A contentious election season, a struggling economy, a stubborn pandemic, rising COVID case rates, closed classrooms, more hours on a computer screen. As if that weren’t enough, we’ve now added devastating fires and suffocating air quality to the mix. Exhausting. Hard. Deflating.
Last spring, I was given some great advice early on in the pandemic. The advice was from a marathon runner who said, “Run the mile you’re in.” This advice has gotten me through some of the most challenging times of the last six months. I offer it to you because I think it might also help you.
To be fair, I am not a marathon runner; I only run if someone is chasing me. However, I must imagine that in the midst of the most difficult miles, runners intuitively know and find comfort in the truth that the race is only 26.2 miles and will have an end. At some point, the grueling nature of the run will be over and they will feel a meaningful sense of accomplishment. And so it is for COVID. So it is for Distance Learning. So it is for masks, and social distancing, and temperature checks. This, too, will pass. There will be grueling miles, but someday we will look at our situation in retrospect. Let that knowledge that there will be an end to this provide you comfort and stamina when you need it most.
As I see it, there are three important ingredients that are essential to our ability to thrive amidst the challenges and run the race ahead of us. The first is flexibility. We must all, even those of us for whom change is hard or for whom “planner” is our middle name, remain nimble amidst the changing guidance, policies, and health conditions. If I have learned anything since March 11 of this year, it’s that I can’t put my confidence that what is true today will be true tomorrow. I’ve learned to better roll with the punches. My flexible mindset has allowed me to lead through these challenging times and I think it will assist you, as well.
The second essential ingredient for this year is creativity. For many of us, it’s not often that something comes our way that shakes our routines, perspectives, plans, and expectations to the core. I think this moment will call for a fundamental shift in how we frame our challenges and opportunities. Lessons will need to look different. House rules may need to adjust. More time may need to be taken to name and process emotions. We may need to take more breaks, say sorry more often, admit we don’t have all the answers. Our expectations for what can be accomplished in a finite amount of time may need to adjust. However, perspective is everything. It’s also in moments like these that our creativity can blossom. Maybe this is the season to take some risks, to try things our gut told us was best for kids, but maybe we were too afraid to test it out. Maybe now is the right time to connect with our children and our students more as people. We can and should use this historical moment in which we find ourselves AS the lesson or the teachable moment. If this crisis passes and our families look exactly the same as they did before or our schools and communities look exactly as they did pre-COVID, then I believe we will have missed the biggest opportunity we’ve ever been given to do better and be better. I encourage you to be creative this year.
And the last essential ingredient for a successful year this year is self care. Never has it been more important for us to care for our own physical, emotional, and mental health. We cannot be what our families, friends, coworkers and communities need if we are not finding ways to be whole ourselves. In my mind, this will require each of us to do three very specific things: schedule time for our own wellness, seek support from others and be a support for others, and offer grace without reservation.
We are living through a time when most of us find ourselves moving in and out of emotionally dysregulated states of being. MPCSD has been diving deeper into the work of the Yale Center on Emotional Intelligence, and particularly the RULER method of social emotional learning. If you haven’t already, consider picking up Dr. Marc Brackett’s new book, Permission to Feel. You’ll thank me for it.
While better understanding emotions and becoming emotional scientists will assist us in developing the social emotional skills of our young people, it’s also a particularly helpful frame for the times in which we live. People are scared. They are feeling insecure. There is so much unknown. It’s a time ripe for misunderstanding. We can better teach, parent, and support into these unsettling feelings when we take the time to help ourselves feel settled. Take care of yourself so you can take care of others.
We have a long 26.2 miles ahead of us, but we are focused right now on the first one. We are warmed up, stretched, and ready to go as soon as that buzzer sounds. Together--teachers, support staff, parents, and neighbors--we got this. Have a great first day of school!
It’s only day five of August and it feels like day twenty, no? It’s been a few months since I’ve published a SupsOn Blog and now seems like the right time to pick back up. This particular entry is useful for non-district readers, but is written specifically to our MPCSD community.
The publication of our District’s Reopening Plan on Friday and the pending deadlines for confirming a back-to-school model and requesting child care are making the start of the school year all the more real for families.
While discussion and consideration at the family level is intense right now, your district and site leadership teams have been living the realities of return since before school dismissed in June. We are here to help as you navigate the admittedly difficult and sometimes confusing maze of returning to school.
We remain pleasantly surprised by the level of understanding, patience, and acceptance of our reality, but have certainly also had many questions asked. As a reminder the Reopening Plan does address many of your questions, as does the ongoing FAQ site that is updated daily with the most accurate information. Beyond that, I thought I would briefly address some of the higher level questions that are coming our way.
For your Wednesday reading pleasure, I offer you 10 Whys and a What…
(Why #1) Why is MPCSD not returning to school in-person on August 20?
All of San Mateo County is on the state’s COVID “Monitoring List,” due to high rates of COVID. By state mandate, we are not allowed to open. No schools in San Mateo County, including private schools, may open until the county is off of the Monitoring List for 14 consecutive days OR a waiver is approved.
