“I still get the kid that wants to know if it’s true that 100,000 dead people voted in Michigan, or if a computer stole our votes,” Cruey said. “The majority are uncomfortable or unhappy with the election. Many of them think there’s something fishy behind it.”
Teachers are always on the front lines of the fight against misinformation. But this election year poses extra challenges: For one thing, conspiracy theories — some of them promoted by the president — are running rampant on social media sites favored by young people.
For another, given that most schools are operating fully or partly online because of the coronavirus pandemic, teachers have fewer resources and less ability to reach the children they’re meant to be guiding through a world filled with misleading or false information.
“In the virtual world, you’re basically speaking through a microphone into people’s homes, so you might have 20 kids but actually 60 people listening to you,” Cruey said. “You don’t really know what’s going on.”
The 60-year-old educator is in a sticky position.
He teaches middle-schoolers in West Virginia’s deep-red McDowell County, where some 80 percent of the votes went to Trump in the November election. He is an outlier, one of the few people in his neighborhood — 30 minutes away in another county that is just as red as McDowell — to keep Joe Biden signs on their lawns.
The students he teaches, and their parents, can easily figure out his political views. All they need do is check the Internet, where a clip of him interviewing and praising then-candidate Hillary Clinton in November 2015 still circulates. So Cruey has developed a strategy for dealing with those who discover his Democratic leanings.
“I tell kids on a regular basis there’s no one out there that fully represents me or my political views,” Cruey said. “And the same parents that know I have a Biden sign also know I’m a church musician, [and] that my wife and I work at a Christian camp in the summer. [So] they reserve judgment.”
As Trump continues to promote baseless claims of sweeping voter fraud and to contest the fact of his election loss, tens of millions of Americans have come to doubt President-elect Biden’s legitimacy, as well as the stability and fidelity of the nation’s democratic process. Opinion splits sharply along partisan lines: 70 percent of Republicans say the election was unfair, according to a recent Politico/Morning Consult poll, and 90 percent of Democrats say it was both fair and free.
Now, Trump’s campaign of misinformation is affecting the nation’s youngest, too.
Cruey teaches roughly 95 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders in McDowell County Schools, which enrolls 2,600 and is offering a mix of in-person and online learning. Until recently, when he was forced to enter quarantine after a fellow employee tested positive for the coronavirus, Cruey reported to his classroom five days a week, where he led social studies and West Virginia studies for the 40 percent of the group that had chosen face-to-face instruction. The rest followed the lessons online.
For all three grades, according to state standards, Cruey is supposed to teach “who our leaders are and how we got them,” he said. So, in the weeks before the 2020 election, he offered lessons on the electoral college. He gave kids a “Campaign Issues Worksheet” that asked their views on subjects including red-flag gun laws (provisions by which courts can order someone’s firearms taken away temporarily if the person is deemed a danger to self or others) and whether police officers should wear body cameras. And he answered election questions — the most popular query was whether the rapper Kanye West was actually a candidate (yes).
It quickly emerged that the views in Cruey’s classroom mirrored the political breakdown of McDowell County, which sits at the southernmost edge of West Virginia and is home to roughly 18,000 people, 90 percent of whom are White. In Cruey’s classrooms, informal polls — “Who do you guys want to be president?” — revealed that about 85 percent of children preferred the Republican incumbent.
That didn’t surprise Cruey, who remembers teaching the 2016 election in McDowell. The first hint that this year would prove extra challenging came when a sixth-grader, who was learning from home, messaged mid-class: “What has Joe Biden done in 46 years to make him worth electing president?”
Cruey thought to himself: That’s not something an 11-year-old would say.
“I know the family, they’re very right-wing, so I know the parents are sitting there watching,” Cruey said. But what could he do? “The grown-ups who are stomping their feet and gritting their teeth as I teach — that’s their right.”
He kept going, moving on to the next topic and set of facts as quickly as he could: a battle-tested tactic for avoiding conflict that he’s developed over years of teaching.
But he was less successful Nov. 9, the Monday after the election.
He began that lesson by explaining the Associated Press’s long history of calling presidential elections. He showed the students a BBC article debunking the QAnon-promoted conspiracy theory that Dominion Voting Systems election software caused President Trump’s defeat.
Forty minutes in, he shared a video of Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris and Biden giving their acceptance speeches. And that’s when Facebook messenger pinged.
“This parent sent me a message to say her child was not going to be listening to this stuff about Biden and Harris,” Cruey said. “Then she just disconnected her kid.”
The parent later called Cruey’s principal to complain. Nothing like that, the teacher said, had happened to him before.
In weeks since, students have kept contradicting Cruey about the results whenever he mentions the election, arguing that Trump won and citing a plethora of conspiracy theories. Cruey has developed a method to combat this: He asks the kid to show him their source of information. Then he directs the student to Google.
Together, teacher and student type in, “How many dead people voted in Michigan?” Then they explore the results — with Cruey suggesting they click on sites such as Snopes.com or the BBC, instead of One America News (OAN).
Does it work? Not really, Cruey said: “Most often, they come away puzzled by why so many people say it’s not true, when they came up thinking it was true.”
And, the teacher said, he understands why. Even before the pandemic, most of his students had never been far from home, never received any influence other than their parents’ beliefs. Cities such as Atlanta and Philadelphia are abstract concepts to the 11-, 12-, and 13-year-olds, he said. Most simply cannot fathom why anyone would ever like Biden more than Trump.
“So I don’t know how many minds I’ve changed, but that’s not really my goal,” Cruey said. “I think I’ve planted the seed in a lot of them that, when they hear things like that, they should check it out — and they’re more willing to accept the possibility that some of these rumors aren’t true.
“I’d like to believe the kids leave [class] thinking about it, with some sort of tension in their mind,” he continued. “Now, whether they think about it for 10 minutes or three days? I can’t tell.”
Anyway, election mistrust is not the most pressing problem facing his students, Cruey said. The median household income in McDowell hovered around $26,000 in 2018 — making it one of the poorest places in the United States — and 35 percent of the county lived below the poverty line. He already considered himself “a first responder to poverty” before anything else. The pandemic made everything exponentially worse.
“I’m far more concerned about the welfare of my students at the moment than about overcoming conspiracy theories,” Cruey said. “We need them to stay safe and healthy now. . . . The school system will see the chance to shape their views and skills in civics spiral back around to us over the years.”
At least he hopes so.