Social Studies

Election Uncertainty and Anxious Students: Inside 4 Social Studies Classrooms

By Sarah Schwartz & Madeline Will — November 04, 2020 10 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The morning after a long election night that yielded no clear winner, teachers headed into their virtual and physical classrooms to help their students make sense of it all.

Many had already struggled with how to teach a rancorous, norm-breaking race between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden in a hyper-polarized political climate—a feat made even more difficult with many classes still meeting remotely due to the coronavirus pandemic. Now, teachers will have the daunting task over the next few days of bringing clarity to a confusing electoral landscape and trying to soothe their students’ anxieties as race results—and other developments like legal challenges—continue to roll in.

Adding to the chaos, Trump accused Democrats of trying to steal the election late Tuesday night, falsely declaring victory with millions of votes still uncounted. By Wednesday afternoon, the Associated Press had yet to make a call in several swing states, including Pennsylvania and Georgia. The Trump campaign said it would pursue a recount in Wisconsin, where tallies showed Biden won the state by about 20,000 votes. (State rules say that candidates can request a recount if the margin is less than 1 percentage point, and Trump is within that margin.)

It might take some time before an official winner is declared. Meanwhile, teachers can focus on giving students the foundation to understand possible different developments, said Kerry Sautner, the chief learning officer at the National Constitution Center.

“What could be the lawsuits and ways to question [the results] that happen in the next two to three days?” said Sautner. “I think it’s really hard for students to understand the question if they don’t understand the process.”

Reviewing the basics—how the Electoral College works, that a candidate needs 270 electoral votes to win, and the schedule of events from now until Inauguration Day—helps keep conversations grounded in facts, rather than speculation and fear, she said.

Teachers can let students’ questions be their guide, Sautner added. “You don’t want to project, and you don’t want to make assumptions,” she said. “What the adults are worried about might not be what the students are worried about.”

On the morning after Election Day, EdWeek reporters video-called into four social studies classes in four different states to capture how teachers and their students were grappling with these tough conversations.

10th Grade Government Class, Virginia Beach, Va.

In Virginia Beach, Va., where some grades are still remote because of COVID-19, students logged into their 10th grade government class bright and early on Wednesday morning to the sounds of “Wait for It” from the “Hamilton” soundtrack. Their teacher, Angie Cosimano, was sitting in front of a backdrop of an Electoral College map and headshots of both Biden and Trump.

“If you were not aware, we do not have all of the results yet—no one has won yet,” Cosimano told students in the Zoom classroom.

Before Election Day, Cosimano had been uncertain about how Wednesday would go. While most of her students at Princess Anne High School lean left, some are conservative. She was worried that the online chat box would get heated, and that it would be difficult to make sure all students felt respected without being able to moderate conversation in-person.

But on Wednesday, students were mostly quiet. One wrote in the chat, “election time gives me really bad anxiety.”

Cosimano had assigned students a competitive U.S. Senate or House race to keep tabs on, but on Wednesday morning, most of those races had not yet been called. Instead, Cosimano devoted most of class time to letting students meet in breakout rooms to discuss how they were feeling and then answering their questions.

Several said they were nervous or impatient to see who wins. Some said they were indifferent or apathetic. One drew a sad face.

“It’s so close in so many states and time’s running out for Biden to pull through so it’s a very stressful waiting game,” one student wrote.

Another wrote: “I am somewhat worried for the next four years as I don’t believe either candidate is well-suited for [the] presidency, and since both will meet significant amounts of criticism due to the extreme polarization of today’s political climate.”

And they had many questions, which Cosimano tried to answer: “If Trump loses and throws a tantrum is there anything he can actually do to prevent the transfer of power?” (Her answer: If there’s a clear and official winner, there’s nothing Trump can do to remain in office.) “Why are polling companies so terrible at their jobs?” (There’s a margin of error in polls, and many of the swing states were within that margin, Cosimano said.)

Five students asked when the election would be decided. For that, Cosimano had no easy answer.

11th and 12th Grade Civics Class, Chicago

In Chicago, students were also anxious for the results.

A few of the 11th and 12th graders in Rubén Morado’s civics class at World Language High School had stayed up into the early hours of morning hoping for a call. They weren’t alone. “I’m going to put myself out there,” Morado said, in his Google Meet classroom on Wednesday. “I was up until 2 o’clock in the morning today. I couldn’t walk away guys.”

Morado teaches in Little Village, a largely Mexican American neighborhood in Chicago’s South Lawndale area. Many of his students come from immigrant families, and some were concerned about what a Trump win would mean for their community. One student recalled the president’s comment from the last debate, that only people with the “lowest IQ” are present at immigration court proceedings.

“After four years, he’s still thinking of immigrants like this?” the student said. “It’s like, come on. We play a big part in this country, in the economy as well. The way he talks about us like we’re nothing, that kind of worries me.”

Morado hesitated. “I will be honest. Ever since 2016, it’s been very, very difficult as a teacher to be nonpartisan,” he said. “It’s really hard to be nonpartisan when my community is being attacked, and my students are being attacked. It’s just—yeah. I hear you loud and clear. I work in Little Village. You live in Little Village. Some of the things that are said out there, they couldn’t be further from the truth.”