(Why #2) Why hasn’t MPCSD applied for a waiver?
The terms of a waiver were literally published 36 hours ago. All 58 counties in the state are now trying to create a waiver process around the terms published by the state. It takes time.
(Why #3) Why wouldn’t MPCSD apply for a waiver?
We might apply, but getting to clarity about an application will take time. It is still unclear whether MPCSD would be eligible as a waiver requires many things, one of which is very elusive right now--a comprehensive COVID testing and tracing program. If you’ve been paying attention to the news, you know that testing in the state and country is a mess. The idea that MPCSD would be able to solve a systemic problem like testing when our state and country can’t solve it is a stretch, but in MPCSD style--we’re trying! It will take time.
Additionally, just this morning the state acknowledged that their COVID data is wrong. This is most definitely going to delay any reopening plans at the state level until policy makers and the community feel confident that the data--the same data that reopening plans are based on--are correct.
Lastly, we are living through a deadly pandemic. Reasonable folks can differ on response models, but no one can deny that the impact of our decisions includes life and death. This is not something elected officials and school personnel take lightly, nor should they. If the Board votes to apply for a waiver--an exception to health recommendations made by health experts--it will only be done so with utmost seriousness and thought. Anything less would be a dereliction of duty on the part of our Board and staff.
(Why #4) Why won’t I--or the Board--just admit that kids aren’t at risk of COVID and bring kids back?
I cannot speak for the Board, but speaking for myself, I can unequivocally say that I am not yet convinced the data indicate that return is as safe as some make it sound. The Journal of the American Medical Association recently published a scientific study review that shows that physical school closures likely reduced the spread of COVID in the spring and that further research is needed. Our world has only known COVID-19 for six months. We are constantly learning and what we learn changes our past assumptions based on new and expanding data--such is the nature of science. Recent studies indicate that children do carry the virus at high levels and that older children spread it just as efficiently as adults, even if they themselves do not get as sick. This is not to say that the research is conclusive one way or another; it is simply to say that this Superintendent believes that rushing to a decision is unnecessary and not yet supported by objective data.
(Why #5) Why is there not more clarity in what MPCSD will do beyond September 8?
This is a fast-moving, always changing process. MPCSD is well ahead of most districts in the state even if it doesn’t feel like it to some of our parents. Additionally, as a public institution, policy at this level is determined by the often messy and time-consuming process of democracy. We have five elected Board members with different perspectives who can only meet in public, and do so with commitment and regularity. As the old adage says, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the other options.” It’s messy and inefficient sometimes, but it’s the nature of the beast. When one takes a step back and looks at the greater context influencing MPCSD’s decisions and processes, it’s objectively clear that MPCSD is doing everything it can.
(Why #6) Why is this so confusing?
It’s confusing because this situation is confusing. We’re trying our best to explain everything and provide the necessary level of detail so that folks who want to know the details can find it out...on their own...by attending the Board meetings, reading the Board notes, reading the Reopening Plan, and tracking the FAQs.
(Why #7) Why doesn’t MPCSD just make it more clear, make a decision, and move on?
Believe me, we would love nothing more than to just make a decision and be done. However, not all of our parents want the same result. We are trying to accommodate the many different sensitivities and needs in our community. It’s not easy; but, we’re trying.
(Why #8) If COVID is such a concern, why even consider coming back in person?
None of us educators ever thought we’d be in this position and none of us are trained health experts. We are relying on public health experts to determine what is safe and what is not. As they and government officials make determinations--and then walk them back, contradict them, and offer exceptions as they have done recently--it becomes difficult for educators to do our jobs. However, we are moving forward with the best information we have, knowing that kids learn better when in school and require regular social interaction and social-emotional support. Kids need schools. It’s risky not to come to school and it is risky to return. Right now, we’re trying to find a way to balance all the risks.
(Why #9) Why offer child care and not just bring kids back with their teachers?
The state has created health guidelines that limit school reopening when on the state’s Monitoring List. That same restriction is not provided for essential services like child care. Additionally while schools provide a high quality education, by their nature, schools also end up providing child care. This is an important benefit for society. However, school remains fundamentally an institution designed to deliver education. In a global pandemic, our union partners at the local, state and national level astutely remind society that our educational professionals can provide education in other ways that don’t compromise the health and safety of their members. No one is interested in taking our education professionals for granted, least of all MPCSD.
(Why #10) Why not just have class outdoors to bring kids back?
We do intend to make use of as much outdoor time as possible when students are able to return in person. However, we cannot construct tent cities of classrooms. State architectural guidelines do not allow for permanent or semi-permanent tent structures for instruction at public schools. Students will be outside often!
Now for the WHAT?…
What can I do, with all this considered?
This is a great question; glad you asked. I have a few requests…
We can do this! As I’ve said before, COVID will pass, but MPCSD will remain. It’s up to all of us to determine what our district looks like when all this is over.
Erik Burmeister is the Superintendent of Menlo Park City School District in the heart of Silicon Valley.