COVID-19 shines unexpected spotlight on Kansas school board members

September 2, 2021 3:33 am

The school board for Auburn-Washburn USD 437 meets Aug. 23. Board members across the state have had to balance student health and sometimes outraged commentary from parents. (Screen capture/Kansas Reflector)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Linda Ditch has been a freelance writer for two decades.

No one becomes a local school board member for fame and fortune. In fact, it’s an unpaid, voluntary position in Kansas, and most run for office after being involved in their own children’s education journey. Once elected, board members’ duties are typically making budget and curriculum decisions, along with the occasional recognition of student or staff achievements.

The COVID-19 pandemic changed everything. Board members from various Shawnee County districts explained why.

“It made our job more challenging,” said the Rev. John Williams, Topeka USD 501 board president. “This is the first serious health crisis since the Spanish Flu in 1918. It caught everybody off guard. We had to try to continue to provide a quality education for our youth and at the same time try to deal with a health crisis that affects all of society.”

Seaman USD 345 board member Frank Henderson, who is also president-elect for the National School Boards Association, said, “We’re looking at how we’re going to keep our students and staff safe, prioritizing their health when, before COVID, that wasn’t an issue.”

In the early days of the pandemic, district school boards were making decisions on issues never imagined before COVID. How would they implement remote and hybrid learning models? Should social distancing be three or six feet? Do the buildings need better air quality?

The Kansas Department of Education, as well as state and county emergency declarations, provided some guidance. However, as those rules expired this summer, districts were primarily left on their own when planning for this new school year.

Then the delta variant arrived. Infection numbers started to rise, and children and young adults were more visibly affected. By August, boards faced the question of whether or not to mandate masks in communities with pandemic fatigue.

Most people have never attended a school board meeting. Suddenly, they were must-see events, either in person or online. Many people took advantage of public comment time to share their opinions on mask mandates, both pro and con. Some of those opinions were voiced loudly and based on social media posts, not science. At a Shawnee Heights USD 450 meeting, one woman had to be escorted from the building when she wouldn’t give up the microphone after the three-minute time limit expired.

Board member Lauren Tice Miller has twice been escorted to her car by security as a precaution.

“I never in a million years thought this would be something we would be facing,” she said. “There have been many times when I’ve said I miss the days of unity and camaraderie we had in the early days of this. For that brief moment in March 2020, we all were taking COVID seriously, and we were all willing to do what was necessary and what was best for our kids.”

At the start of this school year, all Topeka districts mandated masks indoors except Auburn-Washburn USD 437, where they were recommended but not required. After the first week of school, Auburn-Washburn had confirmed COVID cases in 47 students and 3 staff, with 167 students and staff quarantined. The school board called a special meeting. After more than three hours, and listening to 35 members of the public, the board voted to mandate mask-wearing.

 “It has been so hard for all of us in the past year and a half,” said Auburn-Washburn board member Jacquie Lightcap. 

“In USD 437, we are used to a positive community experience,” Lightcap added. “We were shocked and surprised when, frankly, the spirit of division we find in our country at large has now come down to our local district. It is frustrating. It is sad. And it is tiring. It went from just disagreeing with us to being much angrier with us.”

All of these board members agree on what drives their decision-making process. They want to do what is best for students, so they get the best possible education.

Henderson calls this goal his personal North Star.

“You want people to believe that the decisions you’re making are because it’s in the best interest of all the students, not that you’re trying to infringe upon someone’s rights,” he said.

“It has been a challenging time,” Tice Miller said. “The decisions we’ve been making weigh heavy on all of us, causing some to lose sleep or even have difficulty eating. The stress does take its toll. We were all really hopeful we were past all of it for this school year and will be able to look ahead at life beyond COVID.”

Here’s hoping these unpaid volunteers get their wish.

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Linda Ditch
Linda Ditch

Linda Ditch has been a freelance writer for two decades. The focus of her work is primarily food, travel, education, home improvement, natural health, and pet care topics. Her articles have appeared in the Topeka Capital-Journal, Concord Monitor (New Hampshire), Boston Globe and Dallas Morning News, as well as KANSAS!, Topeka Lifestyle, Topeka, Shawnee, and CatFancy Magazines. She also created The Iconic Dishes of Kansas and Topeka City Guide for the Food Network’s website. Before entering the freelance world, she was senior editor at Taste for Life magazine.