Student board member impacts district decisions on Covid safety


Facebook / Delaware City Schools

Mackenzie Collett (far right) discusses a student report on the online learning method done district-wide in the winter. The board met on January 4 to discuss plans for returning back to school.

Brynn McGrail, Managing Editor

The student representative position on the school board is unique on its own, but with a year that’s completely unlike all other precedents, Mackenzie Collett has stepped up to the responsibilities.
Students applied for the student representative position in late spring, and as Covid-19 cases continued to surge, Collett realized the type of decisions she would have to make.
“It was that time in mid-July when I realized we’re going to be deciding the fate of whether we are in person or online,” Collett said. “It’s hard enough making that decision for yourself as a student, but to also be influencing the academics of every student in the district, I started to feel the pressure then.”
After being sworn in, Collett continued her commitment to represent the student body in a time where students’ voices are especially important.
The student representative position was created as a way of bringing attention to students’ voices when decisions regarding the district are being made. In the past however, the position has mostly served to report from the high school, generally covering positive changes in the district.
“It’s definitely a lot more controversial this year where this feels like I’m trying to convince or convey, and it isn’t always good news,” Collett said. “There are more opinions because kids care whether they are in school or not.”
The votes of the board have also been more contentious this year.
“There’s not usually votes where the school board is split, but this year it’s happened multiple times because of Covid,” Collett said.
While Collett is a board member, she is not a full voting member elected by the people, which means her vote is ceremonial rather than official. This typically would reaffirm board members voting on an issue, considering her vote represents the voice of a student.
“I do speak at the meetings,” Collett said. “I’m allowed to ask questions and raise issues on the topics that hopefully get the other board members to think and ask questions, then at the end I’m allowed to make my statement.”
In addition to the past student representative role of sharing a report on the students’ behalf at the end of the meeting, Collett has become comfortable speaking during the meeting, asking the board and health commissioner questions and clarifying any concerns.
“The first few meetings, I think it was a bit of a shock for them to hear [my questions],” Collett said. “I don’t think it was expected, and you could tell that with some of their reactions to what I was saying.”
The position has always had the freedom to discuss difficult concerns, but it’s this year in particular that these concerns are constant and impact every student, making the student perspective especially important.
“I want [the student representative] to always be brutally honest with the board,” principal Ric Stranges said. “Good, bad, and ugly. We don’t screen them. They can tell the board anything.”
Stranges said he is fond of the student representative position, because it is unique from any other school district in the means of connecting the students to the decisions being made that impact them.
“It’s a great way for the board members to hear student voices, but also a great way for our students to feel like they have a voice in the policies and decisions that are made in the district,” Stranges said. “It’s kind of a two-way street because as a student board member, you’re bringing issues from the school to the board and bring issues back to our school from the board.”
Not only have the opinions reported to the board become more difficult to discuss, but the process of hearing student opinions has become difficult.
“Before Covid happened, I was going to try to initiate setting up a table in the school cafeteria once every two weeks… so students could come talk with me or bring up any issues they had, that way I can get a mix of anyone,” Collett said.
Her goal to hear from as many student perspectives as possible persisted, although this communication moved to a variety of platforms and utilized the different cohorts and methods of learning to gather a balance of opinions.
“I’ll walk up to people in the hallway if I hear them talking about it, and ask them their opinion on it. I’ve sent emails out to groups, I’ve messaged everyone in a club before, asking how their club is doing,” Collett said. “It’s a mix of people reaching out to me and me reaching out to people.”
Collett formed a group of students as a retainer of opinions consisting of online and hybrid students from both cohorts and covering each grade level. In addition to the random selection of students, Collett refers to this group for a baseline of student opinions to report to the board.
“When I do speak at school board meetings, I try to focus half of my time on hybrid students and half of my time on online students, and while I try my best to paint it in a positive light, I do mention some students finding it stressful,” Collett said. “I always mention the importance of social and emotional health.”
Collett’s input has been meaningful to the other board members’ decisions.
“I’m always happy to hear from our student board representative and I also hear from other students,” board president Frances O’Flaherty said. “Before we make a decision about anything, we try to collect information, look at data and always try to make sure that we are making the best decision for students. Students are the important part here.”
The importance of the students was a part of Collett’s vision when she was applying for the position.
According to Stranges, an ideal candidate for the position is well-rounded and has insight into several groups at the school, as well as a desire to reach and listen to more students, which is where Collett was impressive as a candidate.
With goals to express the opinions of many students, confidence goes a long way in the student representative position.
“It’s very difficult if you’re a student in high school and you’re expected to come to a board meeting with adults and administrators and be involved in that,” board member Matt Weller said. “Not every student has the personality to do that on a regular basis, and Mackenzie certainly has that confidence to participate and express her opinion.”
Collett had been a part of developing several controversial calls as to the situation of in-school learning, calls that everyone in the district is listening to.
“I tried suggesting [letting] elementary students stay in school because it’s a lot harder for them to learn online and also letting students with IEPs or in multiple disability classrooms to stay in school,” Collett said. “Ultimately the board voted to stay online.”
Handling situations like this adds to the learning experience that this has been for Collett.
“So much of this experience is learning how to deal with people, how to communicate under pressure, and how to keep your emotions in check and still make a positive contribution to the conversation,” Weller said. “Those are those life experience type things that you just have to go through to learn from it. You’re not going to find it in a textbook.”
Another part of what made Collett an ideal candidate was her interest in politics, which is also exactly what makes this experience highly valuable for her. She plans to have a career involving politics and law with hopes to be an appellate court justice.
“With Covid, as stressful as it’s been to make some of these decisions, the reality is as a judge, you’re going to make those decisions every single day, so it’s been good preparation,” Collett said.
Another sector of Collett’s work as student representative is communication with Stranges about initiatives for meeting students’ needs at Hayes.
“I talked to Stranges about how obviously we have certain regulations we have to follow, but we both agreed making sure the seniors got somewhat of a normal ending to the year was important,” Collett said.
With this discussion, Stranges has taken further steps to create a senior task force to plan events for seniors. This adds to Collett’s hopefulness for the rest of the semester.
“DCS is doing such an amazing job. They are wearing masks, following the rules of the hallways,” Collett said. “The fact that students are willing to follow the rules shows that they want to be at school, so when it comes to Covid, I trust that we’re going to be okay.”
Even if the Covid-19 pandemic ends, Collett said she believes the student board member position will face challenges similar to what she saw this year.
“Even if Covid does slow down, the student representative next year is going to have to tackle a lot of the same issues,” Collett said. “They could be deciding how many kids are allowed in a classroom or what guidelines they want to keep on. For the next few years, this position is going to be a lot different than it has in the past.”
Stranges agrees that while the topics the future student representative handles will likely include the difficulties of Covid, the actions of the representative herself have also left a new precedent.
“The position will evolve and I think Mackenzie has ramped up that position into a place where our other board members really do count on her to give them information about what’s going on in the school,” Stranges said. “In this odd time, she has done a phenomenal job… I’m very proud of the way she’s handled things.”
Collett is pleased with her role on the board so far, and is excited about where an experience like this will take her.
“I’m just really thankful for the opportunity it has brought me and the learning experience it provided me,” Collett said. “I’m really hoping that it’s the first of many times I get to be sworn into something.”