Nancy Shively is a longtime Republican and a special education teacher in a small town just outside Tulsa, Oklahoma, who works primarily with second and third graders—at least, she was those things, until recently. After watching how the Trump administration botched the coronavirus response, and how poorly both her state and the national government prepared for the school year, she switched her party registration and announced her resignation from her school district. Both choices were tough for Shively, especially the latter; she loved and cared about her kids, and was a longtime advocate for Oklahoma’s teachers. But after thinking through the trade-offs, with less than two weeks left to go till school started—full time, in-person—she felt she had no choice.
On Wednesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Shively about her school, her politics, and what made her change her mind on both things. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mary Harris: You know how essential being physically present is for your kids, especially after having experimented with remote learning in the spring.
Nancy Shively: We’re in a rural area. So a lot of kids don’t have internet connectivity or, if they do, maybe the only device they have is a parent’s phone. There was one little girl whose cellphone service wasn’t that great, so there was a lot of cutting out. That makes it really hard, especially when you’re working with special needs kids. In person, you form relationships with the kids and with your co-workers, and I miss that.
Your thinking has evolved over the past few months, as you’ve watched the coronavirus spread. Like the majority of people in Oklahoma, you voted for Donald Trump in 2016—your main concern was abortion. But your anger has actually been growing for a couple of years. For a long time, teachers in your state ranked second to last in teaching salaries.
2018, we had a teacher walkout in Oklahoma, which is kind of our version of a strike. I went down to the state Capitol some of those days and watched Republican legislators from my district literally hiding from the teachers because they didn’t want to talk to us. On the other hand, the Democratic legislators were perfectly happy to talk to us and gave us some really good advice. I’m watching these guys and I’m like, this is not the Republican Party I grew up with. I rationalized to myself that I could stay in the party and cause trouble that way. But when the virus hit and people were actually dying and President Donald Trump was doing nothing, I thought, I cannot stay in this party anymore. I was sitting there watching one of those press conferences and I had my iPad out. I thought, I wonder if I can change my registration online. I looked it up and—
During a Trump press conference?
Yeah. And so I did. It’s not effective until the end of August. But I changed it to independent. I might still change it to Democrat, I don’t know, but that was a big step for a lifelong Republican. [Shively has written that she will be voting for Joe Biden in the fall.]
You wrote this op-ed for USA Today where you clearly laid out that, first of all, you’re a teacher, and second of all, you’re a Trump voter who now thinks that was a huge mistake.
One of the biggest mistakes I’ve ever made in my life. That’s right up there.
Did you hear from anyone after that article came out?
I think it got out in my town because it’s a small town. I talked about it on my Facebook page. There were a few people on there who said, Thank you for being a teacher, thank you for what you’re doing. I have gotten a whole lot of negative feedback from the left about my article, which surprised me. I expected to get it from the Trump contingent, but now it’s almost exclusively from the left.
What are they saying?
They’re saying it was perfectly clear in 2016 and you voted for him anyway. And they say, so you are OK with babies in cages, and you didn’t clue in until it affected you personally. And there is a grain of truth to that. But they’re really mean about it online. So I just try to let it roll off my back.
What are the kids like at the school you taught at?
They’re just normal kids. We’re a Title I school, so a big chunk of our kids qualify for free or reduced lunch. There’s a lot of poverty. Rural America has been decimated by methamphetamines and other addictions. The social issues have not been addressed for so long. And then kids get to school and they haven’t had a lot of socialization, they haven’t been read to. They know they’re missing all kinds of things because of their poverty or because their parents aren’t there for them in ways they should be. So they get to school and they have all these deficits to start off with. And it’s not just Oklahoma, although it’s really bad here—it’s the entire country.
What made you worried about going back to school this year? In particular, when you think about walking into that classroom, putting up stuff on the bulletin board.
