Funk: What it takes to reopen San Jose schools
Oak Grove High School is pictured in a file photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

How do you define leadership?

Plug the word into Google and a plethora of leadership quotes pop up.

One that resonates with me is by Julian Weissglass: “Leadership means taking responsibility for what matters to you.” The “you” is really an “us,” representing the students, staff, families and communities that make up East Side Union High School District.

For the past eight months, the 32 superintendents in Santa Clara County have demonstrated amazing leadership with a steady hand during these unprecedented times as we face a pandemic.

Leading when all eyes are on each of your decisions, such as during COVID-19, is not only stressful, but downright unimaginable. This is due to the lack of state and national leadership and support. Without clear and specific recommendations, protocols and financial support from the state level, the challenge to keep students and staff safe is ominous.

The national average for time in a superintendent position is five to six years. In California it is only three to four years. Fortunately, in Santa Clara County more than half of the superintendents have been in their position for five or more years.

Kudos to those who inherited this pandemic in their first or second year on the job. I believe that the length in leadership and the collegial nature of our group has led to a collaborative approach in facing this pandemic.

The decision to close our schools on March 16 was a collaborative decision. We hoped it was going to be a short time. None of us thought we would lose the last two and a half months of the 2019-2020 school year.

We all planned to open school in the fall in some sort of fashion. Then COVID-19 became a moving target and the conditions for opening schools seemed to be even a faster moving target. This situation was unprecedented in our collective years of leadership in education.

We all understand the importance of having our schools open. There is no question that the teaching and learning that takes place in person and all of the supports that are built into the school day cannot be duplicated with an online version of school. The structure of schools is just too complex.

We also understand the importance of having a secure place for students to go and get nutritious meals, mental health support, and participate in extracurricular activities. Opening schools is directly tied to the ability of many families to return to work. The reality is that the economy will not fully reopen until schools are back open for full-time, in-person instruction.

A major challenge for superintendents is the ease of public critics being a “Monday Morning Quarterback” or a “backseat driver” in their assessment of our decisions on how best to protect students and staff. I could never give an opinion to a doctor performing surgery because I have never been trained in surgery nor awake during a surgery. I have no idea what it must be like for a platoon of soldiers to come under heavy fire while out on patrol. I’ve never walked in the shoes of those professions.

But, if you have attended a public school and/or you graduated from high school, then you have an opinion of how schools should be run and how teachers should teach. Our experience of going to school makes it easy to form and express an opinion about whether schools should be open or not and whether schools are high-performing or underperforming.

 

I have certainly made my fair share of mistakes and put my foot in my mouth on a number of occasions. I’m sure that I have many critics when it comes to how we have responded to COVID-19. What I will say is that my approach has been one of protecting our staff, students, families and community.

We cannot reopen our schools and keep them open if our staff are not protected and if we do not have enough staff to work. The science behind addressing the pandemic has been straightforward: wear a mask, social distance, stay away from large group gatherings and wash your hands often. If possible, stay home. These recommendations do not lend themselves to having high schools with 3,000 students open as usual.

I will continue to take a measured and thoughtful approach to reopening schools where the conditions allow for our staff, students, families and community to be safe. At this point, the light at the end of the tunnel is that we have vaccines. The key will be how accessible and when the vaccine will be made available to frontline workers (educators). If we want schools to reopen, educators need to receive the vaccine within the first three waves of distribution.

As we continue to face these challenging times, it is together that will get through them. Our future leaders must continue to have the tools they need to be successful. For that reason, I fully expect ESUHSD to run a full, in-person summer school program this summer and open up school to all students in fall 2021.

We need to vaccinate all of our workers in the education system and we all need to follow the health guidelines over the coming holidays to help flatten the curve. Our schools are counting on us all to do the right thing.

San José Spotlight columnist Chris Funk is the superintendent of the East Side Union High School District. His columns appear every third Monday of the month. Contact Chris at [email protected] or follow @chrisfunksupt on Twitter.

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