Pandemic casts shadow over Papillion La Vista School Board

As Sarpy County’s economic and population growth continues its biennial dominance as election year issues, COVID-19 casts a shadow over the Papillion La Vista Community Schools Board.

After two years of fear, isolation and mandates, the pandemic has wreaked havoc on the American education system. The result has been a change in the way schools operate.

The increased use of technology necessitated by the shutdown has paid off. But education professionals, as well as candidates for the Papillion La Vista School Board, remain concerned about a “learning gap” for students due to lost opportunities due to the pandemic.

A national report released in March by the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit public policy organization, said national survey results showed math and reading test scores had experienced a decline. “significant drop” from 2019 to 2021.

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“These numbers are alarming and potentially disheartening, especially given the heroic efforts of students to learn and educators to teach in incredibly difficult times,” according to the Brookings report. “Most of us have never been through a pandemic, and there is so much we don’t know about students’ resilience under these circumstances and what a recovery timeline will look like.”

Papillion La Vista School Board President Brian Lodes — along with board members Fred Tafoya and SuAnn Witt, all of whom are seeking re-election this fall — said the PLCS board and administration have worked closely together to mitigate damage and bring students up to date.

Lodes, a corporate controller seeking a second term, said the administration has already implemented changes to the program, as well as one-on-one staff response in coordination with a student’s caregivers. in difficulty and other resources. Protocols have been developed to create a consistent approach across all schools.

“As we are asked for certain resources – whether it is additional staff, new educational tools or new technologies – this is where we can step in and ensure that, if this is the best plan for To close that gap, we’re providing the adequate resources,” Lodes said. “And then, monitoring. If we don’t see the test results improving … I will challenge the administration to change course.

Witt said the federal government, through the U.S. Bailout Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Program, has provided financial assistance. Nebraska received $546 million in ESSER funds.

The pandemic has also exacerbated lingering concerns about mental health issues facing students and staff. Teacher shortages, illness and barriers to socializing with friends added to the “normal” stressors of academics, jobs, finances and family.

As with the learning gap, all candidates agree that school administrators and staff are good at dealing with emotional challenges.

Elizabeth Butler — the Omaha city clerk who previously held the same position in Papillion — has identified hiring additional mental health counselors and behavioral specialists as a priority if elected. She said current mental health providers are scattered, often overseeing multiple schools, and may not be available when they are needed most.

“Right now it falls on the teachers and takes away their lesson planning time,” Butler said. “I support the teachers a lot. They’ve been through a lot. I want to make sure they have the time they need to plan lessons and do the job they were hired to do.

The COVID-19 outbreak has also prompted renewed awareness and scrutiny of public education.

Newcomer Brittany Holtmeyer, who topped the incumbents in the May primary, said she never paid attention to the school board until recently.

A stay-at-home mom, Holtmeyer has been an outspoken critic of the district’s mask mandate, among other issues. She said she would not send her two children to PLCS schools until things changed.

“When I come to speak, I don’t come here to play politics,” Holtmeyer said. “I had this conversation where someone was like, ‘Why are you talking all the time?’ “I speak because council members don’t speak. Council members don’t have conversations for their constituents to hear. So I wonder.”

Transparency is also a concern of former school board member Patricia Conway-Boyd, who resigned in 2018 but is seeking another term.

“The spirit of the open meeting law is that we discuss business in public, so the public understands what’s going on,” Conway-Boyd said. “When we’re not having a lot of discussions in the boardroom and not engaging the public, are we really following the spirit of the law even though we may be following the letter of the law?”

Holtmeyer and Conway-Boyd are also concerned about issues that are national hot topics among conservative activists — like critical race theory, often used as a catch-all for any teaching in schools about race and American history.

Critical Race Theory is a 50-year-old field of graduate study that examines economic and legal racial bias, centered on the idea that racism is systemic in American institutions. The theory itself is not usually taught outside of institutions of higher learning, but CRT has been portrayed by some conservatives as a liberal indoctrination tool, including in grades K-12.

The school board tenured candidates insist that CRT is not taught at any level in any PLCS school, and might not even be.

Tafoya, a five-time elected board member and civic leader of Papillion for more than 40 years, said the issues weren’t about to “buy votes”. He also disagrees that there is a lack of engagement between council and the public.

“We have a dialogue with people who have a difference of opinion, and for the most part they don’t accept our reasoning,” Tafoya said. “They are sure they are right and they are entitled to their opinion. But we have to follow what we see as the way forward. We have to go with what is good for the district and our students.

The candidates agree on a lot of things. They consider the Papillion La Vista schools to be excellent educational institutions and their teachers to be the best in the area. They are excited about the growth of the school district, while considering good planning and fiscal responsibility.

All of the candidates also agree that politics should be kept out of the classroom and the boardroom, while allowing for healthy debate.

The bi-monthly district meetings have at times become so heated over the past year that Papillion police officers have been dispatched to attend the proceedings. A local man was arrested without incident for carrying a loaded concealed weapon to a PLCS meeting last November.

Witt, a term holder, who has worked for 49 years with Omaha Public Schools and the Nebraska Department of Education, said the district has emphasized physical safety, including installing new security cameras in all elementary schools. Next steps may include additional changes to building entrances

“We’re looking at different ways to improve security, including door alarms if doors are held open so we can be aware,” Witt said. “We don’t want our children to feel like they are in prison. We want them to feel safe, we want our staff to feel safe too. … It’s a difficult balance to find”

Voters can choose up to three of the candidates when they mark their ballot for the Nov. 8 general election.

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