White House photo by Paul Morse [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Today at noon, the United States will inaugurate Donald Trump as the nation’s 45th President. The ceremony that will be held at the Capitol Building in Washington, DC is a symbol of the peaceful transfer of power between leaders as the administrations change.

Many schools across the country may take the once-every-four-year event as an opportunity to let their students watch history happen live by showing the ceremony. Some of Wilton’s students may be doing that in class today.

But with controversy making this inauguration more divisive, however, sensitivities are running higher. Issues arose both locally and nationally during the presidential campaign and after the election, including heightened friction within the Wilton student population and reports of simmering, in-school conflict, as well as a much-publicized, controversial incident at a Wilton High School football game.

As a result, some parents have expressed their disappointment on all sides, taking to social media to complain and calling school officials. Some have expressed a concern that having students watch it will take away from classroom instruction time, especially with WHS midterms starting next week. Other parents are unhappy about having the inauguration shown on principle, and are questioning the context of how it’s being discussed given the controversy and conflict surrounding it.

“I want them to discuss the Electoral College vs. popular vote. I want them to discuss why dozens of Democrats aren’t attending,” wrote one. “My kids have heard some really nasty comments about Hillary during the campaign and I’m not sure if high schoolers have the maturity to control their comments,” wrote another.

Still other parents are upset that it’s even a question, expressing anger that it’s not being shown to every student. “We had a fair election, some liked the outcome, others did not, this does not mean that our children don’t need to watch and understand this historic event,” was a comment made by one social media poster. Another commenter echoed, “Whether we like it or not, he is our new president and this should be shown at school… this is history!”

On Wednesday, GOOD Morning Wilton reached out to Superintendent Kevin Smith to find out what the school district had planned and if the inauguration would be incorporated into the school day. Smith says it was something he discussed with his four principals and that each principal is working with his or her staff to make “appropriate plans.” [Editor’s note:  on Thursday afternoon, Smith emailed a letter about the schools’ plans to parents. See his letter, below, at the end of the article.]

“There is no policy or directive other than this is one of those decisions that lives in the hands of the principals, because they make the educational decision at the school level,” he told GMW. “The conversation we’ve had here is, generally speaking, the inauguration is a civics event; it is not about politics. It’s a demonstration of one of the cornerstones of our democracy, which is a peaceful transfer of power.”

Plans vary between Wilton’s schools four schools, says Smith.

“At Miller-Driscoll, Kathy Coon‘s staff decided they are not going to show the inauguration live because of the developmental age of the kids; Cider Mill is proceeding accordingly. At both Middlebrook and the High School, teachers certainly have the discretion to show it if it aligns with the curriculum and they have the time.”

In addition, Smith says, the schools will be recording the inauguration and the video production team will edit it down to shorter, 30-minute clips that teachers can access after the fact to use in class if, for example they want to use just the swearing in or inauguration speech.

Smith wasn’t Wilton’s superintendent of schools until 2014, so he wasn’t involved in what Wilton schools did during the last election. However, he said the High School plan for Trump’s inauguration–letting teachers decide whether or not to view the inauguration in class–conforms to what they did in the past, including for both inaugurations of President Barack Obama.

Fitting the Curriculum

The phrase “aligns with the curriculum” in the message relayed to teachers may leave the decision wide open for interpretation. Technically, since the inauguration happens when students are in all kinds of classes, not just humanities or social studies, it may not necessarily be directly applicable to the curriculum students are working on or with a teacher whose subject matter directly relates–art, for example, or foreign language. While not every class during the time of inauguration is necessarily a social studies class, Smith says it’s important to consider the singularity of the event.

“We rely on the professional judgement of our teachers. But certainly, this is an historical event. Presidential inaugurations don’t happen every year. If an art teacher chose to have it on in his or her classroom, and framed it as an event demonstrating a key feature of our democracy, I think that’s wonderful. What an opportunity for all of us to see our democracy in action.”

Knowing that this topic is a hot-button issue, how will the schools handle it and what have teachers been told to do if the temperature in the classroom heats up and comments are made?

“In that case we need to rely on teachers’ professional judgement to manage the students and to manage the conversation in ways that insure respect and provide an opportunity for perspective taking,” Smith says.

According to one source at New Canaan High School, teachers there received an email from administrators specifically instructing them not to air the inauguration in class. Such a ban, says Smith, is something they would never consider.

“We try to frame it appropriately, and like it or lump it, it’s happening. We all have very strong opinions one way or another. We have to be adult and help our kids navigate their perspectives. But at the end of the day, regardless of the person taking the oath, this is a tremendous symbol of our country. We would never issue an outright ban,” he says.

There may also be technical issues at work in one school that will prevent Wilton students from seeing it.

“More practically, at Cider Mill, they don’t have cable and they’ve had ongoing bandwidth issues. So I don’t think, even if we went the other way and said we were going to live-stream to every classroom, I don’t think we could because I don’t think the network could handle it,” Smith points out.

What about students who don’t want to watch and would like to opt not to watch? They have alternatives, he says.

“Absolutely. Number one, my sincere  hope is that if a teacher had elected to show it, and a kid had expressed his discomfort, then the teacher would accommodate that child, and invite the child to not watch, leave the room, do something else appropriate. I presume, fairly, that people would make those appropriate accommodations. It’s not lost on anybody in our educational community that this is a hot button issue.”

The letter Smith emailed to parents spelled out similar comments (click to enlarge):