The Covid Crisis: Through the Eyes of a NY Educator

I unzipped my suitcase this morning and began to unpack from a conference I recently attended and was overcome with emotion.  Procrastination was my usual approach when it came to unpacking, but this was a bit much even for me. How long had it been since that overstuffed suitcase was sat down in our dining room?  So much had changed since my boss and I had returned from Albany.

I began to reflect on a morning walk during the last day of my stay in Albany. I seem to have uncanny ability to find a way to get lost anywhere I go despite coming from a family of truck drivers. That day was different; I was able to find the walking path a colleague had suggested along a  shockingly narrow portion of the Hudson River.

It was unseasonably warm. I was listening to my favorite podcast The Bill Simmons Show. I reflected on a weekend in which I was able to pick my boss’ brain as I prepared to replace her as Superintendent come August.

Life was good; I had a pep in my step. I was ready for my next challenge. I even noticed a few trees beginning to come back to life.

Little did I know that so much would change and so quickly.  It was a different time back then. It is was a time when:
  • Lebron was amazing us with his continued dominance
  • I could take my wife out to dinner on a Friday night
  • My boys and I were excited for March Madness
  • School was held in brick and mortar spaces
  • You could buy toilet paper
  • College kids were enjoying their independence
  • Handshakes and hugs were abundant
  • Love ones could be visited in hospitals
  • 35,000 Americans (and counting) had not lost their lives to Covid-19
  • This movie and basketball fan was pumped to go see The Way Back starring Ben Affleck
  • Disney was the happiest place on earth
  • Scared of flying had a different meaning
  • Testing positive had a different meaning
  • Our President was comparing Corona to the Flu and “had it under control”
  • Kids could play with friends
  • No one had heard of Carol Baskins
  • Happy hours were in person

The list goes on and on……….

Life has changed a great deal since I first packed the suitcase, yet I have been moving so fast, trying to make this new reality work for my students, my family, and my community that I have avoided mourning all that has been lost.

I haven’t had time to cry for my father as he died in a hospital bed alone. I haven’t had time to examine the pit in my stomach that comes with being away from my son, Scott, due to our self imposed isolation. I haven’t been able to visit the dark parts in my mind that questions my ability to help those who deserve my support and I haven’t had time to let the fear settle into my bones.

As I methodically take apart the contents of the aforementioned suitcase, welcoming the distraction and the nostalgia that are embedded in the task, I asked myself the question “How long ago was that conference?” I reviewed my calendar to find that it was the first weekend in March.

March?

This must be a mistake.

How could the world change so much since last month?

It all happened so fast, and still seems to be evolving by the day.

It started with extra cleaning via fancy disinfectant tools, then quickly moved to canceled events, possible school closures and social distancing.

The situation was evolving rapidly; it seemed every time the computer was opened or the TV turned on, a new development was occuring. The severity and reality of the situation seemed to hit people at different times. For many, it was when the NBA shuttered their doors, or when Tom Hanks was diagnosed. For some, it was the 7:00 AM crowds at grocery stores, for others when New York City shut down Broadway. And, for some mysterious reason, the shortage of toilet paper seemed to signal that shi$#@ was about to get real (no pun intended.)

As District leaders, decisions had to be made in a predictive manner.  Information was evolving, from the Governor from State Ed, from the President.
  • What will we need to cancel?
  • How will we feed students?
  • When we will need to close schools?
  • Chromebooks?
  • I-Learning Plans
  • Internet access?
  • Professional development?
  • Sports?
  • School access?
  • Who is an essential worker?
  • Day care for health care workers?
  • What type of agreements with bargaining units?
  • School schedule?

It was like a crescendo; our central office team participated in the abundance of conference and video calls with officials, colleagues, and lawyers. But, as things built, it became obvious that we needed to divide in order to conquer this unprecedented challenge.

Our Superintendent began to assign and prioritize work during a morning meeting, and then a debrief session with key players in the afternoon.

I began to realize that my role as the Assistant Superintendent for Educational Services was less about our plan for continuing instruction and more about ensuring that I was remaining calm, was giving clear direction, was offering hope, was empathetic to people who may be acting out of character due to the enormity of the challenge ahead. I needed more than ever to be a servant leader. I needed to determine what people needed to get their job done, but also to ensure their emotional needs were met.

I found that some days I came home and was proud of the leadership I demonstrated and others, after reflection, realized I needed to do better.  I needed to examine my own emotions, my tendency to have octopus arms and touch everything, making sure I tamed my “Messiah Complex.”

Luckily for me, I work in an amazing organization with educators who are talent instructors, leaders, and people.  On those bad days I was lifted up, I was covered for, I was supported by people who I respect more than words can express.

My belief is the Districts and organizations that work together, that support each other on bad days, weeks, and months will be the ones that prosper.

We must come together as educators; we must do our best to make each and every one of our colleagues look good even when they are not at their best, even if they may not deserve it, even if we are doing more than others. You see it is not about ego, or accolades, and being a shining star. It is about being one shining star, one shining District, one shining field of education. We are all better off when we all rise together as one!

I have lost track of how long we have been closed and have shifted to primarily working from home. In some ways, it seems like yesterday and in others I can not believe how that first weekend in March seems like a lifetime ago.

I am proud of the work our District has done so much, so quickly, and made the most out of what, at times, seems like a monumental task.

Our approach has been to simplify I-Learning (a term stolen from a friend in a neighboring district). Grade level teams from each Elementary building have been assigned a subject area in which they are charged with creating daily District lessons for their grade level. The lessons are then linked to a suggested daily schedule on our District’s I-Learning web page. This allows teachers to work together, to learn from each other, to divide the work, and accentuate strengths of various team members. It also gives teachers more time to connect with students and to check in on their educational and emotional needs.

