The five candidates for Livermore school board debated key issues during an in-person forum last week -- a rare occurrence in the Tri-Valley where most campaigning events and candidate forums this fall have been virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Held in the Livermore Valley Joint Unified School District boardroom on Sept. 29, the event was organized by the Parent Club Information Council (PCIC) and open to the public, with guests required to wear a face covering and comply with social distancing of six feet apart, according to a press release beforehand.
PCIC chair Dave Vonheeder said there were about a dozen people in the boardroom to watch the debate live and in person, not including the five candidates and three PCIC members who were present. The forum was video-recorded for public viewing afterward as well.
Two at-large seats are up for election on the five-member Board of Education, one of which is currently held by incumbent Charles "Chuck" Rogge. His challengers are former Tri-Valley teacher and parent volunteer Yanira Guzmán, human resources specialist Kandiss Hewing, information technology business analyst Asa Strout and public policy advocate Kristie Wang.
At least one board seat is certain to change hands in the general election as incumbent Chris Wenzel chose not to seek re-election on Nov. 3.
Early in the forum, each candidate was asked their top three objectives if elected to the board.
Rogge, who answered first, said that his first and second top objectives are helping guide the district through COVID-19 and resuming in-person learning.
"Getting the kids back into the schools has been the biggest issue since March, and I think we all know why," the three-term incumbent said. "How we're going to do it is the big question. There are many things kicking around, but we are at the mercy of the health department and several regulations. But if it was up to me, I'd bring all the kids back tomorrow."
Hewing, Strout and Guzmán all echoed one another in citing safety as their No. 1 objective.
"I think anyone running for elected office this year, if safety is not their No. 1 issue right now, they shouldn't be running," Strout said.
While safety as it relates to COVID-19 was at the forefront of the discussion, other issues like bullying and sexual harassment were also addressed.
"We can't teach our kids in an environment that's not safe," Hewing said. "We're currently doing the best we can with distance learning and staying home with our kids and things like that, but as far as safety, that's not the only safety issue we have. It's keeping them safe from online things now that they're spending so much time online, keeping them safe from bullying and feeling like they have a safe space to go to while we're kind of in this lockdown still."
Looking ahead to when campuses are back open, Strout acknowledged concerns about keeping students safe on school grounds. "Within Livermore, there are examples of racism and sexual harassment and abuse on campus, and we need to address those safety concerns because any time our students have anxiety or feel unsafe going to campus, they're not going to perform as well," he said.
Guzmán and Wang both addressed budgeting in their top objectives. Guzmán said that she wants to draw upon her professional experience to find ways to leverage partnerships to build and fund programs when the district is "strapped for cash."
"We have a lot of wealth and knowledge within Livermore, so how do we leverage that so that we can better the entire ecosystem that our students and families are a part of?" Guzmán said.
Wang, who has been a leader in the local anti-vaping movement in the city over the past two years, said that she would focus on "preparing for the budget shortfalls" resulting from the pandemic.
"That's where my policy experience and my relationships with people in Sacramento would be very helpful and my knowledge of the process," she said. "Also, having spent my career in nonprofits, I know about corporate partnerships and grants and creative ways to get money."
All five candidates cited COVID-19 as the biggest challenge facing public education in California with navigating distance learning, developing a reopening plan, budget impacts and the education gap that is widening between students who are thriving in distance learning and those who are struggling.
"I would say there's some amount of learning gap for everyone," Wang said. "It's impossible to get in the amount of teaching you would do in person for six or seven hours a day, and now to do it for just a few hours, teachers aren't able to get all of that teaching in. So, how are we going to make that up? And then you have kids coming back with social-emotional issues and their parents and teachers have social-emotional issues. These are big challenges."
Inequity was also mentioned as a pre-existing issue that has been exacerbated by COVID-19.
Hewing said that the way to tackle equity is "by elevating our students who are struggling" and "bringing in extra communication strategies with our parents." She added that tutoring via Zoom is an option she's interested in exploring further to help students who are falling behind.
On the same topic of inequity, Strout provided the example of students who live in the rural parts of Livermore that don't have access to internet service in their homes and can't use the cellular hotspots provided by the district. Guzmán mentioned the students whose parents have to work outside the home and can't be present to ensure their children are logging in to class every day or help them navigate technical issues they may face.
"I'm really concerned about the long-term effects of COVID-19 and long-distance learning because this gap is widening between those that can navigate and work from home and can stay home with their children versus those that can not because of the reality of having to pay their bills by leaving the home," Guzmán said.
Rogge shifted the conversation to some of the broader economic challenges, including job loss and companies moving and closing. He also addressed mental health, saying, "25% of kids under the age of 25 are considering or have contemplated suicide" -- referring to a statistic reported by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in August.
"How do we bring our kids back? What are we doing about mental illness? What are we doing about the social-emotional needs of our teachers and our staff? The pressures are huge," Rogge said.
Other issues the candidates discussed included community engagement, transparency, improving communication and promoting a healthy learning environment for students from traditionally marginalized groups.
A complete recording of the forum is available on YouTube.