As parents across the Tampa Bay area were struggling with the decision of whether to send their children back to school online or in person, Pinellas County School superintendent Mike Grego was facing the biggest challenge of his career – how to educate students during a pandemic.
There were – and still are – so many questions Grego has to grapple with. What happens if a child or a staff member gets sick? How many cases would cause a school to shut down? And for the students who are attending classes online, how can administrators ensure they’re getting a quality virtual education?
“No one has been through this before,” said Grego, who has served as superintendent since 2012. “We don’t have all the answers but we have to work together to seek out the best information and have the understanding that this is a fluid situation. Hopefully it’s going to get better, but we have to keep doing the right thing.”
During a recent conversation with the Catalyst as part of its series The New Normal: Six Months Under Covid, Grego talked about navigating the early days of the pandemic, the measures that have been taken to provide families with educational choices and how he handles the criticisms that have been lobbed at him since Covid-19 forced schools to close in March.
The Catalyst: When did you first become aware of Covid and realize it was going to have so much of an impact?
MG: It first appeared on the radar of a lot of people back in January and February, but it seemed like it was happening someplace else. It wasn’t going to be here. Then all of the sudden, in early March, we saw the real possibility of it having an impact much closer to home and that it could mean schools would have to close. We recognized that we had to be ready to turn on a dime. Our spring break was a complete work detail for a whole lot of people to transition to digital learning.
When did the meetings and discussion start and how quickly was the decision to close schools made?
The decision was made before spring break for most school districts. We were in communication with the Department of Education prior to that, but we had our statewide call around March 13 saying that everyone was going to take an extra week to prepare for digital learning. At that point, we had a sense of hope that this was just an extended spring break and once the medical field figured things out we would be coming back. However, we all understood this was a medical pandemic and that we needed to do our part to contribute to the possible solution and stop the spread of it. We had to pivot extremely fast from the 13th until what ended up being the rest of the school year.
What else was happening during these early days of the pandemic that helped shape the Pinellas County School response?
We were all learning and discovering a little more every day. We were hearing so many stories of what to do and what not to do, and all of those stories continued to change so it was a real hectic time and an awful lot of noise. People were searching for the truth, the medical truth and the medical guidance. One of the things we did early, and I look back in hindsight this was probably the best decision we made early on in March, we pulled together a committee of experts from BayCare, the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County, Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital and the Community Health Centers of Pinellas who could help guide the decisions I could see coming over the horizon. They helped us hand-in-hand to put together our reopening plan. They visited our schools. They went to the classrooms and to the cafeterias, the gymnasiums and the band rooms. We were all about the attempt to open schools safely in Pinellas County. It’s that team that really helped steer our board, myself and our leadership. This is not my background. How to deal with infectious diseases isn’t anything that any of us have ever been trained in, but all of sudden, we were in an environment where we had to lean on other people, which I think is a tremendous silver lining in this experience. It brought people together to use their level of expertise and hopefully it might teach us to focus on the facts, not just on what we’ve heard. Forming this committee has to be one of the best moves we made and it’s still paying off. I told them we’re not saying goodbye because school is open; I need them now more than ever.
When did you realize that schools weren’t going to reopen for the 2019-2020 year?
Back in March, emergency orders were being extended every two weeks. I thought, “OK, we’ll go to May 1. Then, OK, we’ll go to May 15. OK, we’ll go to the end of the year.” What I saw was that we all needed was to become a little more patient and let data and well-informed, meaningful decisions lead the path to where we were going. Midway through that time, I started to get the sense that there wasn’t going to be a quick solution and even as we are getting used to it now, we all kind of understand we’re going to be with this for awhile.
How did this impact your planning?
In May, we began planning for our summer programs to be completely virtual. One of the greatest challenges of this whole thing is not knowing what’s going to happen and having to have two or three plans in place. Coming out of the school year, for example, we planned for a face-to-face summer bridge program, we planned for a hybrid and we planned for it to be completely remote, and during all this planning, we knew we would more than likely only select one model. We just didn’t have the evidence of which was going to be the right one at that time. That has to have been the single most difficult aspect of this whole thing. In May, people were asking us “what about the beginning of the next school year?” and we were just taking things two weeks at a time. Now we were being asked to take things two or three months at a time. We always said we’ll lead with safety and we’ll see where that goes, but we began planning for the beginning of the school year as an open, or hybrid and all of the above even before the state came out with their plans.
What other things have been implemented during the pandemic?
