In light of the Board of Education’s decision to return to all in- person learning on March 1, many members of the community have reevaluated their voices in the district’s decision making process.
BY MEGHAN BEERY, ’21
Multiple petitions. Passionate emails. Zoom meetings. Phone calls. Picketing. These are all ways that members of the Upper Arlington community, young and old alike, have made their voices heard in the district over the past year.
Of the many challenges this year has posed, one of the most debated issues has been the Board of Education’s decision to return to all in-person instruction for five days a week. On Feb. 12, after consulting with the Medical Advisory Team, the Board met in a special session to discuss the issue. After a unanimous decision, students returned to school in full force on March 1.
Following the decision, many groups in the Upper Arlington community have questioned both the decision and their right to have their voices heard. A petition, entitled Dialogue Now UA, was shared and gathered over 600 signatures. Students and parents emailed board members with questions and concerns. The Upper Arlington Education Association (UAEA), the teacher’s union, enacted work-to-rule indefinitely.
Amidst the controversy and competing voices comes new questions for the community: how much does one’s voice matter? How can an administrative body balance the many groups and concerns in a community? Students, parents and teachers are examining their role in the great balancing act of public policy.
Many students, such as senior Elena Reim, feel that the Board’s decision points to a larger issue with listening to student voices.
“Teachers weren’t talked to, students weren’t consulted, this just feels like the school board woke up one day and made a decision,” Reim said. “I just find it very frustrating. This decision just made me feel like they don’t care about students’ opinions at all.”
Following the March 1 decision, Reim contacted Superintendent Paul Imhoff and the Board via email with a list of concerns and questions regarding the return.
“I find myself stuck in the in-school pathway, a pathway that I have done quite well in, but am now concerned about,” Reim wrote. “I would like to know which students were included
in the decision to switch to all-in school, and I ask that I be consulted in the future regarding pathway changes. I ask to be included because these decisions affect the students the most, and I would like to have a say in my educational plans.”
Reim’s concerns included parking, social distancing and hallway transitions. She felt that her concerns were not adequately addressed through district webinars or at the board meeting.
“They sort of dismissed my questions and my concerns, and so again, I found that frustrating,” Reim said. “I’ve tried to have my voice and tried to talk [to them], but it just doesn’t seem to be met with much interest, and so it does make me not want to reach out again, or to try and discuss things with them in the future.”
Junior Matthew Abel did not share Reim’s initial concerns, but was surprised by the decision.
“I was a little surprised that there wasn’t a ton of student input on the decision, so I think it definitely did change my view a little bit—opened my eyes a little bit—to not having as much of a voice as maybe I would’ve liked to,” Abel said.
However, Abel supports the district’s decision.
“I’m really happy to get to see all of my fellow peers everyday in the building, and I think that the administration made an educated decision based on COVID-19 guidelines in accordance with Franklin County, as well as the need to get us back in school for those who might have difficulty learning at home,” Abel said.
Despite their differing views, both Abel and Reim agree that there are steps that the school and Board has taken and can take to increase student input.
“I think that I could definitely make my voice heard in certain ways—sitting down and talking with maybe my counselors or with administration,” Abel said.
Both students are aware of Board Bylaw 0141.1, which states that “the Board will recognize one (1) student (non-voting), selected annually by the Upper Arlington High School Student Council, who will be placed on the agenda at the Board’s monthly meetings.”
The bylaw guarantees a student presence at all regularly scheduled Board meetings, giving students the opportunity to weigh in with concerns, suggestions and questions. While the bylaw did not apply to the Feb. 12 meeting, Reim and Abel believe that enforcing it and adding additional measures would be an improvement in recognizing student perspectives.
“[It’s] a great first step,” Abel said. “If we had a certain organization that could give some input and feedback, of course constructive, I think that would be a really good idea, maybe a way that we can improve or turn up the volume on the voice of the students.”
Reim added that the bylaw itself could be improved upon.
“At the high school and with the school board, there should be more than one student,” Reim said. “I think that there should be a group of really any students who’s interested that should be consulted on issues, to maybe be included in emails or other conversations just because no one is affected by their decisions more than the students, and the students seem to be the ones who are included the least.”
