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John Deasy on How High-Poverty Districts Are Dealing With Coronavirus

As families, educators, and community leaders wrestle with COVID-19, we'll be trying to bring conversations to readers that will be helpful in confronting the challenge.

John Deasy is superintendent of Stockton Unified school district. Previously he gained recognition and awards for his work as superintendent in districts including Los Angeles Unified and Prince George's County. I reached out to John to see how he is dealing with the coronavirus and if he has any advice to share. Here's what he had to say.

Rick: Can you walk us through some of the challenges you're dealing with that people might not be aware of?

John: Some of the most serious challenges are with the youths that require and had been getting one-to-one contact with adults—things like physical and occupational therapy, speech therapy, and mobility and physical support for immobile youths. We are also trying to figure out what individual and group counselling looks like in the age of distance. And then there's the issue of honoring all the laws of confidentiality while attempting to provide this type of support. Another very emotional issue that we're grappling with is providing support when a student dies. Grief counseling and individual counseling are all different now; we simply can't send out a crisis team to a school and a home right now. These are just a few examples.

Rick: How much confidence do you have that this distance learning is a meaningful substitute for all the benefits kids get from being in school? Is it a pretty close approximation or a pale imitation?

John: We actually do not know right now. This will take time to ascertain. It certainly is not a meaningful substitution for human connection. There are many skilled components to the acquisition of new knowledge—that is appropriately scaffolded and then used to solve new problems—and chief among them is that this has always been a communal and convivial event. Just think about how many times a teacher says: "Now turn to your elbow buddy and work together on this problem." Or how many times do we see a teacher kneeling aside a student demonstrating a skill on the paper? The loss of this type of interaction and so many other intangible experiences of proximity will be felt, just not immediately understood. Another point I want to raise is that the development of executive function in early years is modeled and practiced in community, not at a distance. Students need to actually see and witness older students and adults use the skills found in a developed executive function in action so that they can apply these and model these skills. It is a set of skills that are unlikely to be developed and mastered in isolation or by reading. An analogy is trying to teach someone to swim by never entering the water. This will certainly need to be addressed.

Rick: What are you hearing from the field about how educators are dealing with the adjustment?

John: At the moment, my colleague superintendents across the country are dealing with too many variables to sufficiently catalog them all. However, among the commonalities of all these variables are:

  1. We are at the center of both school and community responsibility nearly 24 hours a day. This is exhausting and emotionally draining in a way we have never faced.
  2.  The fact that decisions are now affected by so many external entities makes things very complex. We're having to balance the advice of county and state health agencies, federal agencies, local emergency centers and their leaders, mayors and governors, and, as always, state departments of education.
  3. Unlike other crises—a hurricane, wildfire, earthquake, and worse, violence—here was no emergency plan, "playbook," or set of well-practiced drills for a global pandemic. What's more, amid concern about serious threats to physical health and safety, the guidance we've been given has been shifting constantly. And furthermore, this event, unlike nearly all other emergency events, had no clear beginning and does not seem to have a clear end. When there is an earthquake, it strikes, it ends, we clean up, and we move forward. Disruption is usually temporary, and we can typically count on things going back to normal in the near future. Not so with this pandemic.
  4. Finally, this is an invisible threat. All other crises can be seen. This kind of context is missing with the pandemic. Taken in total, this has led to a sense of existential fear and constant worry. The daily death rates and new case announcements are very difficult to wrap your head around. It is like the shock of 9/11 every week. We are being told that after the pandemic subsides dry up, we will face a historic shock to the economy. Leaders are being called upon to be models of assurance with positive and clear direction, and to create a sense of normality. Needless to say, this has and will continue to be very difficult.

Rick: How are you thinking about grading and promoting kids to the next grade?

John: We immediately established an executive team to deal with this problem and make proposals so that we can issue guidance soon. Like everything else with this crisis, it is complicated. High school students, and seniors in particular, have had a long understanding of a universal concept of grades and their importance. It goes far beyond the classroom. Car-insurance costs can be positively affected by grades, employers rely on report cards and transcripts during hiring, obviously colleges and universities rely heavily on grades (especially the final grades after acceptance), and the military relies on grades for making their acceptance decisions. All of this is now in flux. And I have not even mentioned things like English-learner reclassification and special education identification. We very well may be in the place where we will need to temporarily move to pass/fail for grading during the shutdowns. Obviously, there is more to come on this issue over the next month.

Rick: What percentage of your kids have internet access? And how are you trying to help those that don't get online?

John: About 60-70 percent have home connectivity. We are lucky because we've been providing youths with hotspots to help with this for two years. So we were almost there already, and it has been more manageable to deal with the remaining families that don't have internet.

Rick: Your schools serve a lot of kids who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. Can you talk a bit about efforts to continue serving those kids and how they're going?

John: We are providing lunch every day. Families drive up to their own school and receive a hot lunch and breakfast for the next morning. This has gone excellently so far, and we will be continuing it. We are now discussing how we might provide one meal over the weekend as well.

Rick: Similarly, some of your schools have high rates of poverty and homelessness. What can you tell us about efforts to help those kids?

John: We had established a remarkable program and support network for our youths and families in transition. Now we are very worried about those that we have lost physical and electronic contact with. We can still make contact by driving by and speaking to individuals who are homeless, but we need to know where they are. There are many supports and services that we can provide or help them understand what other supports they can have and where to find them. For example, where to take showers and obtain personal-hygiene products, food and meal services on the weekends, and free medical clinics. The main problem is maintaining contact with our more than 1,100 homeless youths and their families.

Rick: If a governor determines that schools can reopen in a state, how much lead time does a district need to actually make that happen? What's involved?

John: Honestly, it will only take us about three days to open when we are given the green light.

Nothing is really involved that we wouldn't have to do if we were opening back up after a summer or winter break anyway. Our janitorial staff have been great about ensuring the buildings have stayed sanitized and ready to go.

Rick: OK, last question. What should Washington or the states be doing to help right now?

John: Well, some leadership from the Department of Education be helpful. We are experiencing a significant lack of specific, actionable, and helpful guidance in dealing with: special education, migrant education, grading and our immediate future relationships with universities across the county, and since we have waivers from state testing regimes, what guidance do we have on language- learner progress and reclassification.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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