We had to continue to inform our parents, develop websites and get more involved in communication through social media. We had to almost anticipate what the questions would be before they came up. We also had to care for people financially in some ways, and one of the things I’m most grateful for is that we were focused on keeping people employed at a time when so many were losing their jobs. We also distributed just under half a million meals in the summertime. In the spring, we distributed over 32,000 laptop devices to our schools in a very quick fashion. We didn’t have a lot of time. When you look back on the tremendous amount of work that was done, it was one strategic plan after the other. I’m going to be honest to try to silence some of the noise that was generated by the news media and on social media – at the end of the day, what mattered most was identifying the best medical guidelines from the people who knew what they were talking about. For example, the debate about face masks. I knew early in May that this district had to employ a face mask policy because every single doctor said if you want to do one thing, just one thing, to negate the spread of Covid-19, put a face mask on everyone. Not just on some, but on everyone. We ordered 500,000 face masks in the first part of June when that debate was still going on. It wasn’t us as educators that were leading the discussion, it was the medical professionals saying “do this and you’ll be able to return much more safely.” Look where we’re at now – everyone’s wearing them.
How have you handled the criticism from families and teachers over the reopening plan? Do you look at social media at all?
I look at everything, but I try very hard to put everything in perspective and to keep in mind that we’re doing the best we can. This has been a journey in compromise and understanding. I value all people’s opinions, but as we try to govern and move toward the safety and well-being of all our children, parents and teachers, we need to lead with safety. If we wanted to lead without safety, we’d put as many students in the classroom as allowed but we knew we were going to do whatever we could to make the environment in the school buildings as safe as possible. That’s why we allowed scheduling of classes to be made at a school level, because they knew their communities and their teachers and they made the decisions. This is not a top-down decision making process. It’s about what’s best for a particular school. The part we’re all trying to learn is that things are not going to be optimal. We’re all trying to protect as many aspects of human life as possible. I don’t like the term “back to normal” because I think we’re going to continue to have to learn how to live with this.
Our core business is teaching children and we’re going to figure out how to do that. I was on the phone with two sets of principals and we came up with two or three additional ways to help teachers teach simultaneously, most of which happens at the secondary level for scheduling purposes. I mean, if you take an AP chemistry class in a high school and you have eight students remotely, it’s virtually impossible to have another AP chemistry teacher. The other thing we learned from our surveys is that parents really wanted their teachers at their neighborhood schools. They love their schools. They love their teachers and they wanted to have stability. They didn’t want to have their teachers be switched after nine weeks. There are people who are looking at this from just one factor; what we’re trying to do is explain the total picture of why we’re doing what we’re doing in order for us to keep classrooms safe for those coming back
How is that going so far?
The good news is to date, knock on wood, we haven’t had any transmission of the virus in our schools. They’re coming from the outside in. Epidemiologists and contact tracers are studying it and they’re telling us our policies and procedures are all working. The fact that we don’t have 25-plus students in a classroom, the fact that we’re wearing masks – these things are working and we’re driving down any kind of spread as a result of going back to school. And the epidemiologists say that because spread isn’t happening, they can do a more targeted and selective process to quarantine procedures. They started the year off saying “we don’t know how well your students are going to follow the protocols, so we’ll have to quarantine the whole class [if someone tests positive].” They told us we would look at things again after 14 days. Well, 14 days have passed, they’re telling us we’ve done a great job. We’re moving in the right direction. Is it disruptive? Yes. Is it perfect? No. We’re in a pandemic. It’s all about trying to understand the issues not just a granular level but trying to understand the bigger picture. Quite honestly, when we do explain the issues, our families understand them, but it’s when we run to an issue of someone complaining about something and then all of sudden there’s a fire. We try to communicate the reasons why decisions are made with the message of “let’s try to help improve things rather than just be critical.” We know the issues and what we need to do is have people develop solutions to ease the disruption, not create additional disruption. We have to be in this together.
What do you anticipate for the rest of the school year? Do you feel more hopeful than you did a month ago?
I do. I think we’re settling in. The processes and the systems are working better now than they were on the first day of school. They’ll be better next week, and the following week even more so. We have to give ourselves a little bit of grace. This is not an easy lift.
My way of thinking remains somewhat the same as it did when this started. We need to do what’s best for the community, and conducting school is a mirror image of the community. If we’re good in the community and we keep our rates down, our schools will move on without major disruptions. If we lighten up and let our guard down, the virus will infiltrate our schools. Every single person in this community has something to contribute to help the conquering of this virus. It’s not just the responsibility of the schools. I also think we’ve seen the importance of public education through the last six months and the tremendous services we provide to the community. So yes, I’m hopeful. We all need to be hopeful and try to spread that hope.