BURLINGTON — A Burlington High School teacher directed students to consider COVID-19 conspiracy theories months before the teacher’s methods came under public scrutiny, records show. The Burlington Area School District also received a complaint that the social studies teacher was urging students not to wear face masks amid the pandemic, as has been required.
Records released under the state’s open records law show that Jeff Taff shared with his Modern World History class theories that the COVID-19 pandemic is a hoax, including the baseless contention that then-President Donald Trump would expose the purported hoax.
The seventh-year social studies teacher has been on paid administrative leave since Jan. 7, one day after he attended Trump’s election rally in Washington, D.C., which preceded the riot at the U.S. Capitol and left five dead; his wife, Chantel Taff, has said publicly that he did not enter the Capitol or engage in any violence on that day.
The records, obtained by The Journal Times, show that Taff spent at least four classroom sessions focused on COVID-19 last semester. He also distributed videos containing suggestions that the pandemic’s death toll had been inflated and that the COVID crisis had been manufactured by the Democratic Party.
Other materials Taff distributed to students included anti-government messages such as a cartoon of a government official stealing a taxpayer’s wallet; a comparison of political parties that labeled Republican philosophy as “normalcy;” an evaluation of news media outlets based on their perceived political leanings; and the conjecture that the pandemic, which has been linked to more than 2.4 million deaths worldwide and 500,000 in the U.S., was somehow created by “powerful” billionaires in order to inject people with microchips.
School district officials have declined to say whether Taff was disciplined after the complaint that he was encouraging students to disregard face masks as protection from the COVID virus. Meanwhile, one parent has alleged that the school district has “enabled” Taff by not acting more strongly when it was informed he may have been encouraging students to disobey mask requirements.
Ongoing internal investigation
Taff’s classroom methods have come under scrutiny since he went to Washington, D.C., for the Jan. 6 rally. Taff was granted time off work for the Washington trip.
School district officials began investigating when a parent complained that Taff had messaged students on a school district website that he was “standing up for election integrity and our right to vote in fair elections” by traveling to D.C. He also had directed students to watch a video questioning the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s election victory.
The district placed Taff on paid administrative leave effective Jan. 7, removing him from the classroom while continuing to pay his $50,000-a-year salary.
Officials at the time said they were not investigating Taff’s decision to contest the election outcome, but whether he violated district policy with classroom materials not authorized for his courses. Two weeks later, they also said their investigation had uncovered “other materials of a similar nature,” although they would not elaborate.
BASD Superintendent Stephen Plank declined to comment on the politically charged materials that Taff brought into his classes. Plank said officials are trying to determine, among other things, whether Taff was promoting conspiracy theories or introducing them for another reason.
“Frankly, that’s what we’re trying to investigate,” he said. “Until that’s done, we can’t get into what is taught, what isn’t taught.”
Plank said the district’s investigation would take several weeks and would include interviews with students.
Taff’s attorney, Todd Terry, declined to comment on this story.
Parent: BASD ‘enabled’ Taff
Chantel Taff and other supporters have defended him as a dedicated educator whom they believe is being scrutinized for political reasons. Some parents, however, say that Taff pushes a political agenda in his classes and that he has engaged in other questionable conduct, such as allowing students to use racial slurs and encouraging the bullying of students who choose not to stand during the Pledge of Allegiance.
Laura Bielefeldt, a parent who complained about Taff’s messaging on the 2020 presidential election, said she was aware that he was pushing COVID-19 hoax theories. The school district’s unwillingness to discipline Taff encouraged him to escalate his approach, Bielefeldt said.
“It just goes to show they enabled him,” she said. “He was indoctrinating students, which is absolutely unacceptable.”
Aaron Melby — the leader of a group supporting Taff since he was placed on leave, known as the “We Stand With The Taff Family” group — declined to comment for this report.
‘It was addressed, and it was handled’
School district records released to the Journal Times under the state’s open records law show that the district received a complaint on Aug. 26, in an anonymous email, that said Taff was posting messages in class urging students to defy state and school district mandates on wearing face masks to avoid spreading COVID-19.
“He is abusing his authority,” the email stated.
Records show that Plank forwarded the message to Burlington High School Principal Eric Burling, suggesting that the principal engage Taff in “a quick conversation.” Plank’s email continued: “I don’t know Jeff or what he is or is not doing. Nonetheless, he must wear his mask and should stop posting images that are going to draw this type of scrutiny.”
Burling responded via email that he had been aware of the issue since the previous week and that Taff had been “spoken with.”
Plank declined this week to say whether Taff was disciplined, citing employee confidentiality policies. The superintendent, however, said complaints about faculty members are taken seriously and are investigated.
Of the complaint regarding Taff and his alleged discouragement of wearing face masks, Plank said: “It was addressed, and it was handled.”
About the same time as the complaint was received, school district records show that Taff was leading his Modern World History students in discussions about COVID-19. The discussions began Aug. 24 with a topic Taff described as “How COVID-19 has impacted teens” and it continued the following week with “Examine various coronavirus conspiracy theories” by providing evidence both in support of and against the claims.
The materials he directed students to consider included articles about why followers of QAnon think COVID-19 is a hoax, why other people think the health crisis was planned by “powerful people,” why some think Microsoft founder Bill Gates planned the pandemic so he could get people vaccinated with secret microchips, and that vaccines “cause injury and death.”
The Associated Press describes QAnon as “an apocalyptic and convoluted conspiracy theory spread largely through the internet and promoted by some right-wing extremists.” Its followers are deeply devoted to Trump and had a presence at the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol. An unidentified person or persons known as Q shares wild predictions online, which have ranged from the allegation that high-profile Democrats and other “global elites” run a massive child trafficking ring to believing that John F. Kennedy Jr. (the son of President JFK) faked his own death in 1999 and is now masquerading as Biden in disguise.
Some of the materials Taff presented describe some theories as debunked misinformation. But other conspiracy theories are described in detail, and accompanying videos include supporters with images flashing such messages as “Fake crisis” and “Flu+media=COVID19.”
In response to the Journal Times’ open records request for access to Taff’s classroom materials from the current school year, the district provided more than 1,000 pages from the teacher’s online classroom website. Most of it appeared to be conventional textbook material dealing with such topics as the American Revolution, the Civil War and other major historical events.
Along with that material and periodic assignments, Taff occasionally circulated politically charged messages to his students. During a discussion of the Roaring ‘20s, he shared a chart describing Republican ideas as “normalcy” such as “traditional American values;” that same chart compared Democratic ideas of “progressivism” as “the need for government to solve problems.” “Return to normalcy” was Republican Warren G. Harding’s slogan in his successful 1920 campaign for president.
Students received a picture of the U.S. Capitol and the caption: “Government — if you think the problems we create are bad, just wait until you see our solutions.” Another included a cartoon depicting a government official surreptitiously removing a person’s wallet from his back pocket.
Taff also shared with students a chart ranking various news outlets on a scale from “too liberal” to “too conservative.” On the liberal side were the New York Times, Washington Post, all three major TV networks and National Public Radio. On the conservative side were the Chicago Tribune, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes magazine and Fox News.
Included with the media critiques were various tips for consuming news, including: “Don’t live in a bubble. You’re already in one if you’ve blocked friends who disagree with you on social media, all the trusted people in your life are ideologically aligned, you only receive news from agreeable sources, you refuse to discuss or respect political differences.”