Erin Chan Ding: 2021 candidate for Barrington Unit District 220 school board
11 candidates for four seats
Town: South Barrington
Occupation: Freelance journalist and editor
Civic involvement: Co-director and co-founder of the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA) national freelance affinity group; member of the Northwestern University Alumni Admissions Council (responsibility is to interview high school seniors applying for admission to Northwestern University); co-founder of Willow Mosaic, the racial justice ministry at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington; member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors; former chapter president of AAJA Michigan and former co-chapter president of AAJA Chicago; occasional chaperon for Barrington Girl Scout Troop 1873; and former advisory board member of Willow Global
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 running for the Barrington 220 Board of Education because I love our community. I'm so grateful for how teachers, staff and fellow families in 220 have cared in holistic ways for our two kids, and I want to serve and give back.
I was humbled last year when several parents and families in our school district urged me to consider running for the school board, saying they believed I would bring open-mindedness, a listening posture, relevant questions, kindness and respect to the position. I have served on the executive board of a national nonprofit, and if elected, I'll bring my experience in governance, vision-casting and oversight to a seat on the 220 Board of Education.
I'll commit to collaborating during the four-year board term in a nonpartisan manner with the six other elected members while being guided by three Es: equity, effective communication and exceptional stewardship of our community's tax dollars.
As board members, we'll also have a unique opportunity to work with a new superintendent and the community to develop a fresh strategic plan and address issues ranging from navigating the current COVID-19 pandemic to setting districtwide policies to negotiating contracts to encouraging student health and safety.
Q: How would you grade the current school board on its response to the pandemic? Why? (200 word limit)
A: The current 220 board members found themselves in an extremely challenging situation in needing to deal with a previously unknown virus that has so far killed more than 500,000 Americans and 2.5 million people worldwide. Each death due to COVID-19 represents a person who was loved and valued; this pandemic has been heartbreaking.
The school board and administration needed to balance this deadly pandemic with the responsibility to keep students, staff and the community safe. As a result, they often found themselves in reactive positions because the baseline for so much of this pandemic has been a state of uncertainty. I do think most board members have tried to follow available -- and often changing -- health guidance concerning schools from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Illinois State Board of Education and Lake County Health Department.
In hindsight, I would have liked to see more robust outreach by the board to community members, especially those with medical and epidemiology expertise. I also would have liked to see regular Zoom-based town halls so community members could discuss Covid-related questions, suggestions and concerns with board members and medical experts. It always helps when people feel like they're being heard.
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: School board members are ultimately accountable to and serve the residents of District 220. In turn, board members select and hire a superintendent, who oversees the administration and is accountable to the board.
That said, community members often harbor broad, deep and divergent views. It's the responsibility of board members to make themselves accessible enough to ensure this spectrum of views is expressed. This means providing sufficient opportunities, whether virtual or in-person, for consistent dialogue and listening.
As for leadership when confronting a pandemic, and really, for a broad range of issues, I think board members will and should find themselves using a combination of approaches. Leadership often means studying guidance from health entities to ensure the highest degree of safety possible while also not plunging students' learning and mental health into an abyss.
Leading should always mean an openness to hearing and considering an array of views, especially from affected stakeholders, before making decisions. It also means recognizing what you aren't as familiar with and asking more experienced people to walk you through something new or esoteric until you gain a more comprehensive understanding.
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 think our district had to be in a continuous learning and adjustment mode when it came to pandemic disruptions. Even though students need a balance of technology and non-screen-based play and learning, I do think by having had the One to World iPad program in place for several years, the district helped us transition into a more extended period of distance learning than any of us expected.
I also think the administration's inviting some teachers into Ready to Learn committees in the latter part of 2020 helped the district make a critical change with Hybrid 2.0 in January 2021, which was to bring elementary hybrid-opting kids into school every day instead of for only two days. This has personally made a huge difference in my 7-year-old daughter's learning satisfaction and her happiness at being able to see her (masked) friends more frequently.
Hindsight illuminates so much, and I do think one disruption that could have been ameliorated would have been to find out earlier which parents would have wanted their elementary-school aged kids to go remote for the whole year. This may have prevented some students from being forced to switch teachers in the middle of the school year.
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: I would love to see our schools offer families the choice of full-time, five-days-a-week learning as soon as possible, meaning that we're following health guidance and recommendations as we reopen. The pandemic has shown us this guidance changes; for instance, we learned by late fall that with proper mitigation steps, including masking, physical distancing and frequent hand-washing, schools were not huge vectors of COVID-19 spread. This made in-person school attendance possible by mid-January.
Barrington High School already has opened its doors to full-time, in-person learning for hundreds of students; I'm hopeful that continued vaccinations and our current nationwide drop in cases, hospitalizations and deaths offer us a chance in getting the coronavirus under control and more of our schools open full-time, perhaps before the end of the school year.
However, and this is a critical point: I think that until COVID-19 does not pose the daily threat of demise, every student should have the option to continue attending school remotely. We need to acknowledge that every family situation is different, and certain factors -- immunocompromised family members and multigenerational households, for example -- should preclude a student from returning to in-person learning until that student's family feels comfortable with it.
Q: What is your position on allowing high school sports to continue during the pandemic? Be specific.
A: Depending on how our region is doing with COVID-19 spread, I think it's reasonable to continue with some elementary, middle school and high school sports. The Illinois High School Association and Illinois Elementary School Association has issued guidance and risk assessments concerning various sports; because of that, my son was able to experience a productive and fun cross-country season last fall at Station Middle School with mask protocols and smaller race heats.
Even so, during several conversations I had with high school students who were passionate about a sport (or theater or the arts), they said while they were disappointed at having their activities curtailed, what mattered just as much were outlets to discuss their mental and emotional well-being.
As we venture into a post-pandemic reality, it's vital that along with addressing learning loss, we're also shepherding our kids through the relational, mental and emotional disorientation they've experienced. We need to continue to promote offerings like the META app, which connects students with counselors, and we need to equip coaches, teachers and staff to check in with our kids. Overall, our 220 students have shown more resilience and adaptability than I could have ever imagined, and I'm proud of them.