Boulder Valley superintendent talks challenges of 2020

Colorado district that was thriving before the pandemic has faced some setbacks, particularly with staffing, but it isn't losing sight of its mission to serve all students.
By: | November 11, 2020
Boulder, Colorado E.Spiegle/Getty Images

Rob Anderson, Superintendent, Boulder Valley School District

Life in Boulder, Colorado, can be spectacular. The mix of mountains, outdoor life and a dash of excitement from nearby Denver can be downright alluring.

That combination, along with a perfectly aligned position in the Boulder Valley School District, brought superintendent Rob Anderson and his family to these parts from Atlanta two years ago.

When he arrived, Anderson did what a lot of new hires do – he formed a 100-day plan that included stops at every school, its central office and talks with staff and community leaders. No quick decisions, just some observing.

“I tried to take a real a careful and thoughtful approach in onboarding, because Boulder, Colorado, is vastly different from Atlanta,” he says. “What I found was a very high-performing district with pretty significant achievement gaps, and a district that wanted to really work on equity but just didn’t know where to start or how to go about doing that.”

He formed a strategy to create more equity, access and cultural responsibility in schools called All Together for All Students. “Lots of great work was happening” in the district, which was also named the best employer in the state of Colorado.

Faculty and students were thriving and working toward meeting those needs. But as with most other stories of school progress in 2020, this one ran into a major disruption: COVID-19. It didn’t change the goals; it just made achieving them a lot more difficult.

“We’ve had to really continue the spirit of that work … but I’ve definitely had to slow down our efforts, just because of the bandwidth needed to manage the pandemic,” Anderson says.

The Boulder Valley district has about 30,000 students across 57 schools, most of which are affluent and White. Approximately 20% are Latinos and English-language learners, and the same percent receive free-or-reduced lunch. Especially during the pandemic, reaching that latter group of students is something Anderson and Boulder Valley have been striving to do.

But the challenges keep coming. On Friday, both counties the district serves went to an Orange Level: Safer at Home status. Though it won’t change the ways Boulder Valley instructs its students, it might present additional challenges to staff as more restrictions are put in place.

To get a glimpse of how this school district is handling this very difficult moment, District Administration sat down with Anderson for a conversation about Boulder Valley, about leadership and about the challenges of the pandemic.

How quickly did the district start making decisions back in March when the pandemic began?

We were one of the first districts in the Denver Metro to actually close down. We’ve had a really good partnership with our local health agencies, Boulder County Public Health and Broomfield Public Health. We closed our doors to try to give teachers a little bit of space to figure out what online learning would look like. Over the course of the next two weeks, our team worked day and night to think of all of the supports that we would need to provide for our most vulnerable families – making sure we had distribution set up, making sure that we were providing kids access to the internet.

And then also starting to begin to think about the future. What was the next school year (fall 2020) going to look like? How do we create a plan and strategy that’s more predictable, that communicates to folks what we’re going to do when certain things happen. We had a really strong plan, but one of the things we didn’t anticipate was that there were going to be challenges beyond just the virus.

Can you elaborate on that?

We have a large number of our staff who are high risk. We had some staffing issues early on … and we continue to see staffing issues with substitutes. It’s just hard to find them right now. Because of the transportation guidance, we couldn’t provide transportation to our high school kids. So, we’re trying to figure out even to this day, ways for kids that want to come in person, how do we transport them? There’s just a ton of logistical issues that didn’t become as evident to us until we started to try to open up the doors. And then those challenges hit us right in the face.

What is the status of your students right now?

All kids K through 5 are in four days a week. All of our middle school kids are in two days a week, and our high school kids are in one day a week. We developed a working advisory group made up of mostly teachers and parent leaders, and district staff, and really tried to work through how we could overcome some of the challenges. And what we should be prioritizing as a community in regards to in-person instruction. Based on that feedback, that committee overwhelmingly supported the fact that we need to get our youngest kids in as often as possible. So K through 2 was a critical group of kids for us to serve in person. Middle school and high school, we felt by bringing them back less, we would keep the cohort smaller and we’d be able to navigate, isolating and quarantining once we opened back up. That’s proved to be helpful.

What about COVID-19 spread in the Boulder community? Is that affecting what’s happening in schools?

We had a pretty significant spike about a month ago when the University of Colorado came back on campus. We were able to work successfully with our health department to keep schools open during that time because it was really isolated to the campus. But now, what we’re seeing across the Denver Metro is rising cases. So, there are some new requirements in regards to quarantining and isolating that will be more restrictive. It will put more kids out of schools.

I do think that there comes a point where we’ll probably have to go all remote again if these cases don’t turn around. I think everybody’s worried about the impacts of what happens after Thanksgiving. It creates a level of stress that has me incredibly worried about the social-emotional wellbeing and health of our employees, because they are working non-stop. The challenges are starting to overwhelm the system. From a logistical standpoint, we’ll come a point where we just won’t be able to stay open anymore unless the cases come down.

How are the teachers faring through this?

I think that teachers in this time are, in so many ways, heroes. I don’t think that they’re getting the credit nationally they deserve for the challenges that they’re taking on. Teachers have risen to the challenge, but they’re also incredibly stressed. … I think people were excited and thankful to be in person, but there was a level of concern that it is justifiable. They’re doing everything they can to make this work, but it certainly is taking a toll on them. It’s just a really stressful time. So how do we balance taking care of our people and making sure that they’re doing OK with the needs of kids? It’s a challenge every superintendent is facing.

Will the weather be a factor soon in Colorado?

We have a pretty robust transportation system here. But I do think that there’s some concern, in regards to when the winter months come, the ability to go outside. A lot of our teachers have taken advantage of outdoor learning opportunities for our kids. When it gets in those colder months, we’ll just have less opportunities to do that. And that brings concerns: the more you’re inside, that’s where this virus is spreading.

What are some of the helpful lessons you’ve learned over the past 6-8 months?

We took a step back from the crisis, reached out to our teachers and parents and formed a group to work together on how to best move forward. I think that in times of crisis, where there’s a lot of unknown, trying to pull together so you don’t get pulled apart is helpful. If you can do that, those are great opportunities to uncover blind spots you might have had. We’ve also partnered with our health agencies to try to make all of our decisions together.

The value of sharing decisions when you’re able to and being a good listener is important. We try to respond to all of our emails. We do a weekly podcast for our teachers, telling good stories of the district. We have a program called Let’s Talk, where we take on tough topics, just finding different and better ways to communicate to people. I have an assistant superintendent that is a former science teacher. So, she talks a lot about the virus in schools and goes out and interviews people. Information is changing so quickly.

What are the biggest takeaways for you this year?

There’s never been a more difficult time in my lifetime to work in public schools. We’re just trying to keep our energy and keep morale up to the extent that we can. We’re trying to be there for the families and kids that we have the honor to serve. And also balancing that with our employees who are giving everything they have to make this work.