Candidates acknowledge difficulties but differ in rating District 300 on pandemic learning
Six of seven candidates running for Community Unit District 300 school board give the district a grade of C or better for how it has handled students' return to in-person learning during the pandemic.
Seven candidates are vying for three open 4-year seats on the Algonquin-based district's board April 6. They are incumbents David Scarpino and Emmanuel Thomas and challengers Christine Birkett, Daniel Dale, Holly Jarovsky, Kristina Paul and Kim Withycombe.
The district's more than 20,000 students have returned to school in staggered segments. Preschool and elementary students began in-person classes five days a week Monday. Select groups of middle and high school students are being allowed to attend in person daily, while others continue on a rotating in-person schedule.
"We weren't the outlier in not starting back in the fall," said Birkett, of West Dundee, who has an elementary school-age child. "As of right now, only 10% of schools in Illinois are even offering full-time, in-person learning, so I feel like we're right on pace with where other districts are right now, of similar size."
District 300 was in a better position to pivot to remote learning than most suburban districts because it had tested it out during snow days in 2019, she added.
"The district has done a great job of trying to give parents choice," Birkett said.
Scarpino, a retired school administrator from Hampshire, said school boards throughout the region are doing the best they can under the circumstances.
"Unfortunately, there wasn't a playbook for what to do when COVID-19 struck," he said. "And it's easy to be critical of the decision-makers when you're not in the role of a board member. However, when you are on the board you are directly responsible for the health, safety and welfare of our 20,000 students and over 3,000 employees."
Thomas, a postal service worker from Algonquin appointed to the board in November, said parents themselves have been divided between wanting their children to return to in-person learning and being afraid for their safety with rising COVID-19 community transmission rates early on.
Roughly 70% of families opted for in-person instruction for the second semester.
"It's not just your decision. You have to take everybody's safety into account," Thomas said. "District 300 has done a phenomenal job of getting the COVID-19 testing and vaccinating a lot of the teachers."
Withycombe, of Algonquin, and Jarovsky, of Lake in the Hills, were the only ones to give the district a C grade.
Withycombe, who has a daughter attending Jacobs High School, said the district didn't ensure its infrastructure could handle 20,000 students learning remotely and prepare teachers enough for online instruction. Parents whose children are struggling also could have used more support, she added.
"I'm hoping that moving forward we take our lessons learned ... and moving into this next quarter as well as fall semester, that we can make really well-educated decisions," Withycombe said.
Jarovsky, a Harper College instructor who has two children in the district, said the administration could have done a better job notifying parents about learning changes and giving them more opportunity to voice their concerns.
"(Some) parents were only notified two weeks in advance (about the switch to remote learning last fall). Many of us have child-care issues. It did not give parents much time to make preparations for their kids," said Jarovsky, adding that teachers also didn't have enough time to prepare for the online format over the summer.
Dale, of West Dundee, who has a son at Jacobs, said students learning remotely have been dealing with technological issues since the beginning. He supports offering more in-person learning for all students.
"Going back to school three days a week, for at least the high school, is the right move," he said. "We're moving in the right direction."
Paul, of East Dundee, who has a daughter at Dundee-Crown High School in Carpentersville, said judging the school board's decisions in hindsight is unfair. A special-education teacher in Elgin Area School District U-46, Paul said school board members had to make tough decisions in an unprecedented situation.
"The administration presented the board a well thought out plan, which many parents agreed with. Based on what I saw, I would have moved forward with the plan to bring the students back earlier," she said.