What surprised me most when I joined the school board four months ago was how much of the information that I have access to is either unavailable to the public, or not actively sought by most. It’s important to note that these thoughts are my opinion alone. They do not reflect the views of other board members or anyone else at ISD 181. I felt that it was important to share what I am able to about what I get to see and how it differs from what I expected when I joined the board. While much of what I always assumed about certain things was confirmed by having deeper access, there were no shortage of things that forced me to rethink what I thought I knew.
The biggest one, hands down, is the stress and strain that our teachers, staff, and administration are still under to this day. The recent surge in COVID-19 cases notwithstanding, the vast majority of us in this area have seen life drift a bit more back to normal over the last few months. I believe that this has proliferated the thinking that this drift was universal, and included the hundreds of amazing people that show up every day and give their all in order to see that our kids get the best education possible. What I can report to you is that their stress levels are no lower than they were one year ago, or three months ago. These people that we entrust our children with are functioning in an environment filled with elevated anxiety, confusion, fear, uncertainty, and even some hostility.
I have communicated with dozens of parents and community members that demanded that we get the children back to in-person learning as soon as possible, a goal that literally everyone in our school district has had for as long as I have been an employee – and well before that. I have had hours of meetings and heard several detailed presentations on the elevated mental health issues that children of all ages are experiencing during this pandemic. Again, there is nobody in this district that would even think to dispute that. What concerns me most from my interactions with the public is a prevailing belief among many that the simple solution to the issue was to put the kids back in school, as if that alone was suddenly going to solve the problem.
The reality is that the issue is much bigger than that. Further, who is watching out for the mental wellbeing of our teachers and staff? They are being pulled in different directions and being asked to turn on a dime, over and over again. They are the front line in dealing with the students that returned to our facilities, bringing a heightened level of mental health concerns into our buildings with them. Our educational team has responded like the heroes that they are, quietly stepping up and doing things that are so above and beyond what should be expected of them that many of us would have buckled under the strain. For many of them, it’s only the dedication to their vocation and the abiding love for our kids that is keeping them afloat.
I wish you could see what I see.
I see teachers and staff literally saving lives. I see them staying up late on a Sunday night to speak with a troubled distance learner who is struggling with balancing the pressures of the world. I have seen them cry and heard their anguish as they do everything that they can do to stabilize the learning environment while being berated and abused by a small subset of parents in our community who have abdicated their own responsibility for their own contributions to the mental state of the children.
I have seen principals welcome elementary students back to the schools in person and by name, with hugs and tears of joy to have them back. I have seen teachers and paraprofessionals break down and hug these kids while they share happy tears with parents. In short, I have seen humans acting at their best.
I have seen first graders provide us all with a lesson in resilience by calmly adapting to schools that are actively under construction, wearing masks and being socially distanced in classrooms, and a learning environment that can change from day to day due to those factors. They do this with a grace and acceptance that has somehow eluded much of the adult population in our community.
I have seen district leaders and administration move bureaucratic mountains to give our kids the slightest nudges towards what we all think of as “back to normal,” while under tremendous pressure from the community and constrained by a constant lack of resources and unfunded mandates from our friends in the government.
I have seen vendors and partner organizations that work with our district suffer, yet still try and come to the table to find creative and innovative ways to keep things running as smoothly as possible, while making sacrifices and compromises behind the scenes — all to put the kids first. I have seen more good than bad. I have seen the ISD 181 family repeatedly step up and do amazing things, and I cannot stress the point enough that this is no less difficult for them today than it was a year ago.
I have seen a board begin to evolve to meet not only the demands of the current crisis but also to respond to the changing world that we live in, regardless of the pandemic. I am honored to serve and represent the taxpayers of our district, and I am grateful for my five colleagues on the board. Each of them is passionate and dedicated to creating the best possible learning environment for our kids.
I have seen some buildings that we should have been embarrassed to send our kids to learn in transformed into facilities that will serve the community well for many years to come. I have seen many in our broader community seek more understanding about the challenges listed above, but I have also seen others who do nothing more than point fingers and refuse to think beyond the tips of their own noses.
We all have a role to play, and I wish you could see the hundreds of role models that I see and hear about within the population of our staff, our administration, our teachers, and our students.