2021 ISD 197 School Board Election: COVID-19

Thanks to Amore Coffee for their support.

There are 10 candidates running for three seats on the ISD 197 school board this year. We’ve asked the candidates a series of questions to see where they stand on the issues. We’ll share one question and the responses at a time leading up to the election on November 2. Be sure to see our ISD 197 voter’s guide for more.

With school starting next week, we wanted to ask about COVID-19 precautions. On August 16, the current school board voted unanimously to require masks indoors.

With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, where do you stand on masks, vaccines, and distance learning, both in terms of past policies and what the district should do going forward?

We posed this question to all 10 candidates and received nine responses. Here are their answers in random order:

John Chandler

(campaign site)

John Chandler works as a nonprofit executive. He was first elected to the school board in 2013 and reelected in 2017. He has volunteered extensively in the district, and he has children at Heritage, Two Rivers, and one recent graduate.

I want what is best for our students and teachers. I supported the recent school board vote for universal masking in all of our buildings. I receive lots of input about consideration for the high school to allow masks as optional since everyone is old enough to get vaccinated. This warrants consideration but, for now, it feels as though masks, and sufficient social distancing measures, are the way to go with emerging COVID variants.  While I do not believe a pivot to distance learning is currently warranted, this is obviously something we need to keep an eye on.

Like many, our family also endured the last year plus with three teenagers at home instead of in school. I take my role seriously of being accountable to the community for constantly monitoring the conditions affecting the district as whole. Ultimately, my decision will always favor what I believe to be safest for all involved.

Sarah Larsen

(campaign site)

Sarah Larsen works for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and served on a team setting up COVID testing and vaccination sites. She has kids at Friendly Hills and Two Rivers, and has volunteered throughout the district with the Strategic Planning Core team, Parent Ambassador Network, PTA, and more.

Our district has followed MDH, MDE and CDC guidance throughout the pandemic regarding masking and other policies, and I fully support this approach. We expect our administrators, teachers and staff to be the experts on educating our children, and, in turn, I believe our administration is correct to rely on the scientists and policy makers with access to all of the current data to make the best recommendations regarding masks and vaccines. Distance learning was a huge effort for teachers, families and students and I commend all of us for getting through it. Our kids, teachers and school staff are best able to do their jobs if they are in the school buildings—together. I support any tools we can use to keep kids in school, learning and building their social/emotional abilities. I believe our district should also support and encourage the in-school testing options from MDH this year for all students, teachers and staff. 

Morgan Steele

(campaign site)

Morgan Steele works as a French teacher and instructional leader at Richfield High School. She has one child at Somerset and another who will be there in a few years.

I am very fortunate to be married to a scientist in a family of scientists/healthcare experts. I believe in science and listen to the experts in this field and think that masking, distancing and contact tracing are extremely important in doing our part to keep our kids, school staff and community safe. I was so pleased to see that the current school board unanimously approved the mask policy for this year. 

While I understand the staffing challenges with distance learning, I also experienced first-hand the stress of trying to make changes to our learning plan as my work circumstances changed with vaccine availability. As we do not know what this school year will hold, I am hopeful and confident that 197 will listen to the Minnesota Department of Health and move us into distance learning should Covid strains spread beyond their current levels. 

Marcus Hill

(campaign site)

[Marcus Hill did not respond to our candidate questionnaire after repeated attempts to contact him.]

Timothy Aune

(no campaign site)

Tim Aune worked as an executive for a global financial information services firm. He was involved as a parent and engaged in issues around special education.

First, it is critical we use the word “ongoing” when planning COVID-19 policy. Adherence to guidance from Federal, State, and County Public Health officials is critical, and their guidance would be a significant factor in my decisions on COVID-19 policy. The data show that masks and vaccines work. I support the current Board’s decision to combine with other districts to offer a Distance Learning option for students whose health would be at risk.

Mark Grondahl

(campaign site)

Mark Grondahl has worked as an entrepreneur, banker, and accountant. He has not previously been involved in the district but did coach youth sports and serve as a Cub Scouts den leader.

I am not concerned about the Board’s past policies.  We should review the current situation with all available information and make our best decision as of now. I assume that the Board did this in early 2020 and again in the fall of 2020.

Masks – Each family should be allowed to make their own decisions for their kids and family and situation. Anyone that wants to wear a mask (cloth or N-95) should be allowed to do so. Anyone that does not want to wear a mask should be allowed to do so. Teachers should be allowed to wear a mask as they see fit. Anyone’s decision should be respected and accepted without comment or bullying.

