Shawnee Mission school board candidates talk COVID response and more before election

Education

OVERLAND PARK, Kan. — With the general election less than a month away, FOX4 is working 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, April Boyd-Noronha will face off against Sean Claycamp for a seat on the Shawnee Mission school board. 

Here’s a look at what Boyd-Noronha and Claycamp 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? 

Boyd-Noronha: The last year has been very tough, especially for students and families, as school districts scrambled to assess the latest health recommendations for Covid-19. Now with the availability of the Covid-19 vaccine, more substantive research about the effectiveness of masks use to decrease transmission of the virus, and the heightened health risks Covid-19/Delta variant has on children, school districts are in a much better position than last year to make decisions that ensure fewer disruptions to student learning. 

Shawnee Mission School District, along with the majority of school districts across the region, has implemented mask mandates to keep students and staff safely in schools. Our district has also provided convenient opportunities for our families to get vaccinated. I support both of these measures because they align with recommendations from leading health experts and public health agencies.

The primary focus of district leadership during these unprecedented times should be keeping students safely in school to avoid further learning loss, and promoting healthy communities.

Claycamp: The initial Covid-19 response in the Spring of 2020 was frustrating for many parents, but it was completely understandable. No one could have predicted or been ready for the early days of this pandemic. As the months have passed though, SMSD is missing the mark. It was very short-sighted not to have an online option for students in all grades for the 2021-22 school year. 

Despite claims, the Kansas Legislature did not create a per pupil funding roadblock to prevent the district from offering an online learning option. Instead, it encouraged all Kansas School districts to go back to in-person school but kept a waiver process in place for districts should a student miss due to illness, injury, etc. More than 26,000 students attend SMSD schools. There are thousands of students in each grade. And yet, if a student is sent home due to quarantine right now the student might sit at home without schooling for as many as 10 days.

SMSD should have considered this possibility and created online classrooms for each grade to keep students from missing out on access to the school day. The roadmap for these online classrooms was already there. SMSD offered online options in every grade last year and I’m sure some educators proved themselves to be very proficient in leading an online classroom. 

Shawnee Mission School Board Candidate Sean Claycamp

Specific to metrics, we spend a lot of time being concerned about positive cases, but testing continues to prove to be untrustworthy. I have heard countless stories of students being positive and then negative, negative and then positive. SMSD should look closely at the quarantine policy and consider expanding Testing to Learn options that fast-track students out of the quarantine process and get them back in the classroom. 

We have no idea how much longer Covid is going to be with us. It might end up being seasonal. There needs to come a point when we find a more trustworthy mechanism for confirming a student is actually a risk for infection. Additional and important metrics to consider are the overall vaccinated status of Johnson County. 

Among at-risk populations, Johnson County is doing quite well compared to surrounding counties. Also, the estimate is more than 80% of our educators and staff are vaccinated and anecdotally virtually every classroom teacher is vaccinated. Again, we are doing quite well and the vaccination has proven to be effective for adults. 

Children are at very little risk of complications from this virus so I’m not sure case counts are the right metric to be using. Bottom line, we need to teach students to live healthier lives, be outside, be among friends, and participate in activities because it is good for them. I continue to hear students will persevere and this is not affecting them. I hope this is true. Still, they continue to pay a heavy price for a virus that the data suggests is not truly a concern for them.

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? 

Boyd-Noronha: Research studies have shown that learning loss is more acute in the early grades and among already struggling students. This represents one clear area to target recovery efforts. 

Shawnee Mission School Board Candidate April Boyd-Noronha

I believe small-group, individualized support from a consistent adult is critical to combatting learning loss. It is important that all strategies account for the broader needs of students and staff. This includes mental health needs, social and emotional systems of support, and the growing inequities among vulnerable groups.

I believe our students will thrive in a district that prioritizes district-wide initiatives that prioritize relationship-building and genuine engagement with families and the local community. Our teachers are the heart of our district. Student recovery from learning loss is inexplicably linked to our district’s ability to provide focused interventions to address teacher mental health and stress. When our teachers are at their best, our children will be also. 

Claycamp: The biggest thing I’d like to see the district do, not just to make up for potential learning loss, but also as a practice moving forward, is to focus more on learning and less on test taking. 

Standardized tests are never going away and they do provide a measuring stick but there is broad agreement by many people I speak to that there is too much emphasis placed on these test scores. Teaching to the test does not facilitate learning, but instead turns our students into fact machines able to spit out data points but does it really enhance critical thinking and problem solving skills? Do these tests prepare students to graduate and enter college or a career?

SMSD is never going to get away from standardized testing altogether but is there a way to place the emphasis back on learning. My guess is, if we were to focus on learning not only would kids be excited about school and organically make up for learning loss, but they’d do better on the standardized tests too. They’d be learning instead of just taking tests. 

