Over the past couple of weeks as our community and schools have grappled with the uncertainties of the current pandemic, I have seen countless school employees put aside their own concerns and focus on the needs of students and families first. They are among the many true heroes of these times, and we owe them our utmost respect and gratitude.
Food service workers, custodians, technology staff, teachers, coaches, social workers, aides, bus drivers, maintenance staff, campus supervisors, administrators and a host of other employees have come together as a community to join and support parents in ensuring that students remain safe and continue to thrive in these challenging times.
This past Friday I saw our community at its best at numerous school-based food distribution sites. I saw smiling kids who were able to exchange hand waves and smiles with their friends, and an “air-hug” and a meal from their cafeteria staff, custodians, teachers and principals. I saw caring and grateful parents – thankful for a few minutes outside and appreciative that they have a place to go to connect with other compassionate people in this time of uncertainty. I witnessed joy on the faces of the school staff who were buoyed by a sense of purpose and the knowledge that they continue to make a difference in the lives of their students.
Educators, with little notice, used their own ingenuity to redesign what teaching and learning look like in this new environment, literally over a matter of hours! Teachers and teams of curriculum staff are working tirelessly right now to implement a county-wide rollout of distance learning options for students and parents. Districts will work to every extent possible to provide students with special needs the support they need, albeit through non-traditional technologies and approaches. Our expectation is that students will be able to stay connected to their classroom and their teachers through the use of technology and online learning. This transition is not only important for education continuity, but also for the social and emotional support and connectedness it provides.
Kern County’s school districts and institutes of higher education are working collaboratively and with a sense of urgency to bring educational normalcy back to students and families. The form of education may change radically over the next several months; however, the need to provide an excellent education experience for our children remains constant.
Everyone in our county should feel proud of the prioritization of essential services to our children during this pandemic. This will truly define us as a community. Kudos to our firefighters, law enforcement, healthcare professionals, grocery workers, gas station attendants, truckers and so many others that continue to make it possible for us to operate remotely.
I am hopeful that, while our community is temporarily isolated physically, we look for ways to come together emotionally and spiritually and uplift our collective hearts. In a local neighborhood, I see parents and their children playing outside, riding bicycles and walking together while practicing social distancing. I see neighbors talking and smiling – connected perhaps for the first time. I see people sharing food and supplies, and checking in on elderly neighbors to ensure that everyone has their basic needs met.
My greatest hope is that our community rallies behind our commitment and shared efforts to make sure our students continue to feel safe, learn and thrive. We do not know when school will return to on-site learning, and we are planning for every eventuality. But schools will continue to be a safe haven where essential services are deployed to neighborhoods, just as they have always been throughout our nation’s history. In the meantime, all of us can take this opportunity to reflect, to come together and help our community rise above the fear and despair. Education has always been a path out of troubled times, and I hail the unsung heroes – the education community, parents and students — who are united in our commitment to children.
Crystal balls are in short supply, yet resourcefulness, grit, courage and love are not. I know that because I have seen those qualities firsthand over the past several weeks, and I know in my heart that they will continue to guide us in the months ahead.
Mary C. Barlow is the Kern County superintendent of schools.