Highlights and challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic for school board members - AZEdNews
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Highlights and challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic for school board members

Students On Campus At A School In Creighton School District. Photo By Brooke Martinez/ AZEdNews

Arizona school board members like many around the nation faced their fair share of challenges this year dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, but they also shared highlights that make serving students in their communities so worthwhile.

School board members are unpaid, elected officials who serve their communities by approving school district budgets, shaping school policies, evaluating their superintendents, and determining whether to seek bonds or overrides to help pay for personnel, services, building repairs, transportation, and technology essential to creating a safe environment for students’ learning. This year, they also made difficult decisions on when to resume in-person instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic, whether students and staff should wear masks on campus, COVID-19 mitigation strategies, and equity issues.

“One of the challenges we have had this year, of course, has been the pandemic, working with a very difficult situation,” said Robert Rojas, school board member and clerk for Nogales Unified School District’s Governing Board.

Nogales Unified serves about 5,400 students in 11 schools in Santa Cruz County.

“One of the things that I think helped in confronting this situation is working with a board that was united, that was knowledgeable and could work for our district, for our students and for our community,” Rojas said.

Nogales Unified’s Superintendent Fernando Parra “was a true leader. He knew what our needs were for our community, and he got the job done,” Rojas said.

AZEdNews video: Nogales Unified’s Robert Rojas shares a highlight and challenge from this year

Videos by Lisa Irish/AZEdNews and edited by Meredith Bushman/AZEdNews

Some school boards faced backlash for their decisions. In April, many people who “don’t have kids in the school district, don’t live in the school district, don’t live in the county,” came to a meeting “with the express purpose of whipping up” parents who had come to speak to the board about the district’s mask policy, said Supt. John Carruth of Vail School District to AZEdNews. The incident disrupted a study session, 911 was called, Sheriff’s deputies cleared protestors from the building and the board meeting was cancelled. Since then, school boards around the state have experienced similar protests and put plans in place to address potential safety concerns.

In June, Arizona Rep. Raquel Teran said, “A group of far-right extremists are targeting school board members using fear and disinformation to disrupt school board meetings and push hateful rhetoric. Some are going so far as to target and harass elected officials – especially women of color – in the name of their manufactured cause.”

“We are not all going to agree on issues during this very trying time. The last 15 to 16 months have been difficult for all of us – our students, our families, our staff,” said Ann O’Brien, Deer Valley Unified School District governing board member and president of the Arizona School Boards Association board of directors. “We need to extend grace to each other. It’s important for us to be respectful and share our thoughts and opinions with each other, but sometimes it’s going to be important to agree to disagree.”

But the disagreements show that what school board members “do is important. The decisions you make as an elected official have ramifications,” said Chip Slaven, interim executive director of National School Boards Association in an article by The Associated Press.

Rudie L. John, vice president of the Tiisyaakin Residential Hall Inc. board of directors in Holbrook, Ariz., said COVID-19 was a challenge for their organization, and the safety of students and staff was their foremost concern.

Tiisyaakin Residential Hall isa nonprofit educational organization funded through the Bureau of Indian Education and governed by the Navajo Nation that provides residential services for students from the Navajo Nation and surrounding areas who attend Holbrook High School.

Normally, students attend classes during the week, then the residence hall buses students home on Friday afternoons to be with their families and brings them back to the residence hall on Sunday afternoons. But this school year, students are required to be vaccinated for COVID-19 and spend the beginning of the first semester on campus 7 days a week with no check-outs or visitors due to COVID-19 mitigation strategies.

“We had to put our plans together for returning students and staff,” John said. “We all did that within a short time frame, and we were able to get our students back into the school last year. This year, we’re back in the yellow phase and we’re back in session. They’re doing great.”

“One of the highlights is that we’re one of the schools on the Navajo Reservation that is the only one that was open last year and again this year, and we had a complete plan approved by the Navajo Nation Board of Education,” John said.

Roosevelt Elementary School District Governing Board Member Nancy Piña-Gray said, “One of the challenges, of course, I think for everybody this last year has been the pandemic, but I think for us, one the highlights are the ways in which we reacted.”

AZEdNews video: Roosevelt Elementary’s Nancy Piña-Gray on this year

“Our students already had iPads, so all of our students had 1-1 (technology) at the time that the pandemic started and when schools were asked to close down,” Piña-Gray said. “We put in the MERS-13 air filters. We have HEPA filters for each of our classrooms that are in common areas.”

In addition, schools have soap handwashing stations and water bottle fillers throughout the schools, Piña-Gray said.

“We implemented a COVID leave plan for our staff last year, and we just re-introduced that again this year retroactively to July 1st,” Piña-Gray said.

Congress Elementary School District Governing Board President Diane Jones said one of her biggest challenges this year was that she’d just joined the school board and was made president soon after.

Jones said she is “always trying to be on top and be there for the kids.”

“One of the best things that we’ve had so far is that we have a new Pre-K in our school,” Jones said. “They are so precious and I’m so glad I had a part in helping in that.”

AZEdNews video: Congress Elementary’s Diane Jones on a highlight and challenge this year

Maxine Hill, a member of the Agua Fria Union High School District Governing Board for 11 years, said it was both a challenge and a delight to choose a new superintendent when their former superintendent retired.

Two new members had joined the board and had little opportunity to go to board member training before beginning the process of hiring a new superintendent, Hill said

“It’s exciting because we all worked together with an opportunity to bond as new board members and old board members together,” Hill said. “We hired our new superintendent and we’re looking forward to some exciting leadership from our superintendent.”

AZEdNews video: Maxine Hill on a challenge and delight this year

For Julie Smock, who served on the Peoria Unified School District Governing Board for three terms, the biggest challenge was growth in student enrollment.

“From the time I started to the time what I went off the board, we grew from 15,000 to 32,000 students, and during that time we built 15 schools, and that of course involves everything from construction issues to changing attendance boundaries, which is never fun,” said Smock, who is a past president of Arizona School Boards Association’s board of directors.

“The highlight of my school board service was being able to give both my kids their diplomas when they graduated from high school,” Smock said.

AZEdNews video: Former Peoria Unified board member Julie Smock shares a highlight and a challenge