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OVERLAND PARK, Kan. —In Johnson County, advance voting by mail for the general election starts Wednesday.

To help voters get a better idea where candidates stand on issues impacting residents in the metro, FOX4 sent out a questionnaire to candidates in more than 50 races in Johnson County. 

In November, Kaety Bowers will face off against Andrew Van Der Laan for a seat on the Blue Valley school board. 

Here’s a look at what the candidates had to say: 

Q: Do you feel the district’s COVID response has been adequate? If elected, what metric would you use in deciding district COVID precautions in the future?   

Bowers: The question of Blue Valley District COVID precautions are still heavy on the minds of administration, staff, parents and children. Attempting to educate oneself, there is still conflicting data all around as to the benefits vs risks.

Psychologically speaking, young children are at a disadvantage in the educational realm as they learn in a more environmental way, taking in the whole world around them rather than just laser focused instruction. They need interaction, to see faces, grasp expression, etc. There are also children with medical needs that are compounded by mask use which has been detrimental to their education. We have a severe mental health crisis compounded by social distancing. However, there is still the need, want and desire to keep our children safe no matter the source.

The ECDC does not recommend masking for primary students. So many countries are not requiring schools to mask, including the following: (a) England/Wales, (b) Ireland (face masks for older secondary students only when in hallways. No masking for those born 2006 and on), (c) Norway, (d) Sweden (masking not recommended in schools), (e) Denmark, (f) Finland (masks not recommended for younger primary students), (g) Holland (masks only required for secondary students and teachers when they are moving around their schools), (h) Switzerland, (i) Austria (masks required for first 14 days of schools until seated; then reassessment occurs). I believe we should safely be able to follow their example.

Editor’s Note: The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control(ECDC) does not recommend masking children under the age of 12. To prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends indoor masking for all students older than two years old.

Furthermore; vaccinations have been readily available for ages 12 and up. Pfizer submitted their initial data to the US FDA from the trial of their Covid-19 vaccine in children 5 to <12 years of age. The company plans to submit a formal request of emergency-use authorization for that age range in the coming weeks. I anticipate that it will be approved soon thereafter and we will see a surge in vaccinated children in that age group.

After election, I would promote the use of the current cumulative dashboard being sent daily by the JoCo Manager’s office to the JoCo BOCC for ages 0-80+ for deciding district COVID precautions. This chart has cumulative totals of hospitalizations since 6/21/21 with data as far back as March of 2020. This chart is relevant, because it tracks residents sent to other states such as Children’s Mercy Hospital in Missouri. Attached is a current chart provided to me by a BOCC member.

Van Der Laan: I think the district has done a good job this year with COVID response, and it’s definitely been an improvement from the 2020-21 school year that left everyone frustrated.

It’s great to see kids back in school full time, engaged with classes and teachers, playing sports, and participating in other extracurricular activities like band and debate. I hope we continue with the mitigation strategies that make consistent in person school possible, including vaccination where possible, masking, social distancing, seating in pods, and deep cleaning every evening.

If elected, I would listen to public health experts to determine the right time to relax those mitigation strategies, and I would expect to track metrics like state and local policy mandates, COVID case counts, quarantines, and hospitalizations in the school district and in Johnson County, number of available hospital beds, and upward or downward trends for any of those metrics.

Q: How can the district address learning loss students may have experienced during the pandemic? What initiatives would you support to prevent students from falling behind? 

Bowers: I think a great place to start would be to ask the parents of our district where they see their child struggling the most. Incidentally, I know teachers work very hard to provide this information as they have great insight into their everyday educational struggles. A detailed and customized age level survey through our parent emails should be able to give us a bigger picture of what we’re facing. Our district excels at collecting data, but what we do with it determines how far we have to go, how hard we have to push and where to focus our efforts.  

