Inaugurations are civic milestones, historically an opportunity for teachers to show the peaceful transition of power in action.
In past years, students have traveled to Washington, D.C., for social studies field trips centered on the event, and state and national education organizations have created lesson plans about the swearing-in of a new president.
And this year there’s a new way for young people to watch: Future First Lady Jill Biden will speak on a livestream Wednesday created specifically for students and their families, an event that the Biden Inaugural Committee is calling the first of its kind.
But this year, schools are treading carefully, with many administrators giving teachers more guidance than usual on whether and how to view the ceremonies with their classes. At least a handful of school districts won’t be showing president-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration at all, citing concerns that students could see conflict and violence unfold live on camera.
In the aftermath of the siege on the Capitol on Jan. 6, the FBI warned that groups were planning armed protests in Washington, D.C., and at the capitol buildings in all 50 states the week of the inauguration.
“[W]e will not be watching the Inauguration live next Wednesday at school with students. Consider this a directive that is non-negotiable,” reads an email sent by a principal in Barrow County Schools, Ga., obtained by Education Week.
The email says that social studies teachers will receive guidance on teaching lessons about the inauguration, but that there “is just too much unpredictability and potential for conflict this year to watch the event live with students.”
In the Ossining Union Free School District, in New York, Superintendent Raymond Sanchez sent a letter to families explaining the district’s decision not to broadcast the ceremony in elementary schools.
“Following the recent events at the U.S. Capitol, many of us have concerns about Wednesday’s presidential inauguration. The emotional and physical safety of our students and staff are our primary concerns as we approach this historic event,” he wrote.
Other districts have decided not to ban showing the ceremony, but have warned teachers to exercise caution if they decide to do so.
In Palm Beach, Fla., district officials told teachers that they could stream the inauguration if it was relevant to their course material, but that they would need to approach the topic in a “balanced and fair way,” according to local news station WMFE.
Even in some schools that are choosing to show the event, officials have acknowledged that it’s especially fraught this year.
New Ellenton Middle School in South Carolina wrote in a Twitter thread on Tuesday that students there would watch the inauguration, a tradition that is an example of democracy.
1/6 Wednesday, January 20, 2021 the United States will be participating in the historical tradition of inauguration of the president-elect and vice president- elect. This tradition is only held every 4 years and it is an example of the oldest living democracy.— New Ellenton Middle (@NEMS_STEAM) January 19, 2021
“The ability to witness live inaugurations and the transfer of power from one leader to another is one that we wish to experience with our students here at New Ellenton Middle STEAM Magnet School,” the thread reads.
But families will also have the choice to opt students out of watching, given this “unprecedented time with many unknowns and controversy surrounding this upcoming historical event.”
Still, this isn’t the first time that some teachers and schools have decided not to screen the inauguration for students.
In 2017, for example, a Michigan teacher refused to show his students President Donald Trump’s inaugural speech. While districts this year have cited concerns about violence and increased political polarization, that teacher had a different reason: “I am anxious showing Mr. Trump’s inaugural address given his past inflammatory and degrading comments about minorities, women, and the disabled.”