Aside from students, parents also offer outside perspectives to the district. Those perspectives can typically be shared through emails, phone calls and attendance at board meetings. Upper Arlington parent Jastyn Wallace has mixed feelings on the district’s parent outreach.
“I feel like [the district] respond[s] to emails. I feel like the administration attempts to include [parents]. I don’t know that I feel like they necessarily listen to those that are kind of in the minority,” Wallace said. “When I say minority, I’m specifically referring to kids with disabilities in the school system, who I think are pretty frequently overlooked and their parents just aren’t as vocal.”
Wallace feels that there is a difference between those who are in the minority and those who are a vocal minority. She believes that the Board’s Feb. 12 decision was, in part, due to a group of the latter.
“[The decision] was done from public pressure. It’s not what [the administration] had previously told [parents]. They were not listening to the medical board, [and] I think that they were folding to the pressure of the loud voices who have been either suing them or threatening to sue them all year,” Wallace said. “I think it’s a vocal minority that ended up winning, in this case.”
According to Wallace, the people most affected by the decision were teachers, not parents.
“I just feel like the school board decision was kind of disrespectful to [teachers],” Wallace said. “I agree that students need to be back in school. I’m glad that students were going to be back in school on a more safe timeline with teachers who were vaccinated, so I just think it was pretty disrespectful to the teachers, and I think that’s a decision that has been made a couple of times this year.”
Upper Arlington parent Andi Hickman shares Wallace’s concerns and expressed her support for teachers by clapping them in the Friday before all students returned to school.
“I personally felt very conflicted by the school board’s decision, because as a parent, I was happy that my kids are returning to school five days a week, but as a big supporter of teachers … I was concerned that the decision was rushed and that it would’ve been better to have stayed the course with the original return to school date after spring break,” Hickman said. “[My family] clapped in the teachers because I wanted them to recognize that I saw them, and I do support their union and any efforts they need to make to have a stronger voice with the school board. I fully support teachers.”
While Wallace disagrees with the Board’s decision, she does believe that parents have an important vocal role in the decision-making process.
“Parents shouldn’t just let their child make the decision for themselves because they just don’t have the ability to weigh all of the options the way that an adult does,” Wallace said. “My son is [in] elementary school. I think his school does a good job of listening to him when he says he needs something. I think that they are more likely to listen to me, especially because adults tend to know the kind of language that needs to be used to make sure that they’re listening. And I think that that’s appropriate at elementary school.”
As students get older, Wallace adds that parents should take a lesser role.
“I think that parents should be beside their child as they get older,” Wallace said. “Starting in high school, I do think that kids should have more of a voice and parents should just be there to guide and kind of get it done if it’s not working for the child.”
Hickman has found that students can typically make their voices heard through everyday interactions.
“From the perspective of an elementary school parent, I think that children are influential with their teachers and counselors,” Hickman said. “I think that my fourth grader does a lot to be involved in student ambassador programs, and she feels [or] seems very confident and assured in her voice in elementary school.”
Hickman believes that polling could potentially be used to gather more perspectives throughout the community and ensure equal representation of all voices.
“I would be curious to see if polling could be used more broadly,” Hickman said. “I feel like that’s just an example where, I think, the impetus right now is on parents to find a way to get involved. It would be great if the school board had more means, but I think just the data to back their decisions and creating more visibility behind it based on parent input would go a long way.”
Wallace agrees that there is potential for polling.
“I like the polls,” Wallace said. “I think that they need a way to connect with more people.”
Work to rule: a job action in which employees follow their job descriptions exactly, working the minimum number of hours required and expected by their contract. In response to the Feb. 12 decision, this measure was enacted for 542 teachers, staff members and support staff in Upper Arlington.
The 542 participants are only obligated to work from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. Any tasks that are incomplete at the end of the day will be postponed until the next. Work to rule began on Feb. 22 and has continued indefinitely.
“Based on the way the system is set up, work to rule was our option,” said UAEA co-president Leslie Watkins. “This is our way of saying ‘Hey, wait a second. We need you to listen to us so that we can advocate for our students.’”
