A year ago, Anika Sanyal was visiting each of the Madison Metropolitan School District’s high schools and talking to as many of her peers as she could.
The Memorial High School student, now a junior, was campaigning for a Student Senate elected position, the student representative on the Madison School Board.
“Last year I remember I was missing so much school to go to different schools,” Anika said.
This year, she’s running to be the Student Senate president. But instead of visiting schools, which are all closed amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, she and others have to get creative to get their message out and get their peers to pay attention.
“Now that I haven’t had that opportunity to talk to students, it’s definitely been harder to outreach,” she said.
While Anika is unopposed for her office, there are two students hoping to succeed her in the School Board representative role. East sophomore Gordon Allen and West junior Julia Amann are both navigating an especially difficult campaign season for the seat, trying to get creative to reach their fellow students, who will vote on the positions later this month.
A normal election cycle, outlined in School Board policy, includes candidates holding a forum for their peers and opportunities to meet with various student groups. While voting has been online through a Google Form in past years, this year, the entire campaign process has had to shift along with students' learning.
Anika, along with staff advisers Mary Moe and Najjah Thompson, is optimistic virtual learning could actually increase participation. Last year, Moe said, 832 students voted.
“Because of the virtual learning environment, more students are going on their computers and accessing Google Classroom and checking their emails on a daily basis,” Anika said. “I’m actually hopeful that we’re going to get more turnout because more students are tuned in to the virtual environment.”
Moe said social studies teachers would normally ask students during class to check the Google Form when they log into their Infinite Campus profile — but this year “students will already be logged on” the week of May 26-29, when voting will be open.
Gordon was more concerned about the challenges of reaching students at this time.
“I don’t think we really expect a big huge turnout,” he said. “Even before this pandemic, you don’t really see a lot of students … coming to the public forum sessions. It’s mostly parents, to be completely honest.”
But he still plans to use social media to reach out and share his goals, with a focus on “diverse representation and concise outreach” if he is elected to the position. His top issues include school resource officers, use of vapes and marijuana and the lack of minority representation in advanced classes.
“It’s all about me just having a passion to get the best majority student representation at the district level,” he said. “Actually reaching out to different types of clubs, and it also means working with the board to create better materials where students can actually understand it.”
Julia likes that the Student Senate has people from all of the high schools come together to discuss their various issues, and shares Gordon’s concerns about participation, though she pointed out how the pandemic has highlighted the importance of student voice.
“It’s not really people’s highest priority, aside from people that are actually on Student Senate,” she said. “A lot of the issues that we’re interested in and pushing for … have become more acute with the pandemic.”
If elected, she hopes to focus on student mental health and helping the board understand the student perspective. She’s hopeful that her peers will pay attention to the Student Senate election as an opportunity to “get accustomed to” voting in general.
“It’s just important for students to actually engage with what is going on and to vote,” she said. “This is basically as local as it gets.”
The forum, which is scheduled for May 20, will be through Zoom and live streamed, likely on Facebook, Moe said. While last year’s event was held in-person at the Doyle building, it was also live streamed, and Moe said they’re hopeful that with a focus on the virtual aspect this year they’re hoping to “get a better crowd.”
The pair both said working with the Student Senate during this time has been among their highlights through a challenging period. Thompson is hoping that they use the time students are spending online to create a long-term connection to Student Senate for those who may not have otherwise engaged.
“The big silver lining in a lot of this, which is so weird to think about, is kids being glued to their devices and having more time on their computers,” he said. “We’re really trying to get Student Senate to represent our student body across our whole school district.
“This is a great opportunity for us to expose our large student body to what Student Senate is, its role in the district, how it functions and how it can be used to create a district they want to create.”
Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to firstname.lastname@example.org. Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.
Concerned about COVID-19?
Sign up now to get the most recent coronavirus headlines and other important local and national news sent to your email inbox daily.