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Lawrence school board candidates share guiding values for pandemic safety decisions

Candidates vying for three seats on the Lawrence school board fielded questions about a host of challenges in the school district on Wednesday during a virtual forum sponsored by the Douglas County Democrats.

All six candidates attended the forum, in alphabetical order by last name: Kay Emerson, GR Gordon-Ross, Kelly Jones, Nate Morsches, Andrew Nussbaum and Elizabeth Stephens. The Douglas County Democrats’ Phillip Wrigley, a Lawrence resident and teacher at Topeka High School, moderated the event.

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Wrigley said the pandemic had given school boards around the country “the burden of making decisions about COVID-19 safety protocols.” He asked candidates to name the greatest successes and struggles in the district’s adaptations to the pandemic and what values would guide their decision-making about safety policies.

Stephens said the pandemic had “taught us a lot. One of the things I think we’ve seen is our teachers really adapt and adapt quickly.” She said the community came together to provide resources for students, teachers and the community as a whole. “It showed us we can think outside the box. Education doesn’t have to look the same for everyone.”

She said some students thrived in an online school atmosphere, and it showed that some things could be done differently; there were many barriers, though. “We saw the disparities highlighted, the disparities that our students living in the margins faced. We saw those made exponentially harder. We saw issues with childcare, internet access. We saw issues with access to other resources within our community. Mental health was an issue.”

Stephens said some issues that “were already there” were brought to light and seen much more clearly. “My guiding principles are always going to be to advocate for the kids who are living in the margins — and science.”

Emerson said a success was the ability to “get out of our way as a community to meet the students’ needs. That was huge. That was remarkable. We saw an issue. We worked collectively, collaboratively with one another to try to figure out as best we can. It was a crisis.”

She said when she thinks about the values needed, she would always follow the data, but communication to families is also key. “I think communication is huge. And that’s always going to be one of the things I really focus on is, ‘How are we communicating to who our decisions affect?’”

Gordon-Ross said the biggest success the district had was learning that “one-size-education doesn’t fit all. We found out that a lot of people thrived in a lot of different ways and that is something we can take from and we can learn and we can apply that going forward.”

As an incumbent, he cited what he thought were the two biggest struggles: learning those lessons on the backs of teachers and poor communication at times. “We forced teachers to teach in all those different ways at the same time — to teach in-person, to teach hybrid and to teach online … so teachers had to struggle to do different modalities at once and that was unfortunate and it wasn’t fair.”

He said his career experience in healthcare guides his principles for safety policies. “I value the opinion of healthcare professionals. I live and I work with them every day, and I think my guiding principles for COVID safety protocols will always be based on the advice presented to me by the leading healthcare professionals first and foremost in our community and then working up from there. So Douglas County, then the state, and then the federal will be what I base my decisions upon.”

Jones, the other incumbent in the race, said she is married to a chemist and “believes in science,” which roots her decision-making. “In my household, we, like GR, are guided by principles put forward by health authorities and people who understand not just the data and information in front of them related to the disease itself but also have a deep, rich understanding of public health policy.”

She called finding herself as board president in the pandemic “a master class in learning leadership under crisis.” Jones said communication and reacting quickly presented challenges for the district that resulted in educators and students suffering “as they were asked to perform and change directives on a dime.” But, she said, successful partnerships occurred by forming an early childcare education collaborative and feeding the community.

Morsches said the pandemic brought out grit, resilience and an ability to “get through very difficult things, and it says a lot about us as a community.”

He cited struggles with equity, teachers being treated unfairly and communication problems. “Moving forward, I really think that the values that would guide my decision-making about safety policy during this pandemic, one of the primary things is flexibility.”

As a registered nurse, he said, he’d learned the importance of flexibility in the hospital where he works. “You can’t make huge policy changes really quickly, but it does have to be one of our guiding principles.” 

He said decisions are made based on the “changing nature of science” and “what we know now.”

Nussbaum, the last to answer, said he shared similar safety ideas with his fellow candidates, but he wanted to keep exploring the definition of safety and for whom it’s intended.

“The reality is, before COVID hit, our schools were not that safe of places for a lot of people … Safety also means belonging. Safety also means well-being. Safety also means police-free schools. Safety also means special education students are receiving meaningful and appropriate services. Safety also means certified and classified staff are getting those wages.” 

He said COVID amplified the structural oppression present in schools. “We’ve gotta keep expanding who we’re talking about and what we’re talking about. I believe in masks. I’m all about the vaccination. And we’ve gotta expand more deeply what we mean by safety. That will be a value that I have going forward because the reality is teachers can’t do it anymore. Staff can’t do it anymore. More of them are saying this year has been much harder than the last two years.”

A recording of the event will be posted later on the Douglas County Democratic Party website’s event page and its YouTube channel.

Advance voting starts Wednesday, Oct. 13. The deadline to register is Tuesday, Oct. 12. The general election takes place Tuesday, Nov. 2, when polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Find more info and request a mail ballot at ksvotes.org.

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