Prior to returning to all in-person learning, Watkins and the UAEA presented the board with 15 pages of questions and concerns. When they felt that those questions weren’t addressed, they chose to make their voices heard in a different way.
“We didn’t feel that [our concerns] were heard or answered, which was pretty disheartening to a lot of people, because honestly, we’re trying to keep the students safe. We’re trying to keep the community safe,” Watkins said.
As opposed to students and parents, teachers have the unique position of working inside the district while not necessarily making the decisions. Watkins feels that their particular perspective was not adequately considered.
“What was most disheartening for us, is we felt like we were giving a perspective from inside the schools and how we can best serve the students and protect the students, and we did not feel that that was addressed,” Watkins said.
Although work to rule has not brought about significant changes, it has caused more conversations in the community.
“There are people who are for it and people who are against it. I think either way it’s made people talk a little bit more,” Watkins said. “It’s going to be a while before we can see, truly, if it has impacted whether or not they’re going to listen to our voices.”
Watkins added that the teachers’ influence can vary by decision, and the Board’s Feb. 12 decision does not necessarily point to a larger issue with teachers’ voices.
“I think it’s just a matter of perception from both sides, from both parents and from teachers. If we’re not seeing what we shared or what we wanted, then we’re going to say ‘Well, they’re listening to the other side.’ It doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re listening to the other side more, it simply means that we’re looking for an outlet for frustration,” Watkins said. “I would say that there are topics that more voice is necessary from the community, and there are topics that more voice is necessary from the teachers, and so I think it’s going to play out differently.”
Teachers are able to express their voices through actions such as work to rule and communicating through the administration.
“[Teachers] don’t speak directly with the Board ever, so whatever we share with administration, it’s their job to take it to the Board or make whatever decisions they make,” Watkins said. “We’re going to continue to work with administration as best we can, and we’re going to continue to say what we have to say, whether they hear it or not … we’re still going to continue to advocate for our students and for what’s best, what we feel is best as educators.”
THE BALANCING ACT
As a board member, Lori Trent is responsible for balancing the perspectives of students, teachers, parents and other community members. For Trent, listening ears are the most important tool.
“Listening is the most important step that the Board takes to collect information. The Board continually seeks input from all of our community stakeholders understanding that those individual groups may have different needs and preferences, and individuals within those groups may have different needs and preferences as well,” Trent said in a statement.
Despite that input, Trent added, someone’s opinion may not necessarily turn into action.
“Being heard, however, does not mean that everyone will agree with the ultimate outcomes. Many times, a conversation will lead to additional information of which others were not aware. There can often be multiple answers to the same questions,” Trent said. “This goes back to listening
and engaging in an open dialogue which helps to drive understanding.”
According to Trent, that open dialogue is important both for sharing ideas and encouraging different world views. As a community, each member has something unique to offer.
“I have found that adults may have more experience on which to draw, but they can also discard new ideas because of individual biases. Students often view the world through a lens that is free from preconceived notions. I believe as a community we benefit from both types of thinking,” Trent said. “It is our duty as community members to listen to our children and take action to ensure they feel a part of the decision-making process.”
Similar to Hickman, Trent believes that students can make their voices heard through those near to them: building staff, parents, friends, etc.
“I believe that student voices are represented and considered. I encourage students to engage in an open and honest dialogue with their peers, adults, teachers, staff and administration,” Trent said. “I do think, however, that we are not perfect at this and need to continue to work at building all of our relationships.”
REACHING FOR EQUILIBRIUM
In an interconnected world with many different perspectives and opinions, the Board has the job of balancing each community member’s voice. The task? According to Wallace, virtually impossible.
“Especially in this year, they couldn’t please everybody. Everybody wants different things—everybody thinks they know better,” Wallace said.
Nonetheless, Trent is optimistic that through relationships a balance can be achieved and change made.
“If our job is to prepare our students for the future, we need to help them create the world in which they want to live by working with them side-by-side to help them make a difference for the next generation,” Trent said. “The world in which we live is interconnected and international, and we as a community can only solve the issues at hand by working together to build solutions and bridges for the future.”