The COVID-19 pandemic dominated discussion at a virtual Columbia School Board candidate forum hosted Wednesday by the League of Women Voters of Columbia-Boone County.
All four candidates — incumbents Helen Wade and Jonathan Sessions, and newcomers Chris Horn and David Seamon — attended the forum. They're running for three open seats on the seven-member School Board.
This was the sixth candidate forum for the June 2 election, but it was the first held virtually via Zoom, a videoconferencing app.
All candidates agreed that the district did a good job transitioning to remote learning in response to the pandemic, but that the transition highlighted disparities in student resources. Horn said he believes the district began the process with child welfare in mind by providing meals to students in need.
Wade said the initial district response was not equitable but that it quickly changed its approach. She said she believes the playing field is still not level for each student in the current virtual learning environment but commended the district's efforts to move away from the original plan.
Seamon stressed the lack of internet access in low-income areas. As some students were unable to access online content, Seamon said he believes the district will need to address this gap during the next school year.
"People say they have internet, but then there's a question of, 'Is that Zoom-quality internet?'" he said.
Regarding changes to the next school year, all candidates agreed that the future will determine whether the district opts for traditional, hybrid or fully online classes. Wade said the district is exploring every possibility to ensure it can deliver a quality education regardless of circumstances.
Seamon emphasized consulting parents, city and county officials, and the health department to determine next year's plan. If the plan involves more remote learning, he stressed ensuring quality internet access for students who need it.
Sessions said the district's first priority should be the safety of students, parents, teachers and staff.
Horn said he believes the current semester served as practice for the future. He said the district has a greater understanding of which aspects work, as well as the importance of equity and people's voices in its decisions.
"Everything's on the table," he said. "I just want to make sure that we're inviting everybody to the table."
Columbia Public Schools Superintendent Peter Stiepleman, who did a short presentation following the forum, discussed the district's $20 million bond issue, which is also up for vote in the June 2 election. If passed, the bond would fund an expansion and renovation for Jefferson Middle School; turf for athletic fields; and safety, security and accessibility projects.
All candidates support the bond issue and expressed confidence in the district's financial position. Seamon, Horn and Wade praised Chief Financial Officer Heather McArthur's projections of the district's budget. Wade acknowledged smaller cuts to the transportation budget, but said she believes the district can deal with it because of previous financial planning.
The League of Women Voters did not take questions from the audience because this was the organization's first experience with an online format.