Port Angeles schools’ COVID-19 options weighed

Board candidates discuss topic at forum

PORT ANGELES — Port Angeles School Board candidates touted their varied backgrounds as assets during a Clallam County League of Women Voters primary election forum that focused on COVID-19 and its impact on the school district.

Jean Stratton, Jesse Charles, Gabi Johnson and Mary Hebert are running for the four-year Position 2 seat held by longtime board member Cindy Kelly, who is not seeking re-election.

They participated Thursday evening in a Zoom forum on Port Angeles School Board and City Council Aug. 3 primary races moderated by League member Sue Erzen, who said Friday that 45 participants logged on to the event.

County election officials will mail more than 58,870 primary election ballots Wednesday.

They are due at the county auditor’s office by 8 p.m. Aug. 3 or must be postmarked by that date. The primary will narrow the field to two candiates for each contested race who will face each other in the Nov. 3 general election.

The candidates were given one minute to answer questions submitted to the League, a nonpartisan organization that Erzen said does not endorse or oppose political candidates but takes stands on issues.

They agreed that reopening schools under COVID-19 conditions is a top priority and that there are adequate resources to accommodate students whose parents do not want their children to return to classrooms.

Stratton, a Seattle University graduate, former librarian and former director of two nonprofit agencies, said she was sad that many students are not graduating and thus “stay in the same place.”

“My primary hope to accomplish in my first year is that we can try to raise the number of kids graduating from high school,” she said. “Mentors and counselors should be at the ready.”

Jesse Charles, a Port Angeles native and Lower Elwha Klallam tribal member, is a youth social worker with a bachelor’s degree in American Culture Studies.

He is director of federally funded countywide Healthy Transitions, a mental health program for teens and young adults, and is on the public safety advisory board.

“I think with my experience in both Indian Child Welfare casework along with homelesss youth outreach and mental health makes me a prime candidate for this because I help kids, I help a lot of youth and young adults in crisis and uncertain times,” he said.

Hebert, who was in the educational system for 30 years, is a former Port Angeles School District teacher, principal and assistant superintendent of schools, Hebert said she is familiar with school board operations.

“We are establishing school culture with our students so that they’re comfortable in school again and establishing a full reopening for our schools with full health protocols that help protect the safety of staff and students,” she said.

Johnson said she is unique among the candidates and current school board members, as she and her husband have five children enrolled in elementary, middle and high school, and two more who will be in kindergarten next year.

If Johnson is elected, “I would truly see the good, the bad, the ugly every day,” she said.

“The last year and a half has taken a toll not only socially but academically for these kiddoes, and we need to do everything we can in our power to get back to where they need to be.”

Johnson said key issues include maintaining transparency on the 30-year, $52.6 million levy voters approved Feb. 11, 2020.

The candidates said the district can meet the needs of students who opt out of getting COVID-19 vaccinations, offering the district’s online Seaview Academy as a continuing alternative.

“That’s kind of a tricky one for a vaccine that’s not fully approved yet,” Johnson said.

“If you want to get the vaccine great, and if you don’t, good for you.

“We have Seaview thankfully for families that maybe don’t take the vaccine or aren’t comfortable with sending their kids to school with kids who aren’t vaccinated yet, but I feel like it’s kind of too soon to really push that when the vaccine isn’t even fully approved for anyone or for, you know, it’s only for under emergency use right now for 12 and up.

“It’s still so new that we have options right now for those that are uncomfortable with the situation.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control, 158.6 million Americans were fully vaccinated as of Friday (covid.cdc.gov).

The CDC recommends that all children 12 and older should get vaccinated.

The Food and Drug Administration May 10 issued an emergency use authorization for those 12-15 to receive the Pfizer vaccine.

“It is not fully approved for anyone by the FDA yet,” Johnson said Friday in a text message.

Johnson would not say if she is vaccinated.

“That’s a personal question,” she said in a text message.

Hebert said it is important that the district follow state guidelines and regulations, adding that there is no requirement that students be vaccinated.

“I want to be sure that we know that we’re going to continue the same protocols that we had this previous year, that we will be masked, that as we return full time that we’ll look for opportunities and ways to keep students socially distanced,” Hebert said.

“But for parents that are concerned, there are other options. They are able to go to Seaview. But full time in-class will be available for all students. It will just be following the standards the state sets to keep people and students healthy and safe.”

Stratton echoed Hebert’s comments.

“As a district, they have a plan, and I’ve been able to trust them throughout this whole pandemic,” she said.

“Even though my daughter is too young to get a vaccination yet, it may be happening in the fall.

“She will mask up and she will wash her hands and have sanitizer on her desk and keep distance from kids, no hugging and that sort of thing, and I’m comfortable with her going to school,” Stratton said.

A recording of the forum is at https://lwvcla.clubexpress.com.

Candidates also submitted written answers to League questions that are posted at vote411.org. Fill out address information on the home page and click on “Find What’s On Your Ballot.”

The Clallam County elections office has produced a voter guide available at clallam.net/Auditor/Elections.html.

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Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at pgottlieb@peninsuladailynews.com.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Check Monday’s paper for a story on the Port Angeles Council candidates’ debate.

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