Following two years of fear, isolation and mandates resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, voters’ choices for the Bellevue Public Schools Board of Education will shape how the board guides the district into an uncertain future.
The period of lockdown, followed by a return to schools that included physical distancing and mask use – along with the controversy surrounding those measures – prompted a reevaluation of public education. Some teachers chose to leave the profession, while others have adjusted to the changes.
One immediate cause for concern for education professionals, along with Bellevue school board candidates, are worries about a “learning gap” for students because of opportunities lost due to the pandemic.
A national report in March by the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization based in Washington, D.C., said national survey results showed math and reading test scores have seen a “sizable drop” from 2019 to 2021.
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“These numbers are alarming and potentially demoralizing, especially given the heroic efforts of students to learn and educators to teach in incredibly trying times,” according to the Brookings report. “Most of us have never lived through a pandemic, and there is so much we don’t know about students’ capacity for resiliency in these circumstances and what a timeline for recovery will look like.”
All the candidates interviewed said the Bellevue Public Schools administration has worked hard to mitigate the damage and get students back up to speed. Any additional measures would be defined by staff and brought to the board for consideration.
The pandemic also exacerbated ongoing concerns of mental health challenges facing both students and staff. Teacher shortages, sickness, and roadblocks to socializing with friends have added to “normal” stressors of academics, jobs, finances and family.
“The stressors from outside of school are infiltrating kids’ daily lives so much that it has an effect on their success at school,” said first-time school board candidate Christine Clerc.
“Making sure that we are identifying students and families who have been negatively impacted by the pandemic, especially economically and things along those lines, (and) making sure we have all those support systems in place that the school can offer would be a definite focus for me,” Clerc said.
Clerc, a stay-at-home parent and certified physician assistant, also said teacher support for disciplinary problems may need to be examined. The Brookings report cited higher rates of violence and misbehavior across the nation, although Clerc said she is not overly alarmed.
The COVID-19 outbreak also elicited a renewed awareness and scrutiny of public education.
Issues that are national hot-button topics among conservative activists — such as critical race theory, often used as a catch-all for any teaching in schools about race and American history — contributed to rising tensions.
Critical race theory is a 50-year-old field of post-graduate study that examining economic and legal racial bias, centered on the idea that racism is systemic in U.S. institutions. The theory itself is not typically taught outside higher educational institutions, but CRT has been represented by some conservatives as a tool of liberal indoctrination, including in K-12 classrooms.
All but one BPS board candidate, former Bellevue City Council member Jim Moudry, rejected the notion that CRT would be taught at any level in BPS schools.
Moudry, who could not be reached for an interview by the Bellevue Leader despite several attempts, wrote in a candidate questionnaire submitted to the newspaper that he would “stand against the ongoing anti-American and anti-Christian bias infiltrating our school systems.”
“Our children are being indoctrinated with principles that are destructive to them and to our nation,” Moudry wrote. “We must push back against radical indoctrination that seeks to revise or erase our nation’s history and undermine our Judeo-Christian principles — all under the guise of education.”
Such sentiment — coming from a small but vocal constituency — is troubling to current incumbent candidates Maureen McNamara, Phil Davidson and Nina Wolford.
McNamara is the vice president of the school board and retired from BPS after serving as a teacher, a principal and an administrator over her 35-year career. She said that district residents should “come to a school board meeting, reach out and ask before you share things that you hear (are happening) across the country and assume are happening everywhere.”
“It takes a lot of effort to keep focused,” McNamara said. “We have to all be onboard with moving forward in our mission. We can do the best based on the best data that we get. Sometimes, we are dealing with social media and issues that are beyond our control, or people are commenting on the information they are receiving, and it’s not accurate.”
However, the race’s three challengers — Clerc, Moudry and Mary Moore Salem — complain that answers are hard to come by from current board members. Moore Salem, a retired schoolteacher, said that “the polarization that I had read about in school districts around the country was present in Nebraska.”
“I would like to see parents, teachers, community members have more communication with each other, and from the board, more transparency,” Moore Salem said. “Right now, there are parents that are upset about Bellevue education, and they have an opportunity to talk at school board meetings, but there is no real discussion that takes place.”
Davidson — who works as the community relations coordinator for the City of Bellevue and also serves on the Papio-Missouir River Natural Resource District Board of Directors — said that the transparency accusation is without merit and a common political ploy.
Davidson said any information, except those violating privacy rules, can be obtained by contacting district administrators, using the “Let’s Talk” app on a smartphone or online, or by reading the district website.
Although he is running for his first full term, Davidson has been appointed to the school board on three separate occasions to fill a vacancy. He said it is his intent to keep the district at the top level.
“I laugh at people that say, ‘We can cut, we can cut, we can cut.’ We can cut all we want to, but we have to stay competitive with what other districts are doing,” Davidson said. “We have to pay our teachers what our teachers are worth. We have to have the programs, the science classes, the technology the other people have. We can’t fall behind here in Bellevue.”
Wolford, a board stalwart who has served four terms, said student success depends on retaining current staff and attracting new professionals to the district. A retired teacher, she said is a vocal proponent of educational autonomy.
“I realized how important it was for a teacher to feel free to go down a particular learning path with their students,” Wolford said. “How important for the teachers to know they have a principal that supports them, and for a principal to have the superintendent support them, and a board to support them all.”
Voters may choose up to three of the candidates when they mark their ballots for the Nov. 8 general election.