Tom Paulsen: 2021 candidate for Wheaton Warrenville District 200 school board
Ten candidates are vying for four seats (four-year term) in the 2021 Wheaton Warrenville District 200 school board race.
Occupation: Retired public school teacher, coach and administrator
Civic involvement: Past member of the District 200 Citizens Advisory Committee; Member of the STARS Family Services Board of Directors (two years as president; SFS administers three residences for adults with disabilities); past member of the Elder Council and Board of Christian Education at College Church in Wheaton; current member of the Culture Impact Committee at College Church; past member of the Wheaton College Alumni Board of Directors (two years as president); volunteer for PADS through College Church
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 a retired teacher, coach and administrator with over 35 years of experience in public schools. The last 25 years of my career was as Assistant Principal and Principal at Naperville Central High School and finally as Associate Superintendent of Schools for Naperville Community Unit School District 203. My experience has been in a community and for a school district very similar to District 200 and will be value added to the Board of Education. I look forward to serving the community in which I have lived for more than 50 years and serving the school district in which all three of my daughters were educated. After speaking with several members of the District 200 community, I realized that one of the most important issues with which the new board will be dealing is that of bringing healing to the community. I want to part of that healing process. The staff and board will need to identify where and to what level learning deficits have occurred and the extent of the social and emotional impact of the pandemic. In observing recent board meetings, I am pleased to know that plans are already being made to address these issues.
Q. How would you grade the current school board on its response to the pandemic? Why?
A. The current District 200 Board of Education deserves high marks for how they have addressed the pandemic. Kindergarten through Grade 5 students have received in-person instruction since the beginning of the school year. With the proper protocols in place, there has been very little spread of the virus among staff and students. Very few districts in this area have had elementary age students receive in-person instruction for this long and the fact this has successfully occurred in District 200 is a credit to the staff, the students and the families who have supported this effort. District 200 has been appropriately more cautious with middle and high school students as it is more difficult at those levels to maintain the protocols necessary to keep staff and students safe. The board has supported the administration's efforts to return secondary students to in-person learning on a hybrid basis when it has been deemed safe to do so.
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. Any board of education has a responsibility to listen to all constituents when addressing any issue and "confronting" the pandemic does not alter that responsibility. During these difficult times, the District 200 Board of Education has heard from those in the community as well as from staff who, being concerned about the spread of the virus, have urged great caution and the taking of a conservative approach to in-person learning. Others have urged the board to return all students at all grade levels to "live" classrooms sooner than later. Although these constituents are also concerned about the spread of the virus, they feel the negative consequences of continued remote learning, for secondary students in particular, call for a less conservative approach to be taken. The District 200 Board has the responsibility of working with the administration to provide as safe an environment as possible for all students and staff and with protocols in line with CDC and IDPH guidelines. The Board must then explain to the school community why these protocols and steps have been taken and "stay the course" because the health and safety of students is first and foremost.
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. As previously noted, the District 200 Board has had the responsibility to provide as safe an environment as possible for students and staff in line with CDC and IDPH guidelines. I believe the Board has taken this responsibility seriously while taking a reasonable approach in allowing in-person learning at the elementary level. Working with the administration, safety protocols have been put in place since the beginning of the school year in the elementary schools which has allowed in-person learning with minimal spread of the virus. These same protocols are much harder to maintain at the secondary level and, as a result, middle and high school students have been in a remote learning mode much of the year. Currently, secondary students are successfully attending schools within a hybrid model with opt in surveillance testing in place to monitor the spread of the virus. Responsible and reasonable are words I have used to describe the approach District 200 has taken with regard to in-person learning. I believe this approach has served the students and staff and, therefore, the entire community of District 200 well.
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. The District 200 Board, as noted, has been working with the administration to take a responsible and reasonable approach to allowing in-person learning. Since the number of cases of infection is expected to fall due to the impact of the vaccines, the Board is prepared to allow for more in-person learning at the secondary level. In person learning has been in place at the elementary level since the beginning of the school year. As a result of this success, in-person learning will continue through the winter and into the spring. Along with monitoring the infection rates and continuing to follow CDC and IDPH guidelines, the administration and Board have been closely watching the attendance levels at the secondary schools to determine if more in-person learning can be allowed. Social distancing in classrooms is a key protocol which must be in place to responsibly allow for more in-person learning. Lower attendance rates, although not necessarily desirable, could allow for secondary students to spend more time in in-person learning each week. However, what is most desirable is to have infection rates drop allowing for more in-person learning time.
Q. What is your position on allowing high school sports to continue during the pandemic? Be specific.
A. Oversight of high school sports in the State of Illinois falls under the jurisdiction of the Illinois High School Association or IHSA. This agency makes decisions about inter scholastic sports which affect all member schools and the two high schools in District 200 fall under this jurisdiction. The IHSA has correctly, I believe, placed sports within categories based upon the degree of vulnerability to the virus given the nature of each sport. For example, participants in football and wrestling are more vulnerable than those who participate in tennis and golf. Decisions have been made about whether to allow given sports to compete based upon the level of vulnerability. The decision has been made, again correctly I believe, to not hold state championship level competition for those sports which have been allowed to continue in order to prevent large gatherings of fans and athletes. The District 200 Board and administration has had no choice but to follow the directives issued by the IHSA. One frustration I have heard expressed by boards of education and superintendents is the lack of timely decisions by the IHSA so that plans can be made at the local level.