At the secondary level we teamed up teachers who taught like courses.  They collaborated to create common lessons and resources that teachers push out through Google Classroom. Teachers were afforded some flexibility at the secondary level, acknowledging that various classes may have slightly different needs.

Teachers established office hours daily from 9:30 AM to 12:30 PM to answer questions, provide clarification, and in many cases, to offer emotional support.

We established March 30th as a virtual professional development day which allowed teachers to explore the catalogue of I-Learning tutorials that our stellar technology department and administrative team created, collaborate with colleagues, participate in faculty meetings, and plan the first lesson, which would be disseminated on March 31st.

We made a decision to hold off on live video interactions with parents and students initially to allow for protocols, training, and privacy issues to be established. This was a decision I was not sure of initially, but in retrospect, was certainly the right one to make.  Watching YouTube clips with my son where college students had some fun with their less technologically savvy professors helped me to realize we had done the right thing!

I woke up the morning of March 31st with butterflies I had not experienced since opening day.  Would our plan work? How would the learning experiences be? Did our educators have enough tools to pull this off?

When I opened the I-Learning page and started to explore what we were offering I became emotional. I guess I shouldn’t have been, but I was shocked at the quality, the creativity, the humanity in the product our teachers had created.

It solidified for me what I always knew, teachers are a special breed and those in North Rockland stand out among the crowd.

Our District’s Elementary I-learning experience’s can be found here for those who would like to check them out, use them with their kids, or take ideas and make them their own.

It has been over three weeks since we first started and we all are growing, improving, adjusting.  We are getting better, but we are also working to keep things in perspective, which can be challenging at times as we grasp for a sense of normalcy in abnormal times.

We are living through a global pandemic, and living 40 miles north of Manhattan with only a bridge separating us from Westchester County, which are unfortunately dangerously close to the epicenter of the pandemic.  We have had children who have lost parents, we have had staff members who have lost parents, we have numerous families dealing with crises they may not be equipped to handle.

Participating in Dr. Tracey Severns daily morning chat sessions have proven to be helpful for me as I try to prioritize what is most important.  The one and only Rick Wormeli offered excellent insights into grading practices while a guest on the show. One statement he made has stuck with me.

“This is a time for compassion over compliance.” This, like most of what Rick has to offer, just makes so much sense.

Shouldn’t we consider a different approach during these different times?  We may be asking children to come to understand what enduring issues occured during World War I, The Great Depression, before we realize they are living through a historical period in American history that future students will be studying 50 years from now.  May we not be better serving them to look at things from our current historical context?

This situation is testing our fortitude as a profession, as a country, as a people.  Our world has been turned upside down. Yet there are so many positive outcomes, so much to be grateful for even in a time of loss.

The bright side:

  • Reconnection with family
  • Improved technology skills
  • Creativity ways to connect with students and families
  • The slowing down of our hectic pace
  • New approaches to grading, assignments, interactions
  • Collaboration
  • Social media celebrations
  • Valuing different skill sets
  • Environmental improvements
  • All of the helpers and heroes who have emerged
  • Flipped learning experiences
  • No need to put on a suit daily!
  • Emphasis on Social Emotional Well Being
  • Connecting with educators across the world
  • Chris and Andrew Cuomo exchanges

I applaud all the amazing educators out there for doing all you do during a crisis.  Although I do not claim to have to secret to Covecation success, I can offer some suggestions which I have found helpful.

Self care

  • Keep it simple
  • Spend some time learning each week
  • Create a daily plan
  • Get outside
  • Find time to celebrate
  • Be understanding when others act out including family and yourself
  • Join the social media fun
  • Read
  • Exercise
  • Meditate

Instructionally 

Pre-recorded lessons that utilize a slide deck that is narrated and recorded by using screencastify or google meet allows students to access the material at their own pace.

Live Q and A sessions help to answer student questions and give them much needed social interactions.

Work in teams and pairs to develop lessons.  This not only gives teachers more time to connect with kids, but also allows for educators with different strengths to work together to create exemplar learning experiences.

Break your courses down into the most essential goals and objects.  Then figure out a variety of ways to have students access those key learning components.

The most important thing you can do for you students is to let them know you care and let them know you are there for them.

Think about different ways to assess understanding.  A phone conversation, project, or interview can work just as well and in many cases actually be a better way to assess student understanding.

This is the message that was sent out to our District regarding grading and assessment. And much like everything we are dealing with during this time of  I-Learning, our assessment plan is not perfect, but we are doing our best to learn together in an effort to give each student what it is they need.  Some need structure, some need to be challenged, some need compassion, and some need us to cut them a break.

The same goes for our educators and educators across America. They are working, they are improving, they are learning, they are struggling to do their best, all while they deal with family responsibilities, tragedies, and worries. Once again, educators are proving why teaching is one of the most rewarding, important, and challenging jobs in the world.

Administrators ask teachers to be flexible with students; it is equally important for administrators to follow Wormli’s advice and go for compassion before compliance in their work with teachers.  Common sense should prevail over red tape and rules, unless of course we are talking about safety.

For a long time the field we love, the field of education has been at a precipice of change, and meaningful reform.  Could this tragedy be the nudge we need to get over the proverbial hump? Being an optimist I would like to think so, and when I see so many shining, so many heroes emerging, I become more and more confident that although we may have to climb through 500 yards of raw sewage, much like Andy Dufrain, we will come out cleaner, stronger, more compassionate and have an education system that has gone through a lasting metamorphosis that truly stives meets the needs of each and every child to show for it!

We got this!