Honors civics teacher Mike Brown discusses the U.S. presidential election with masked students on the first day of school at Stamford High School on Sept. 8, 2020 in Stamford, Connecticut.
John Moore—Getty Images
November 3, 2020 3:40 PM EST

The discussion about the presidential election that Molly Sinnott facilitated among her ninth-grade students on Monday went better than the first debate between the presidential candidates themselves.

“They were patient with one another, they were humble when they didn’t know the answers. They asked if we could try this exercise again, but after they’ve had the opportunity to research in advance,” says Sinnott, an English teacher at Arundel High School in Gambrills, Md. “The kids modeled what we wish many adults would do more effectively.”

The lesson was part of a class that Arundel High Principal Gina Davenport created after the 2016 election, in which Anne Arundel County split almost evenly between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Following the vote, Davenport noticed division and racism among students. Weeks before President Trump’s inauguration, a student circulated a white supremacist petition, referencing the Ku Klux Klan and using racist language.

Davenport made Global Community Citizenship a required course for all ninth graders in 2017, aiming to teach students empathy, inclusion and civil discourse skills. In 2019, the class became mandatory for students throughout the school district.

“It was just so good to hear them be able to have adult conversations better than the adults were having in the public arena,” Davenport says. “They have the skills to be able to have a civil conversation with other people.”

The class is one example of the way schools approached the presidential election this year and, in some cases, tried to learn from 2016, when many schools dealt with racist bullying, vandalism and harassment related to the vote. Across the country, educators this year found themselves bracing for an election that could leave some students concerned about the future and confused about what comes next.

Trying to explain the unprecedented

Whatever the result, teachers face the challenge of trying to explain the unprecedented to students following a campaign in which Trump continued to downplay the seriousness of a pandemic that has killed more than 230,000 Americans and to spread baseless claims about voter fraud — all the while demanding that a winner be declared Tuesday night, before many mail-in ballots were counted.

“There’s definitely, as an educator, anxiety,” says Jorge Santos, a special education teacher at a Brooklyn, N.Y., middle school, whose 7th-grade students raised concerns last week, asking him what would happen after the election. “How do I find words? What are the words that I can say to them, depending on what happens?”

The private Bullis School in Potomac, Md., cancelled classes for Wednesday, the Washington Post reported, primarily to give faculty a break during a stressful hybrid semester, but also because tensions are likely to be high after Election Day. “I suspect that not being in school the day after the election may be wise,” Head of School Christian Sullivan wrote in a letter to families. “Whatever the outcome (if it is known by then), there will be raw feelings and tiredness, and these feelings may be best processed initially at home.”

Emma Humphries—chief education officer at iCivics, a nonpartisan organization founded by former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor to promote civic education—worries that too many educators, wary of wading into political controversy, haven’t been teaching students about the election at all. “I think it’s a mistake to sit this election out,” she says. “The fact that it’s so contentious and feels so hard to teach is all the more reason why we need to do it.”

Sinnott sees it as her responsibility to encourage conversation between students on different sides of the political spectrum. “If I can start, even in just my classroom, creating a chance for dialogue to return, that’s what I want to do,” she says. “Plus I think these issues are on students’ mind anyway, so to leave them outside of the classroom is to fail in my job as an educator.”

David Olson, who teaches U.S. government and politics at James Madison Memorial High School in Madison, Wisc., expects his students will have a lot of questions for him this week. He has already taught them about the voting process, about which key states to watch on election night and about how polls work and why they’re sometimes wrong. When he asked his 90 students how they were feeling ahead of the election, he got a range of responses: excited, energized, nervous, scared. “To me, that says I’ve got to have a place where students can ask questions. I’ve got to have a place where students can express themselves,” says Olson, whose school is learning remotely until at least January. “I see that as my job.”

He remembers the day after the 2016 election as “really somber.” While Dane County, where Madison is located, voted for Clinton, Wisconsin went to Trump, proving instrumental in Trump’s path to an Electoral College victory.

None of Olson’s classes are scheduled to meet on Wednesday, but he organized a virtual meeting anyway for students who want to talk about the election. “I fully expect that by Wednesday afternoon, we might not know who has won the election, and if that’s the case, I think students will have a lot of questions,” he says. “It’s going to be my job from Tuesday night until we meet on Wednesday to figure out the best sources out there so I can help students figure out where to look, what news to follow.”

Derek Francis, manager of counseling services for Minneapolis Public Schools, says the 2016 presidential election “changed my entire career” and the way he approached this election season. “It made it obvious that we needed to be aware of our students from underrepresented populations who had been historically marginalized,” he says. “I heard their voices so loud and clear.”

In 2016, Francis was a counselor, and one of the few employees of color, at Champlin Park High School in Champlin, Minn., where he says a student ran down the hallway with a Confederate flag and others echoed Trump by shouting, “Build the wall!” There wasn’t a space for students to process the election at school in 2016, but many young people, particularly students of color, came to him to voice their fears about the outcome.

Setting aside time for the conversation

This year, he sent all students a guide to discussing the election and was planning a debrief with counselors in the district on Wednesday morning. Later in the day, each school planned to set aside an hour to discuss the election and to let students share how they were feeling about the results. “We just don’t want students to go the whole day without a space to process it,” he says. “Some kids will be ready in the morning, some kids will need time.” But he thinks it’s a mistake to tip-toe around the subject. “Have the conversation. You can’t be silent. You can’t think it’s going to be business as usual [on] Tuesday, Wednesday, in the weeks after,” he says. “Because it’s not.”

Davenport, the principal in Maryland, sees it as schools’ responsibility to teach students how to have a civil conversation and how to participate in a democracy, especially in the face of a contentious presidential race.

“Having those dialogues with students is really important, especially if we want to foster kids who can leave our high schools and go out to be productive members of society. We have to give them practice at dealing with society, in the confines of a classroom, where it’s safe,” she says. “If we just expect them to leave us and be ready to be members of a democracy, without doing some of this training, then we’re really being short-sighted.”

A group of students in Rhode Island made a similar argument in a recent lawsuit, arguing state leaders violated their constitutional right to an adequate civics education that would prepare them to be active citizens. In October, U.S. District Court Judge William Smith dismissed the lawsuit but praised their argument, calling it “a cry for help from a generation of young people who are destined to inherit a country which we — the generation currently in charge — are not stewarding well.” In the opinion, he warned about the decline of civics education across the country, citing examples of polarization and misinformation, including the President’s baseless claims of “voter fraud.”

“What these young people seem to recognize is that American democracy is in peril,” Smith wrote.

Education experts say many schools in the U.S. have made civics education less of a priority in recent years. Just 24% of eighth-grade students were proficient in civics in 2018, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and that could have consequences well beyond the school house.

“The very original idea of public education was a democracy-promoting institution,” says Paula McAvoy, an assistant professor at North Carolina State University who studies the relationship between schools and democratic society. “It was a recognition that democracies do not work well unless people know how to participate and engage in public decision making. To ignore that role of schools is to contribute to the downfall of democracy.”

Write to Katie Reilly at Katie.Reilly@time.com.

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