Blue Valley School Board Candidate Andrew Van Der Laan 

One of the first things that I support to prevent students from falling behind that that we must cease is the endless lengthy quarantines our healthy children are facing. This is exponentially adding to learning loss and increasing absenteeism in the classroom. Forcing entire families into stacking quarantines (ie; one sibling’s quarantine begins when the other sibling tests negative could potentially lead to upwards of 14+ days off of school). This affects more than learning loss; income loss abounds in parents with these restrictions, as well as resource losses within our free and reduced lunch programs. We also need to facilitate programs that allow for continual education for children who are required to stay home. 

Van Der Laan: The district is currently wrapping up assessments to understand just how severe the pandemic learning loss has been. This is the right approach, we need to understand which students have fallen behind and in which areas so that we can target our efforts to get students who need help back up to speed.

I fully support the additional funding that’s been allocated for classroom teachers, substitute teachers, summer school, tutoring, and the new phonics curriculum; all of those will be essential parts of the instructional catch up plan. And as our superintendent Dr. Merrigan recently pointed out, even though there were lots of unknowns during the pandemic, the district is really good at teaching kids – it’s great news that we are back in familiar territory.

Q: What plans do you have to help the district attract and maintain qualified staff? What changes, if any, would you like to see in the district budget? 

Bowers: We need to be realistic and compare our pay scales with the surrounding districts. In an ‘apples- to-apples’ situation there are different scales that each district uses which can seem like it’s not relevant. Yet overall, we are paying less in Blue Valley. Our cost of living in Johnson County is quite high and their salaries should reflect that. If we want the best and expect the best, we need to treat and compensate them as such.

Blue Valley School Board Candidate Kaety Bowers

Besides pay, we need to start prioritizing their mental health and listening to their concerns in a constructive manner. Are we asking teachers regularly what they need and finding ways to get it? The answer is, not really. I’ve been a mom in this district for 12 years.

For instance, it’s the same story every year for extra supplies. There is an expectation for our teachers to purchase their own supplies for the classroom. As of right now, Blue Valley and other surrounding districts have great success depending on Facebook groups and parents to purchase Amazon wish lists or other supplies so that teachers do not have to keep dipping into their own pockets for supplies that our children need. I definitely do not mind chipping in, but I do not like that our teachers have to ask for help.

We need to adopt and adhere to certain standards for addressing this very topic and make decisions through these lenses such as: Making Things Easy, Accountability, Providing Security, Promoting Advocacy. We can and should do better. 

Similarly, looking into the budget requires a set of standards that we can use to objectively look at the entire budget and ask ourselves, is this meeting our standard. We can then also look for areas of need, look for areas that are underutilized and allocate resources accordingly. We need to not only be proactive in this process, but actively pursuing appropriate use of the funds available. If we do not critically evaluate every aspect of the budget and use metrics to determine the success of our efforts, how can we know if we are succeeding? The budget is a hotly debated topic and one that will take an immense amount of work to tighten up but it is definitely worth rolling up our sleeves and getting dirty to work through.

Van Der Laan: The district has several levers to pull when it comes to attracting and retaining qualified staff, including compensation, daily schedule, professional development, and classroom support. BVSD recently reviewed the teacher compensation package and made it more competitive with neighboring school districts, which was definitely overdue. I support the district retaining a daily planning period for teachers, I think that’s an important time for teachers to prepare for class. We have to make sure that professional development is robust, engaging, and relevant to today’s classrooms. And finally, investing in counselors and paraprofessionals helps relieve teachers of non-instructional duties and lets them focus on what they do best, teaching our kids.

As a parent, I appreciate that over 60% of the district expenditures are spent directly on students (via instruction, student support, instructional support, transportation, and food services). Upkeep of our infrastructure (including operations and maintenance, capital improvements, and debt service) accounts for another 30%, while administration is only about 8% of total spend. Those percentages feel right to me, I appreciate that we’re spending twice as much on students as we are on buildings. And overall, I believe the district is efficiently delivering a great education.