right of parents to make decisions regarding the upbringing and control of their children in a specified manner.”
“This bill is kind of like one more straw on your back as a teacher,” Kidwell said. “And there is already the attack on public education and a difficult climate of teaching in Florida.”
What teachers want and have expressed to her, Kidwell said, is a clear set of rules so they can continue to serve their students while still being safe in the classroom.
“Teachers affect the lives of all their students, and those marginalized kids are the ones who need teachers the most,” she said.
Kidwell taught in Clay County for two decades before serving as president of the Education Association, a union that amplifies teachers’ voices in the community. She knows firsthand the different home situations children face in Clay County, she said.
“School is a safe place for some children who do not feel safe at home,” she said. “To instill a law that may prohibit a child’s only access to have some sense of autonomy is only going to cause problems. That is what we are worried about.”
Due to House Bill 1557’s ambiguity and use of language like “age-appropriate” and “developmentally appropriate” teachers fear they may have to shut down conversations that could, ultimately, end up causing more damage to the child, she said.
For example, if “Johnny” has two fathers and he went to the zoo with his dads, then another child asks Johnny what he means by having two dads – what is the teacher supposed to do in that instance? she asked.
According to a Jan. 27 report by News4Jax, the parents of a Clay County student are suing the district, alleging that a school counselor violated parental rights by meeting with a 12-year-old about gender identity.
Clay County District Schools says the parents’ claims are completely false and solely intended to stoke political outrage.
“People would be stunned to know that children in Clay County are getting thrown out of their homes for being gay,” Kidwell said “We’ve had students the minute they turn 18 looking for a place to live, or asking for couches and furniture.”
In addition to prohibiting classroom discussion about sexual orientation and gender identity, a Florida Department of Education review of 132 math books recently led to the banning of more than 40 percent of them due to what the state calls “prohibited topics” including critical race theory and social-emotional learning.
“I think one of the things you are going to hear a lot of worry about is how schools are supposed to teach concepts like perseverance or critical thinking now that social-emotional learning is being removed from teaching supplements,” Kidwell said.
Social-emotional learning, often referenced SEL, is the teaching approach to help children develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships and make responsible and caring decisions.
“I am not sure how we got here and I really don’t know how any district is going to reconcile curriculum that doesn’t have SEL in it,” she said. “How can you ask a kid to persevere or overcome a challenge if there is no way to explain it to them?”
Veteran teachers who have been with Clay County District Schools for over 30 years have told Kidwell that this school year was the worst year in education ever, she said. After two years of being disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers expected a sense of normalcy going into the 2021-22 school year.
“Teachers are experiencing discipline problems because young children have been home for too long; we have parents who are listening to the rhetoric and being whipped into the frenzy and saying they are going to sue,” she said. “It’s like they don’t trust teachers anymore even though we were heralded at the start of the pandemic; now we are the villain.”
The Clay County school board will meet May 24 for a workshop discussing the ramifications of House Bill 1557 and how they plan to meet the new law. For more information about the upcoming workshop, click here.