Latino superintendents panel reflects on COVID inequities

Five superintendents discussed priorities in their school districts for this fall and beyond, including what they're doing to support students, families and teachers.
By: | October 9, 2020
Photo by Deleece Cook on UnsplashPhoto by Deleece Cook on Unsplash

Despite strong efforts to ensure online learning this fall is more engaging and effective than in the spring—when the Association of Latino Administrators & Superintendents (ALAS) first organized a panel discussion with five education leaders who met again today—one superintendent acknowledged that it’s still not what education needs to be.

“From the students’ lens, it’s still depressing, it’s isolating, it’s silent, it’s void of love and interactions,” said Don Austin, superintendent of Palo Alto Unified School District in California, which is beginning its transition to in-person learning. “We do need to get back and do it as safely as we can.”

When asked about how his focus is different now from in the spring when he and his peers had their first discussion through ALAS, Austin spoke about prioritizing the students who need to be back in school the most during their return to school. Palo Alto is the first to reopen schools in Santa Clara County, and with that comes extra pressure. “There are a lot of people looking for a big school district to make a mistake,” he said.

Theresa Plascencia, superintendent of Waukegan Community Unit School District #60 in Illinois, pointed out that since we’re in unchartered territory, it really wouldn’t be fair to say there are mistakes.

Her district, like many, has transitioned from being reactive to proactive since the spring. “We need to make sure we work to close the COVID slide,” she said, adding that it will affect education and society in general for years and even decades.

For now, the mental health of their students is the big focus. Waukegan schools are partnering with outside organizations to provide online therapy for students, and they are holding parent meetings via Facebook on the signs of suicide and how to support their children during COVID.

A problem for superintendents everywhere right now, she said, is that “no matter how much we think we communicate, it’s never enough. During this environment it’s important that we are aggressive in our communication, that we are proactive.”

ALAS President Elect Gustavo Balderas, superintendent of Edmonds School District in Oregon, shared how he and his team are supporting staff.

“COVID fatigue is a real thing,” he said. “My worry in this prolonged challenge we have in front of us is making sure we are taking care of each other.” Within his staff and the broader community, he sees politics encroaching on the situation and causing divide.

Meanwhile schools have students who are unaccounted for. “We’re short 500 kids in my district alone,” he said. “We’re trying to find out where these kids went.”

Three pandemics to contend with

LaTonya M. Goffney, superintendent of Aldine Independent School District in Texas—one of the last school systems there to start phasing in students—recalls the spring priority being to “move as fast as we could but as slow as we must.” That mantra remains.

“Our teachers are all brand new teachers this year, learning how to engage our students,” she said, adding that procuring devices was a big issue and that 25,000 devices ordered back in April still haven’t been received.

Even without that technology in place, the district is working hard to address gaps. “A year from now, two years from now, we don’t want for us to [be looking at gaps] and saying, ‘oh, it was because of COVID,’ or ‘that was the COVID group.’ We don’t want COVID to become the excuse.”

In a similar vein, New York City is still dealing with the problems recognized in the spring. Chancellor Richard Carranza of the New York City Department of Education sums it up simply: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Devices and connectivity are still issues needing focus, and the need for feeding the community remains.

“What’s different now than in March is that in March we were dealing with a single pandemic,” he said. “We are now dealing with three pandemics. Not only is there the viral pandemic, but the economic pandemic that has followed the viral pandemic, which has laid waste to many in our community. And the third pandemic is the racial justice pandemic, and this is around the world.” Educators trying to bring about attention to structural racism have traditionally been mocked, he said. “No one is doing that anymore. You can’t deny what’s happening in our community.”

The district, which opened for in-person learning on Sept. 21, has ordered hundreds of thousands of devices and still needs hundreds of thousands more.

Carranza shared a heartbreaking story about a Bengali child who was offered a laptop back in March but didn’t trust the offer. He feared it was a scam that immigration authorities were using to find his family and deport them. “So from March to almost October he literally had no education and was scared to death,” he said.

Carranza spoke of the need to not go back to the pre-COVID normal and its inequities. “My greatest fear and my greatest hope is that post-COVID, the new normal will never be like the pre-COVID normal when things happened as a matter of course,” he said. What will be different is a new standard of personalized instruction, and a recognition that academics and social-emotional learning are linked. Systemic racism will also be recognized.

Mission to support teachers

Edmonds School District is aiming to hold teachers’ hands this year, said Balderas. “We’re providing just-in-time professional development for what they need and being mindful of not adding any more to their plate. We’re being their biggest cheerleaders.”

They’re also supporting building leaders during this stressful time. “We need to make sure we lead with passion and with dedication at the school level where it makes a difference,” he said.

Carranza is asking everyone to keep two words in mind: flexibility and patience.

The teacher’s union’s response to an additional teacher collaboration time has been a good example of flexibility. Teams of blended learning teachers, in-person teachers and remote teachers have an additional 30 minutes each morning and an additional 30 minutes at day’s end to coordinate and plan together. “The union could have busted on us and demanded all types of things. But they said we’re in different circumstances, so let’s do this together,” Carranza recalled.

The union also supported the district in its random mandatory COVID testing of students and teachers. “It’s another thing we could have had a really big problem with but the union said to teachers, ‘If you refuse to be tested you will go on unpaid leave,'” he said.

In Waukegan schools, said Plascencia, teacher evaluations have been suspended for the year. “We just really felt this was the best way for us to move forward,” she explained. “I am a proponent of teacher evaluations, but as a tool for coaching. We felt that teachers did not need the added stress.”

In Palo Alto, Austin has tried to ensure teachers have what they say they need. He recently asked a teacher about needs and was surprised that the request was for a color printer. It was because of a student who could not process black and white and how “it makes it awful for him.” The teacher got a color printer within an hour.

“At the core, teachers want to be able to serve their kids. We’ve got to get back to teaching and meeting the needs of students,” he said.

His district got creative when leaders learned a delivery of air purifiers, coming from Los Angeles, had been delayed and would not arrive in time for the start of school. “We sent our bus drivers to LA and picked up the purifiers ourselves and took that variable off,” he said. “Anything you can do to remove the barrier, you’ve just got to do it.”

Austin also spoke of the challenges educators face right now in terms of how others view them. “We have done nothing but just get drilled by the news, by critics, every single day, some of us more than others,” he said. “We didn’t go into education for that. We went into education because most of us like to be liked. We wanted to be fun with kids, to be the best teacher, the best principal, the best superintendent. And that hasn’t happened in almost eight months. No one is earning fans right now.”

Throughout it all, said Plascencia, “we just need to breathe. We’re in a very fluid situation.” Still, she added, COVID is a “platform for us to be innovative. We have to change our footprint on education. We are going to lead this charge, stay strong, and love our kids every day.”

As Balderas puts it, educators need to “continue to be the North Star for our kids. We are the leaders our communities look at for support for their kiddos. We need to make sure we thrive through this, not just survive.”

Melissa Ezarik is senior managing editor of DA.