On paper, my setup would be ideal because I only have a few kids in my room at a time. It’s not like I’m in a classroom with 20-plus kids all day long. They come in and they go out. But I have some underlying health conditions. I’m over 60. I’m overweight. And none of that is going to bode well if I catch the coronavirus. My school district said that when it starts back it will start with masks. But we’ve learned more about the virus being airborne, and there’s not any kind of air filtration in the school. And from what I understand right now, the kids are all going to be eating lunch together like they always do.
What is the plan in your town for doing school? Have you seen it?
Oklahoma has put a color-coded map of by county: Depending on what the virus activity is in your area, your county will be colored yellow or red or whatever. My school’s yellow. So that means everybody’s gonna be wearing masks. And I know some teachers have said they don’t want their kids wearing masks inside the classrooms.
Well, the town is full of a lot of people who think the whole mask thing is a big hoax, and some of them are teachers.
And the idea is teachers will be back in the classroom five days a week.
Oof. When will they clean?
I guess after school.
Does that feel like enough to you, like it’s protective?
No, it doesn’t. With the virus being airborne and knowing kids the way I do, I don’t see how we’re going to avoid outbreaks in schools. I just don’t.
Is there any talk about what the school would do if a kid or a teacher tested positive?
The information I got back in June was that if there were one or two cases, they wouldn’t close a building, but I think if it was more than that, they would close it. But the way this thing spreads so quickly, one or two cases could multiply into 50 in nothing flat. So that’s a huge concern.
So will kids be required to stay 6 feet apart?
There’s no way you can do that. The classrooms are too small. There are like 25 kids in a class. And the other thing is, we’re in a low-income area where parents are working essential jobs. The parents don’t have college degrees and they’re working minimum wage or slightly above that, and they get penalized if they stay home with a sick kid. So it is very common for kids to come to school sick in a normal year.
If a kid came into your classroom sick, are you empowered to say, “Come back when you’re feeling better”?
No, I would have no power. I would send them to the office and if the nurse was in the building—and that’s another thing: We have two nurses in our school district for 2,400 kids in five buildings. And I’m sure there are no funds to hire any more.
It raises this question about who makes the rules, and whose rules they are.
The school districts are coming up with plans that, by and large, are plans for the students and parents. There are very few plans for the teachers. You know what happens if you get exposed and have to stay out of school for two weeks? Do you have to eat up all your sick leave? There’s just so much unknown.
Oklahoma City Public Schools has decided to have the first nine weeks starting out online. I think Tulsa is about to make that decision as well.
There are so many teachers who have medical issues, autoimmune diseases in particular, that administrations don’t know anything about because they’re kind of invisible diseases. I just have this feeling that if they force everybody back into the classroom, I think there are gonna be a lot of resignations. They’re going to have a lot of vacancies to fill. We don’t have enough substitute teachers to begin with. So what are they going to do when a teacher comes down with it and is out for weeks?
Is there any talk about hazard pay for people like you?
Oh, heavens, no. That would be lovely. But that’s not gonna happen.
I can hear that you’re scared, that you’re thinking about all this in your mind.
I am. Because the virus is very predictable. We’ve seen what it’s done. Doctors and scientists told the states, you need to open slowly and this is why. And they were pretty much ignored. And now we have raging outbreaks in Arizona, where my sister lives, and Texas. And our governor isn’t being proactive at all. He doesn’t want to do a mask mandate, although Tulsa and Oklahoma City have done their own. So there’s that failure of leadership. And I don’t know why people think Oklahoma would be exempt from what’s going on in Arizona or Texas.
It all comes, in my opinion, from the president who abdicated his responsibility in dealing with this in the first place. So he passes it down to the states, some of which did a good job, some of which, like Oklahoma, did a crappy job. And here we have the virus spreading everywhere because people wouldn’t listen. And then the governors pass the buck down to local jurisdictions and then down to the schools. It’s like everybody’s pushing the consequences of these decisions down the road, farther and farther. Well, the one place that it absolutely has to stop is with teachers and children. And I’m not willing to take the consequences for our failed leadership by going into school in a situation I know is not going to be safe.