Education

Mat-Su school board enacts mandatory daily minute of silence for students

Coronavirus, COVID-19, Pandemic, Mat-Su Borough School District

The Matanuska-Susitna Borough School Board in a 5-1 vote on Wednesday made compulsory a period of quiet reflection at the start of the school day.

Under board policy 6117, “School Moment of Silence/Personal Meditation,” principals are instructed to require teachers to set aside one to two minutes of silence in which they cannot make suggestions as to the nature of reflection and students cannot interfere.

Detractors of the idea have questioned its impact on students who have trouble sitting still, the added burden it might place on teachers, and whether it’s a bridge to prayer in classrooms.

Proponents have said the minutes reserved for students each morning offer an opportunity to reflect quietly before beginning the day.

Moments of silence are both optional and required in states across the country, and federal education guidelines say that during moments of silence, students can pray or not pray. Teachers, however, cannot encourage or discourage prayer.

[Earlier coverage: Mat-Su school board considers mandatory classroom ‘moment of silence’ to start the day]

The policy was proposed by school board president Ryan Ponder, who was approached by local rabbi Mendy Greenberg of the Mat-Su Jewish Center, part of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, a branch of Hasidic Judaism. The idea was among several aimed at growing compassion among young people during community conversations that followed the murder of 16-year-old David Grunwald.

Among members of the public who spoke at the meeting, only one testified about the proposed policy, asking that the language be changed to make it nonprescriptive, swapping the phrase “shall” for “may” in the sentence: “The principal of each school shall require teachers in homeroom/first-period classrooms in all grades to set aside at least one (1) minute, but not more than two (2) minutes, daily, for a moment of silence.”

The board did not act on the suggestion.

School board member Dwight Probasco voiced objections at the introduction of the policy last month and said his objections hadn’t changed during the Wednesday night meeting. He said the policy is another thing on teachers’ plates and that a daily moment of silence devalues something usually reserved for death.

“It just becomes repetitious,” Probasco said. “You have children just sitting there. And are they engaging in the moment of silence? The meditation — is that taking place?”

Probasco also questioned implementation of the moment in gyms, preschool classes and special needs classrooms.

“I struggle to see what this will look like in a district of over 40 schools and 18,000 children,” he said.

He also asked whether parents or students could opt out of the moment. At the end of his comments, Probasco introduced an amendment to the policy that would add a third sentence, stipulating a moment of silence for the public at the start of the school board’s meetings, which passed unanimously.

“If it’s good for our children and our staff, then we should be modeling it at the school board level,” he said.

Ponder responded to Probasco’s questions, noting that many other states and districts, including much larger districts, have been implementing the moment of silence.

“If they can do it, I feel that we should heighten our vision and and say that by golly if they can do it, we can do it too,” Ponder said.

In answer to Probasco’s question over how the moment would be implemented among special needs students, Ponder said appropriate accommodations could be addressed for each student.

During discussion, board member Jim Hart said he was looking looking forward to students having the same moment of silence that he had while he was in school from junior high through high school.

“Nobody died, there was no mayhem and I don’t recall any religious conversions,” he said. “I don’t recall anybody getting up and lecturing, and the teachers were remarkably capable of managing their classes back then. So a moment of silence is something that’s great.”

Hart said he didn’t understand the “revolt” against the moment and didn’t know how a parent would opt out of it.

The policy, with the amendment for the moment of silence at school board meetings, passed 5 to 1, with Probasco the only member voting against it.

Morgan Krakow

Morgan Krakow is a general assignment reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. She is a 2019 graduate of the University of Oregon and spent the summer of 2019 as a reporting intern on the general assignment desk of The Washington Post. Contact her at mkrakow@adn.com.

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