Early in the pandemic, my heart broke when I saw some of our students, laptops on their knees, sitting on curbs outside our public libraries and schools so that they could log on to complete their schoolwork. My immediate reaction was that we needed all hands on deck—or, in the language of our community, “Necesitamos todos manos a la obra”—to meet our district mission of “all means all.”
Like countless other districts in the country, we were dispensing food out the cafeteria doors, distributing digital devices from school parking lots, planning remote learning instruction, and trying our best to secure internet access for students.
But it wasn’t enough. Greenfield Union, in the heart of Salinas Valley—the setting of Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden—is farmworker country. It’s likely that the grapes, lettuce, broccoli, artichokes, and strawberries on your table emerged from our rich soil. In Salinas Valley, fieldworkers were contracting COVID-19 rapidly. In April 2020, Greenfield had some of the highest case rates in our county with 2,711 positive cumulative cases in a community of only 17,000 residents.
Our agricultural families have many problems to deal with. More than 95 percent of Greenfield students are poor, homeless, or living in multiple-family homes. Many families share homes with one family in one bedroom, a second in another, and a third making do in other areas of the home.
When it came to getting our students online, how did we do it? We started by mapping out all residences and pooling our resources. Within two weeks of the start of the 2020-21 school year in August, we had provided a hot spot within 300 feet of every home with a student in our district. Cars, vans, and school buses were parked all over the district so that our students didn’t have to sit out on curbs to access the internet.
I’m big on cultivating relationships. We built relationships on all levels with concentric circles. We started with the board and our administrators, then moved out to the labor partner unions representing teachers and other school employees to plan appropriately, before turning to the parent community. We also connected with the county health department, state officials, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control to ensure we received and implemented the latest health and safety guidelines.
To harness these relationships, my assistant superintendent, Laura Cortez, and I convened a 75-member reopening task force representing each of our constituencies: the board, administrators, parents, community members, and labor partners. The task force split into six working groups to quickly gather information on instruction, social-emotional learning, parent and community engagement, safety, health, and nutrition.
By May 2020, the new task force was meeting weekly to manage the launch of the 2020-21 school year. Every week, we came together via Zoom before splitting into the subgroups to explore what we needed to do to provide instruction; to protect the social and emotional health of students and staff; to open schools safely with social distancing, PPE, and physical barriers; to develop vaccination and wellness-center protocols; and to formulate a distribution plan to deliver more than 12,000 meals every week.
This was detailed and exhausting work. Every day, we found ourselves pushing many rocks up many mountains. Yet, it paid great dividends as we moved steadily, quarter by quarter, from full distance learning to fully reopened schools five days a week by April 26, 2021.
Leaders have to take responsibility for their own performance. But we can’t do it alone. Responding to crises requires engagement from across the district. If it’s done right, the payoff is enormous. Your teams become stronger and more cohesive, banding together to do whatever it takes to serve their community. And, in turn, the community appreciates the district’s efforts. And, most importantly, your students and their families know you you love them, will do whatever it takes to support them, and will never lose faith in them, because we are stronger together.
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