While my initial sense is for Parents’ Choice, I would also want to hear from the parents themselves (via Facebook, SurveyMonkey, phone calls). I would listen to their voices and their needs.

Vaccines – Each family should be allowed to make their own decision on vaccines with their doctors based on each family member’s personal medical history. The Board should collectively review the local and state numbers on the current virus to understand the severity of the current virus. The severity of the virus should lead us to the right decision for the schools and community.

Distance Learning – It just isn’t as good as in-person learning, every effort should be made to only in-person learn for all grades for the whole school year. However, as some families will choose Distance Learning for family health reasons, the District should still offer Distance Learning as an option.

Jon Vaupel

(campaign site)

Jon Vaupel works for the Minnesota Department of Education in Early Learning Services and is a former kindergarten teacher. He served on the Mendota Elementary PTA Board, including the Parent Ambassador Network and working on diversity, equity, and inclusivity.

We need our schools to continue to be safe places for our students and teachers, educators, and school leaders. This means requiring masks for students and teachers (following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Minnesota Department of Health, and Minnesota Department of Education’s guidance)—it was the right decision to require masks this school year and the school board should be commended for getting our students back into our schools for in-person learning while also providing families with the option to continue distance learning. 

Going forward I would like to help ISD 197 build on its strengths and successes from the last year and help keep children in classrooms this year. To do this, we need to continue the mitigation strategies that were put in place last year, including masking. We also need to support vaccinations for teachers, staff, and students. A higher vaccination rate will keep our students in school and avoid future disruptions. I hope that ISD 197 continues to support the ISD 197 COVID-19 Data Dashboard and school leaders host community conversations that allow families to listen and ask questions. It’s extremely difficult to know what the future holds given that we are still learning about COVID-19 and its impact. Any future decision should prioritize the safety and well being of those who are vulnerable while doing all that we can to support safe in-person learning.

Robert Reese

(campaign site)

Robert Reese works as a physician and surgeon. He has not been involved in the district but has coached youth football and baseball.

I am a licensed physician in the State of Minnesota. If one wanted proof of immunization to measles, mumps, and rubella, we would simply check for antibody titers to them. COVID-19 should be managed in similar fashion. Between those who have contracted COVID-19, (both symptomatic and asymptomatic), and those who have been immunized, it is likely that 95+% of Americans are already immune to COVID-19. As a consequence, rather than implementing mask mandates, vaccine “passports”, or distance learning, all one needs to do is check for antibody titers to COVID-19. If present, the individual is immune and should be able to live a completely free life. If not present, encourage vaccination, but if the student opts against vaccination, they only have risk for themselves or the few that remain unimmunized. There is no substantial risk of death among those that are already immune. We will all continue to be exposed to COVID, it’s just that we won’t die from it as our immune systems become stronger and more efficient with each successive COVID exposure.

Stephanie Auran

(no campaign site)

Stephanie Auran works as a technical recruiter. She has volunteered in the district since her children started pre-school in 2009. She served as a president and vice president of the Home and School Association, chaired the school carnival several times and assisted in fundraisers.

There are 2 mandates currently in MN concerning Covid and schools. 1. Masks are required on buses. 2. The school is required to report illnesses to MN Dept of Health. The only statute around wearing masks is Minnesota Statute 609.735. 

School leadership is responsible for policy therefore looking at data specifically from ISD 197 before making decisions is necessary. How many children from ISD 197 were hospitalized due to Covid (excluding other health issues)?  How many ISD 197 families lost a child due to Covid (excluding other health issues)? Teachers or school staff? Parents/caregivers can then explore all educational options and choose the situation that best suits their family and needs.

Ref: Policies going forward. As information comes out and studies are made public, policies around Covid protocols will need to be continually reviewed. The data for the decisions should come from ISD 197.


Elena Villarreal suspended her campaign in September. Her name will still appear on the ballot, so in the interest of focusing on candidates who are still in the race, we are no longer running her responses.

Vote on November 2

Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021. The ISD 197 website has details on where and how to vote. Be aware that elections will happen at combined polling places, which are likely not your usual polling location. Voting options also include absentee voting, either by mail or in person, which starts September 17.

We’ll share more candidate responses and a full election guide as we get closer to the 2021 election.

Thank you to the candidates for taking the time to respond.

Support West St. Paul Reader to ensure local election coverage can continue.

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