Christine Birkett: 2021 candidate for Community Unit District 300 board
Newcomer Christine Birkett is one of seven candidates vying for three, 4-year seats on the Algonquin-based Community Unit District 300 board in the April 6, 2021 election. The other candidates are incumbents Emmanuel Thomas and David Scarpino, and newcomers Daniel P. Dale Jr., Holly Jarovsky, Kristina M. Paul and Kim Withycombe.
The Daily Herald asked the candidates several questions on some of the most pressing issues facing the district. Kristina Paul did not respond to the questionnaire.
Below are Birkett's responses.
In-person early voting begins March 10 only at the Kane County Clerk's Office, 719 S. Batavia Ave., Bldg. B, in Geneva and the Aurora satellite office, 5 E. Downer Place, Suite F. In-person early voting at locations throughout the county begins March 22. Learn more at www.kanecountyclerk.org/Elections.
Town: West Dundee
Occupation: Director, Creative Services, KnowledgeWorks Global
Civic involvement: District 300 Community Leadership Academy; former board member for Shared Harvest Food Co-op; youth soccer coach; Sleepy Hollow Elementary School PTC committee chair; and frequent volunteer at school events
Q: Why are you running for this office, whether for reelection or election the first time? Is there a particular issue that motivates you, and if so, what is it?
A: I am seeking a position on the District 300 board of education because of my sincere support of public education and our community. As a parent of an elementary school student, I feel that I would provide representation on the school board for parents who are at the start of their child's education and who have a vested interest in the district's ability to evolve over time to offer every student a quality education.
A single-issue focus is not driving my candidacy, but rather an interest in setting a wide range of goals and implementing strategies, initiatives, and policies that will ensure the success of all students in our district. Serving as a member of the board of education is an exciting opportunity for me to engage with our community -- seeking to understand our community's values, wishes, and challenges in order to make real change and improvement to our students' learning experience.
If elected, I would be an advocate for the educational needs of our community during the development of the 2021-2025 Five-Year Strategic Plan and would strive to do my part, as well as hold the district to the plan.
Q: How would you grade the current school board on its response to the pandemic? Why?
A: I would give the current school board the grade of B. They based their individual about when and how to reopen in-person learning under very difficult circumstances -- our knowledge about this novel virus was minimal and local, state, and federal guidelines were changing, unclear, and sometimes contradictory.
They postponed the vote on the 2nd semester plan in order to allow some confusion to be cleared up and to give the community more time to voice their concerns. They asked thoughtful questions of Superintendent Fred Heid about the plan and read/responded to communications from parents. Each board member has been transparent in their thinking as they analyzed the safety risks and benefits of in-person learning with their concern for the safety of our students, teachers, staff, and community as a whole.
Similar to other districts, they proposed and approved a phased reopening strategy -- prioritizing return of specials needs, at risk, and K-3 students and offered parents the choice of in-person or remote. These decisions have likely been the most difficult decisions the board has faced and in the end they did what we ask all voters to do, and voted their conscience.
Q: How do you view your role in confronting the pandemic: provide leadership even if unpopular, give a voice to constituents -- even ones with whom you disagree, or defer to state authorities?
A: My role is to be an informed participant in the planning of the safe return of students and teachers to full-time in-person learning. As we plan, we must consider the unique logistics of D300, the 6th largest district in Illinois with 20,000 students, while adhering to the Centers for Disease Control guidelines and state and local mandates. We need to continue to work hard to come up with creative, but feasible solutions to the obstacles we face and implement innovative solutions from other districts into our plan whenever possible.
As an elected board member, I would work to balance the expressed needs of students, families, and teachers against the risks as presented in current scientific data and community metrics. I'm prepared to make decisions that might be unpopular with some constituents but promise to be transparent in the reasons for my decision. Additionally, I think it's critical that we take a forward-thinking approach and start the work of assessing the scope and scale of pandemic-related learning loss and develop a plan to mitigate any deficits that our students are facing and to address any social-emotional issues students are experiencing as a result of the interruption of in-person learning caused by school closures.
Q: Did your district continue to adequately serve students during the disruptions caused by the pandemic? If so, please cite an example of how it successfully adjusted to continue providing services. If not, please cite a specific example of what could have been done better.
A: I believe that the district has served the students to the best of their ability during an untenable situation. A tremendous amount of work has gone into planning for the ongoing phased reopening of our schools. An example of successful adjustment is seen in the progression the district has made from a fully remote start to being able to offer families the choice of in-person or remote. We've come a long way from the pilot program of 2019, which was our first attempt at remote delivery.
That experience gave our district insight on how to prepare for the possibility of some level of remote learning during the 2020-2021 school year. Starting off the year remote gave our teachers the space to figure out how to adapt content and their teaching methods to fully digital delivery. This paved the way for teachers to feel confident that they could meet the challenge to instruct a combination of in-person and remote students simultaneously in the fall. As a result, the district was able to adjust the reopening plan to satisfy the wish of parents and students to keep their teachers regardless of their choice for in-person or remote attendance.
Q: Do you have a plan on how to safely and effectively conduct classes in the spring? What have you learned from the fall semester that you would change in the spring?
A: Based on current data, we can see that the layered mitigations (masks, social distance, cleaning, contact tracing, testing) that we currently have in place appear to be effective in preventing community transmission. As of March 15, the D300 staff will be fully vaccinated. Based on these circumstances, I support the plan Mr. Heid presented to the board on Feb. 9, 2021, to expand in-person attendance effective March 22. The proposal meets the majority of local, state, and CDC guidelines. We learned that the mitigations we put in place in the fall appear to be protecting our students, teachers, and staff. The fall plan is the steppingstone for the proposed spring plan which will offer an incremental change to the in-person attendance offering, getting us closer to our goal of fully reopening.
Q: What is your position on allowing high school sports to continue during the pandemic? Be specific.
A: I was student athlete and remember the impact participation in high school sports had on me. Aside from the physical benefits, I developed a sense of community, character-building, setting and achieving goals, and friendships I formed with my teammates. As a youth soccer coach and parent to a youth athlete I've seen firsthand the recommended safety mitigations in use. I realize that although they are not ideal, they are necessary to safely resume sports programs. The interruptions to high school athletic programs are yet another contributing factor to the overall sense of loss that students, parents, and coaches are experiencing during the pandemic and I empathize with these feelings.
As a board member, I would support allowing high school sports to continue per the IHSA COVID-19 guidelines. I'd also like to acknowledge that many students, parents, and staff are experiencing the same sense of loss as performing arts programs, academic competitions, and student clubs have been disrupted and are trying to find ways to resume under COVID-19 guidelines.