Morado asked students to share their thoughts, feelings, and questions, writing them on digital sticky notes that they pasted to Google slides. The class talked about the policy issues that mattered to them—LGBTQ rights, climate change, immigration—with Morado reading students’ words, and students unmuting their mics to discuss. Several of the high schoolers said they worried about civil unrest if the election was contested.

“The fact that people downtown have to cover their store windows in order to calm down [potential] riots, it’s, I don’t know. It feels like a joke. It’s not good,” one student said. Later in the conversation, another student hoped that if looting did happen, it would be contained to big retailers in the downtown area. “You should not be doing it in your community, your neighborhood,” she said.

Morado said he could understand why she was worried. “That is our lifeline here, right? ... These are mom and pop places; it’s taken all of their life’s earnings to have these awesome places for our little community.”

But amid the fear and anxiety, the class also shared a bright spot—congratulating a classmate who was a first-time voter. “It was harder than I thought it was going to be,” she said. The student first went to the wrong polling place, and then was told to go to a different location for registration papers, but she eventually cast her ballot.

“I’m really happy for you,” Morado said, after cheering and clapping for her. “I’m really proud of you. That’s awesome.”

8th Grade Social Studies Class, Henry County, Ga.

With the national outcome uncertain on Wednesday morning, Melanie Kellam, an 8th grade Georgia studies teacher, focused on what she did know.

Kellam, who works at McDonough Middle School in the Atlanta metro area, is teaching with a hybrid model. She and some of her students signed onto their Google Meet from the physical classroom, masked and distanced with their own devices. Students who opted for virtual learning joined them remotely.

Georgia’s electoral votes were still up in the air—the state hadn’t declared a winner in the presidential contest. Instead, Kellam asked her students to look at turnout numbers. They compared the 2016 election to 2020, and saw that participation was high this year in early voting alone.

“A lot of people may have found a reason that hits close to them to get involved,” student Jerricka Sumlin, 13, hypothesized. “Now they want to vote so that they have a voice.”

For many of Kellam’s students, a top issue is the pandemic. A couple of students said that they thought the Democrats might take more steps to control the virus—things might change, one student said, so that parents would feel confident sending their kids back to school.

Zion Jones, 13, said he thought that once the pandemic was more contained, other problems in the country would be resolved as well. “There’s a lot of stress going on with the pandemic,” he said.

Whoever wins the election, their first goal should be keeping the country safe, said Atiya Williams, 13, referencing the pandemic but also the civil unrest that occurred this summer amid protests against police brutality. “Everybody’s safety should be one of the main priorities.”

8th Grade Civics Class, Clarion County, Pa.

By the afternoon, Trump was winning Pennsylvania’s Clarion County, a rural area in the northwest part of the state, with nearly 80 percent of the vote. (He was also leading in the state overall, though the remaining uncounted ballots were expected to favor Biden.) In Joe Harmon’s 8th grade civics class at the county’s Redbank Valley Junior/Senior High School, students were anxiously waiting to see if Trump would hold on to his presidency.

In the school’s mock election, Trump racked up more than 350 votes compared to Biden’s 50-some votes. In Harmon’s in-person class, one student, whose father is a police officer, was turned off by calls from some on the left to “defund the police.” Students were worried about preserving oil and gas jobs, which are prominent in their area. Several students said they were pro-life and felt strongly about placing restrictions on abortions. Gun rights were another top-of-mind issue: Most students in the class said they hunt and have guns at home.

And as Trump sent a stream of tweets throughout the morning calling into question the validity of some of the election results, students at Redbank Valley worried that there could be voter fraud.

“Mail-in votes, I wouldn’t say that they’re the most secure. I think there is a higher chance of fraudulence with those,” said Claire Hepler, 13. “I feel like no matter who wins the election, it’s going to be pretty heavily based on, ‘Something was wrong, it wasn’t a real election.’”

Harmon interjected to say that there have been no substantiated instances of voter fraud. In an interview before the election, he said he worried about how he would handle class discussions if Trump refused to concede the election. He’s made a point to keep his own thoughts and opinions to himself, but if Trump doesn’t agree to a peaceful transition of power, “that will be a tough thing to keep my personal bias out of,” he said.

Prepare for ‘a Marathon’

Teachers deserve a lot of credit right now, said Sautner of the National Constitution Center, for managing their students’ emotions and their own amid so many unknowns. As the election results unfold over the next few days, or weeks, Sautner advises that teachers slow down, and not feel pressure—or pressure their students—to remain glued to every cable news update.

Teachers could ask their students to journal about their feelings right now, which can help kids process, she said. “This is kind of crazy, this moment in history we’re living through,” she said.

New developments are going to keep coming, and making time to keep a record and work through emotions is important, said Sautner. “Learn to pace it,” she said. “It’s a marathon.”

Image: Students in Joe Harmon’s 8th grade civics class discuss the current presidential election at Redbank Valley Junior/Senior High School in New Bethlehem, Pa. on Nov. 4. —Michael Swensen/for Education Week

Related Tags:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.