SMSD also needs to focus on getting our schools back to full employment as quickly as possible in terms of Education Support Professionals. ESPs are important to the school day and allow the teacher to focus on leading his or her classroom. As of Sept. 27, there are 250 open classified positions in the district. A school will run better and more efficiently when it is fully staffed. And a more efficiently run school will naturally impact student achievement. 

Q: What plans do you have to help the district attract and maintain qualified staff? 

Boyd-Noronha: If our district intends to continue attracting quality staff wages, recruitment, safety in a Covid world, and the broader social-emotional concerns of employees must all be addressed. 

Wages must keep pace with inflation. So many educators are leaving the profession or choosing not to enter because of stagnant wages. Paying professionals what they are worth is critical to maintaining our district’s legacy of academic excellence.

 “Grow Our Own” programs are one way to ensure a pipeline of qualified staff, but more is needed. Our district must broaden the recruitment relationships from primarily colleges and universities to corporate America, while not ignoring first-generation entrepreneurs and the nonprofit sector. 

Lastly, in years past, wages were the primary concern for most job seekers, and while it still is for some, a growing number of professionals desire to work for organizations mindful of the issues that impact their performance in the workplace. The global pandemic has highlighted the disparity between what employers perceived the workplace was like and what workers actually experienced. Remote working gave employees the confidence to address toxic work environments. Our district should provide programs and champion initiatives that address staff mental health and create working environments sensitive to these concerns.

Claycamp: SMSD is one of the most diverse school districts in the state and the position I am running for in Shawnee Mission West is the most diverse area of the five high schools. If you walk into schools in the SMW area you will see a great mix of all backgrounds and ethnicities which is one of the reasons we love this part of Johnson County. 

SMSD should continue to do all it can to attract teachers from the standard recruiting grounds that it focuses on within the State of Kansas and in some of our neighboring states. What we should also begin to do is go outside our standard recruiting grounds and look harder for teachers that look like the students they are teaching. There is a tremendous amount of focus on diversity and creating an environment where students feel like they belong. To me, the best way to accomplish this is to put a concentrated effort on teaching programs in parts of the country that produce excellent Black and Brown teachers. That is a diversity initiative I can really get behind and it sends a statement to those kids that they belong. 

SMSD also needs to mentor our young educators – especially Black and Brown educators – to provide professional development opportunities. SMSD needs a steady pipeline of young professionals coming into this district to fill critical needs. The SMSD footprint is a great place to live. The cost of living is low compared to other parts of the country and SMSD has great facilities including new schools being built right now. SMSD should be selling itself in its traditional recruiting grounds but not afraid to go outside our standard areas to find teachers of all backgrounds to teach within our diverse classrooms.

Q: What changes, if any, would you like to see in the district budget?

Boyd-Noronha: School districts were provided federal funding (ESSER) because of the global pandemic. These funds allowed districts to fund areas that directly impact student learning, such as hiring additional teachers, counselors, social workers, and support staff. This funding is scheduled to expire next year. These areas pose budgetary concerns going forward, and these are the areas I would seek to address during my board service. Learning loss is a long-term concern that will not be remedied in one school year. The district budget must reflect our commitment to ensuring every child succeeds, and prioritizing key staff positions is fundamental to achieving this goal. 

Claycamp: SMSD should do everything it can to push funding dollars into classrooms and student-facing positions to positively impact student achievement. According to District #512 data, teachers in SMSD are paid slightly better than the other two large districts in Johnson County (Blue Valley and Olathe). I think that is great. 

SMSD families deserve to have excellent educators teaching their children and I want to continue to compensate teachers in a way that keeps our best teachers excited about being a part of this district. What I think would be beneficial is finding a way to pay classified staff, paras, teacher’s aids, curriculum coordinators and other critical positions in a way that attracts more enthusiastic and committed people to those positions. 

Education Support Professionals are a key piece of the education puzzle and teachers need them for support in the classroom, lunchroom playgrounds, etc. Asking where this money would come from is a fair question. I would advocate for an audit of our non-student-facing administrative staff to see if there are any positions that we could identify for reduction through attrition. Other large districts routinely conduct staffing and administrative audits and SMSD should consider one as well because every dollar matters. 

Also, in conversations I have had with staff within SMSD, it has been suggested to me that SMSD has “plenty of curriculum options.” Potentially, additional funding could be found by adjusting dollars going into curriculum expenditures. The bottom line for me is SMSD must get our classrooms and schools fully staffed with teachers and the support professionals needed to effectively conduct the school day. And we must do this while being good stewards of taxpayer dollars. This will make the greatest impact on student achievement and maintain good will with property owners and taxpayers within the SMSD footprint.

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