California Schools on the Frontlines of the Pandemic
I have taught and prepared future school leaders at several institutions of higher education here in California, and across the country. While I have taught specific courses in leadership, politics, human capital, and history, I don’t ever recall addressing the type of issue that school leaders are dealing with today: a worldwide health crisis that has shut down schools since mid-March with no clear end in sight.
In addition to my work in higher education, I have proudly served as superintendent of schools in both the Long Beach and San Diego school systems, as well as the Federal Court monitor in Los Angeles, our state’s largest school system. In my 50-plus year career in education, I have handled many crises, including riots, gang warfare, fires, floods, and drownings—events that unfortunately put students and staff in harm’s way. Each of these tragedies had a beginning, a mid-point and an end or, in the case of gang warfare, a time when the severity of the crisis abated.
This is not the case today in terms of what our school leaders are facing. They, like all of us, don’t know when this is going to end and what the human casualty implications are going to be before this is over. I used to put the following question to those who sought my advice about whether or not they should become a superintendent: “Can you handle a high degree of ambiguity”? Today’s crisis is much more than an occasional “high degree of ambiguity.” It is a 24/7 uncertainty that has to take a profound emotional toll on all those who are tasked with ensuring the health and safety of thousands of students and staffs in our school settings.
Since July 1st, I’ve been capturing the voices of these California school leaders in a special podcast series, sponsored by EdSource and the Ball/Frost Group. We’ve listened to the superintendents in Hemet, San Jose, Victor Valley, Fresno and Sonoma Valley tell their remarkable stories of leading during this unprecedented crisis. Each has described the herculean efforts of their teaching and support staffs to create a sense of continuity for the students and their families that they are privileged to serve. In addition, they’ve talked about their labor and community partners who have consistently stepped up to provide food and technical support for their most vulnerable students. None of them are complaining about the hand that they have been dealt.
We’ve also tried to let our listening audience know that not all California school children are educated in traditional public school systems. We’ve talked to two dynamic young leaders in the charter and private sectors, who are equally courageous in serving school children and their families.