During a Tumultuous Election, Schools Have an Important Role to Play

The 2020 election is an emotionally draining one. With thousands of Americans dying from COVID-19, an imminent conservative 6-3 majority in the Supreme Court, swirling questions of ballot legitimacy and voter suppression, not to mention the continued presence of systemic racism—the 2020 election is shaping up to be one of the most fraught and monumental in recent history. And with their future on the line, young people are insisting on their voices being heard—and candidates are listening. In the 2018 midterms, the voter turnout for college students increased nationally by over 40%, according to the Washington Post. This shift is in large part due to programs like the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge, which encourages college students to get out and vote.

But the election season demands more from students than just voting—especially high school students who can’t yet vote but are politically literate enough to care deeply about the state of the government. Many students are feeling the anxiety about what this November could bring. Will the climate crisis remain unaddressed? Will they be able to feel safe in their neighborhoods or have control over their bodies? 

And this political anxiety has seeped into school environments across the country. The “Hate at School” report by the Southern Poverty Law Center noted that, in 2018, two-thirds of the K-12 educators surveyed by the SPLC had witnessed a hate or bias incident at their school, such as slurs written in public spaces, or Nazi and white supremacy salutes. Many of these incidents were racially motivated. As the report explains, “schools are not hermetically sealed institutions” immune from the political climate. But they are places where students should feel safe. 

Now more than ever, schools must provide students not only with resources to become more politically educated and engaged, but when fundamental issues of safety and health are listed on the ballot, they also must become communities to provide emotional support.

As a school rooted in a commitment to social justice and located in the heart of D.C., GDS has a particularly strong connection to politics. Normally, GDS students attend marches and rallies en masse and use the physical space of the school to talk about political developments with teachers and peers. Student-led initiatives like the Student Action Committee give students a place to phonebank and encourage voter turnout, and student-led clubs like Student Voices facilitate discussions about policy issues and current events. But without in-person spaces for students to air out their fears, disappointments and questions, students are suffering from an inability to connect with their peers and the school community in a more emotional way during an election that feels more personal than ever. 

What is needed, then, is compassion. It sounds intuitive, but amidst the whirlwind that is 2020, it’s important to be reminded. Teachers can imbue compassion into their lessons, offering spaces for open discussion and for students to air out their fears and frustrations. Students can show compassion by reaching out to friends and practicing self-care. And, even though the road ahead for the country is uncertain, our educational institutions can provide a place for young people to grow and reckon with their political reality.