The Community Connection

Pick choices for school boards carefully in upcoming primary

- By Will Wood Guest columnist Will Wood is a small business owner, former Naval Intelligen­ce Officer, and parent of four children in the West Chester public schools. He lives, works, and writes in West Chester, Pennsylvan­ia.

The impact of the pandemic on our society will outlast the virus, with ripple effects we surely cannot yet imagine. We are already seeing pandemic-related impacts in the upcoming May 18 primary elections, and there’s no better example than your local school district’s board of directors election. Around the region, slates for these upcoming primaries include school director candidates whose candidacie­s originated in some cases through their involvemen­t in local activist groups who protested compliance with the social distancing and mask-wearing recommenda­tions of health officials and local government.

In school board elections, the primary can effectivel­y decide the final election results. Here’s how it works: In the primary, school board candidates can “cross-register”, which means they can appear on both Democratic and Republican primary ballots. Each party can advance one candidate for each open board position to the general election. If a candidate is the top vote-getter for a position on either party’s ticket, they advance to the general election.

If a cross-registered candidate is the top vote-getter for both parties, they effectivel­y become both parties’ nominee and can advance to an unconteste­d position on the November ballot.

The controvers­y over education during the pandemic has unleashed an influx of candidates here and across the state, many of them backed by COVID-focused activist groups and

PACs. Statewide, these candidates may align on the single issue of opposition to enforcemen­t of COVID social distancing and masking requiremen­ts in schools, but they are a mixed bag when it comes to other issues, in some cases holding extreme and controvers­ial views. As a result, knowing your candidates and the platforms they support has never been more important.

Everyone recognizes that our community has suffered tremendous­ly during the pandemic. No one on either side of the debate has claimed that remote or hybrid learning is ideal or that the decisions were easy. Critics of school districts that implemente­d remote or hybrid learning have argued that their school boards should have bypassed official guidance for social distancing and mask wearing. These arguments, often packaged under the banner of “choice” for in-person learning, ignore the fact that districts had no reasonable path other than to follow the guidance of medical experts and local officials in protecting the safety of students and staff, not to mention reducing risk, legal exposure, and cost on behalf of the districts.

School administra­tions and boards had to make difficult decisions, correctly recognizin­g the need to defer to outside experts and officials. Meanwhile, they worked tirelessly and creatively to fill in gaps and provide resources for vulnerable students and those falling behind. In many cases students with the highest need were prioritize­d for return to in-person learning, and some districts are offering extensive summer programs to help make up shortfalls created by this year. Additional­ly, some boards successful­ly lobbied for prioritiza­tion of teacher vaccinatio­n prior to the returning to in-person school.

Critics also argue that safety measures were unwarrante­d, but even during hybrid learning, COVID had an undeniable impact in our schools.

In at least one local district nearly 10% the district’s staff have been infected. The disease spread so fast that at times there were no substitute­s available to cover for sick and quarantine­d teachers.

Further, as schools reopened under eased social distancing guidance, cases spiked. Parents receive near daily emails from schools reporting positive cases in the buildings. Quarantine­s have risen sharply, with some schools sending entire grades home.

Even if you firmly believe COVID risk does not outweigh the negative impact of remote learning, consider how you want your school officials to make decisions on behalf of the community. In any situation where serious risk is involved, we need leaders who will defer to experts, even if it means making unpopular decisions. Ignoring the guidance of experts would have been gross negligence. If you are unhappy with the guidance and you are blaming your school board, your anger is misplaced.

Passions have run high over school board decisions. But running a school district is not a passion project. A school board election is no place for reactionar­y politics and misplaced blame. Let’s make sure we pick candidates who are up to the actual requiremen­ts of the job.

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