Richard Kerns: 2021 candidate for District 129 School Board
Four candidates are running for three seats on the West Aurora District 129 School Board in the April 6, 2021, election.
City: North Aurora
Occupation: Financial advisor
Civic Involvement: Co-Chairman of the West Aurora Volunteers for Education (WAVE) to help get the referendum passed, 2015; attended the SCAC (Superintendent Counsel Advisory Committee), 2013-2015; Kids Hope mentor, 2016-2018; A+ Foundation board since 2016
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 love this district and community where my children have been attending from the beginning. I am proud to serve them and help our district continue to improve and be the best it can be for our children.
Q: How would you grade the current school board on its response to the pandemic? Why?
A: The district leadership and staff have done an amazing job on a herculean task for which they had no precedent or advance warning. First, thankfully, our district had already been going through a technology pilot process for the past several years and at the start of the 2019 school year, we rolled out devices to every student. So, when everything closed in March, every student and teacher already had devices and were well-practiced in using them. Second, I watched our district completely shift gears and change from an environment and curriculum designed to be taught in person, to suddenly needing to connect with students virtually while determining the absolute essentials from each grade level's curriculum. It has been amazing to see this process unfold. Our administrators have had to completely redesign education, multiple times, and come alongside our teachers to give them tools so that they could be effective educators. We as a school board worked with our district staff and community to help make this the most positive and productive year that we possibly could. It wasn't perfect, for sure, but no one had ever experienced anything like this before. With each decision, we kept coming back to our district motto of "One District. One Goal. Students First," asking ourselves the question "Are our decisions moving us in the direction of this goal or taking us away from it?" Each decision took into account the impact on all stakeholders and led to new protocol to help support all those impacted. I believe our district has been out front in providing the best opportunities possible for our students, teachers and families and has successfully provided educational continuity during this pandemic.
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: The board of education is there to provide leadership to our district and community in putting students first. This has come with some very difficult decisions, but at the end of the day this is what drives our role. We provide a voice to all sides, and decisions at the state level have played a major role during this pandemic.
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: During the initial shut down last spring, it was such a shock to the system that the disruption to education was quite severe. This was compounded by the governor's mandate that nothing new be taught and the suggestion that a freeze be placed on student grades that did not allow them to go down, even if students were not doing any work. This really put public education in a holding pattern and many students checked out knowing that their grades would not drop. Over the summer, the board worked with administrators and teachers to come up with solutions and curriculum that would allow teachers to be much more effective in connecting with students and getting through the material in a virtual environment. We had wanted to start the year by offering both a hybrid and a virtual option, allowing families to choose which one was best for their situation. Right before the school year started, there was pressure from the state and neighboring districts to start 100% virtually. There were still many unknowns to reckon with regarding the safety of returning to buildings, as our district has over 13,000 students and staff. This caused us to take a step back and make the decision to start the school year virtually for the first quarter. What we have come to realize is that for a vast majority of our students, a full virtual environment does not work, as we saw that around 80% of our failing grades were due to students disengagement. Many of our special needs students, students with minimal home support and even some students who have previously done well in school but missed the intangibles that in-person education provides, did not fare well in full virtual and have fallen behind. Each week we learn what can be done better and attempt to make adjustments where we can to bring these students back to a place of learning and engagement. Our motto again of "Students First" is a major driving force of why we fully launched the hybrid model at the start of the second semester.
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: Yes, and we already are well on that path. We have allowed parents to choose between a fully virtual option or a hybrid one. The steps that the district has taken to make our buildings clean and safe are amazing. Our administrators and building teams have thought of everything to make in person learning as safe as possible for our staff and students; from the amount of times surfaces are cleaned, to supplying teachers with sanitizing stations and wipes in each classroom, to hand washing protocol, to the installation of bottle fillers that replace drinking fountains, to the installation of plastic barriers to protect office staff, to purchasing medical grade air filters for geothermal units and so much more. Dr. Craig is working very hard so that we can get as many of our staff vaccinated as soon as possible. In fact, about 1,300 staff members are in the process of being vaccinated this week. As we move further into phase 4, with hope that the governor will soon move us to phase 5, particularly as vaccinations become more widely available, we will be able to move ever closer to a more normal and safe educational environment to finish up the school year and begin next school year fully back to a normal schedule.
Q: What is your position on allowing high school sports to continue during the pandemic? Be specific.
A: I am so grateful that high school sports are happening again right now. Our student athletes have suffered so much from the canceling of all spring sports last year until now, with very few exceptions. It is so sad to hear about the mental health struggles, depression and even suicides across the nation happening to students because they run out of hope and see their opportunities cut short. If so many states around us and nationwide have safely and successfully allowed their students to participate in sports, without much incidence of outbreak, it heartens me that the governor has relented his restrictive stance and our kids can begin to resume athletics.