School Board Leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic: Lara Bors, Garden City USD 457Scott Rothschild
No one ran for school board thinking they would be helping govern their district through our nation’s worst health crisis in more than a century. Debates over wearing masks, playing football, or even whether and how to open schools have kept school board meetings going late into many nights and filled the email boxes of school board members. During this time, we think it is important for board members to share their experiences with each other and the public so that we all may learn how to face this challenge before us.
Lara Bors, is president of the Garden City USD 457 school board and KASB Region 10 Vice President.
When did you realize that the COVID-19 pandemic was going to be a huge issue affecting schools and what were your immediate thoughts and responses?
I think it began to really sink in while I was on Spring Break with my kids in Colorado and seeing that state begin to shut down and their stay at home orders begin to take effect. The community I was in is very reliant upon tourist income and they were no longer allowing in-person dining in their restaurants. I knew Kansas would soon begin to have some issues of their own.
Because I was coming from Colorado, even though I was not in a mandated quarantine county, I self-quarantined for two weeks. That left me at home for a week with kids who were attempting the continuous learning. Our internet is a satellite type internet – it’s not AT&T, Cox or fiber. I was not able to work from home until the evening because the kids in our little neighborhood were trying to connect along with other adults trying to work at home. I knew then we were going to be in even bigger trouble if we were going to be dealing with this on a longer-term basis and expecting the kids to do much learning.
From a school board member’s perspective, what are the most important actions you and the board have taken during the pandemic?
Honestly – nothing. I know that sounds odd. I am a lawyer by trade. I tell potential clients that they can do it themselves, but they will spend more money hiring me to fix their mistakes than hiring me in the first place. I know when to rely on experts –this is ABSOLUTELY one of those times.
Our superintendent, Dr. Steve Karlin (one of the experts I rely upon), put together an incredible group of people called the Select Committee which was a group of 20 individuals who led the charge of creating our re-opening plan. We had two ex-officio school board members on that committee that met at least twice a week for several weeks during the summer. There were several other sub-committees that reported back to them. It was those committees that created our re-opening plan – over 200 stakeholders. Parents, teachers, staff, bus drivers, administrators, nurses, the Director of the Finney County Health Department (a nurse), the Medical Director of the Finney County Health Department (an MD, MPH who is board certified in internal medicine and pediatrics), coaches … you name it, they were on a committee somewhere from all grade levels and walks of life.
We listened for two and a half hours as they presented the plan and then questioned them for two hours on the plan. We voted on it a few days later.
We continue to listen. They tweak. We vote. We continue to listen.
We do our best not to micromanage and to stay out of their way. Each week Dr. Karlin listens to the information provided by the Finney County Health Department (there are some of those experts we rely upon) and he makes the best decisions he can for our students and staff. I appreciate that he calls me and lets me know what he’s thinking – sometimes I get to pretend to have some input, but I know he’s really in charge. But every Friday, he let’s us know what the base level for the district is for the upcoming week based upon the policy that we voted on based upon the over 200 stakeholders’ opinions. We haven’t “done” much – our community, our teachers and our staff have “done” the work. And, I am eternally grateful for all that they have done to give us over 10 weeks of in-person learning for our kiddos so far.
What has been the most difficult problem to deal with during the pandemic? What kind of interactions or communications have you had with the public; any memorable moments?
There are two issues that seem to be the most difficult – masks and internet. Masks because the polarizing effect they have on the community. Kids, for the most part, seem to be handling the mask issue fairly well. The adults have made it a very political issue which is unfortunate and the shaming on both sides is frustrating.
Internet/Broadband though needs to be a top priority, and I appreciate Gov. Laura Kelly’s attention to this issue. This is not even a rural versus urban issue – it is an issue that needs to be addressed throughout the state. Our kids need it more than ever. With our schools remote, connectivity is vital to their education. It is no longer a luxury item for those who can afford it – it is a utility as vital to the household as running water and electricity.
I can’t think of any memorable moments that I can put out publicly.
Have you had to diffuse any situations, and if so, how did you accomplish that? What has this past year taught you when it comes to your school district and community?
Grace and communication – we say it a lot, but we ask a lot of our community, and they have come through. Now, we’re hoping that they mask up, wash their hands and watch their distance so we can keep our schools open.
What are your concerns or hopes or both for the future of public education in your district and in Kansas?
The pandemic has been able to allow us to put a focus on what is important – our students. I believe this is an excellent time to take the charge of Kansas Education Commissioner Dr. Randy Watson for Kansans Can and focus on individual learning plans – with remote learning this is the perfect time to really work towards that and project based learning.
What is the top goal you have this year for your local board?
Focus on students. At our meetings for our re-opening plan, we had a student desk faced towards the Board, essentially staring us down, making sure that our focus was on them.
Do you have any advice for your fellow board members across Kansas?
This too shall pass. I have a photo in my office of me as a little girl – around the age of 4, sitting between my two grandfathers who were both lawyers. My sister captioned it – Do they know what they were cultivating? My office manager said to me, think of what they had to practice (law) through. And, it’s true – the Great Depression, World War II, Korea, Police Riots and the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam, gas shortages, the Cold War – they both lived through the Spanish Flu (which ironically actually began in KASB Region 10, not Spain). We are definitely going through some turbulent times right now.
It feels like all they went through has been crammed into one year for us — pandemic, civil unrest, an unconventional presidential election — but our schools have made it through and we will too. We must keep our eyes on the prize – our students and their ultimate success. Keep the noise down around them, ease the stress for our teachers so they can stay focused and, in the end, everything will be okay.