Leaders in Education Reflect on a Year of Upheaval

Alumni from Hawai‘i to Minnesota share their experiences and hopes for the future

Top row, from right to left: Paul Gothold EdD ’17, Vivian Ekchian EdD ’19, Scott Parker EdD ’14; bottom row, from right to left, Merril Irving Jr. EdD ’07, Kenechukwu Mmeje EdD ’12, Roxane Fuentes BA ’94, EdD ’15. (Kenechukwu Mmeje Photo/Hillsman Jackson)

It’s hard to believe over a year has passed since the COVID-19 pandemic triggered a global lockdown. In this time of unknowns, the importance of our educational system has been brought into sharp focus, and we’ve turned to educators time and time again to help us find answers to the tough questions the pandemic has forced us to reckon with. Here, we’ve asked six USC Rossier alumni in leadership positions across the educational spectrum how they’ve navigated the pandemic, how it’s changed their views on education and the adaptations they’ve made.

What is one thing you know now that you wish you’d known at the start of the pandemic?

Paul Gothold EdD ’17; superintendent of schools; San Diego County Office of Education; San Diego, California: I wish I’d known how politicized health science and reopening would become and that these lightning rod issues would not be beneficial for children.

Scott Parker EdD ’14; head of school; Kamehameha Schools Maui; Island of Maui, Hawai‘i: How to ensure that our teachers were better positioned to leverage digital learning. We’ve been a 1:1 campus using iPads and MacBooks for years, but we failed to adequately leverage this technology to deliver learning through more robust digital platforms and in ways that meet our students’ needs in more meaningful ways. We’ve made progress due to COVID-19, but it didn’t come without significant sacrifice.

Vivian Ekchian EdD ’19; superintendent; Glendale Unified School District; Glendale, California: The transition to distance learning has had an enormous impact on our students’ social-emotional well-being. We continue to create opportunities for students to engage online, both in and outside of class, but the inability to have in-person interactions such as athletic competitions and extracurricular activities has taken away a critical element of the school experience. Our district is committed to offering additional social-emotional support for students and families during this time, including providing online counseling through telehealth, expanding access to digital resources and hosting virtual mental health forums and support groups.

Merrill Irving Jr. EdD ’07; president; Hennepin Technical College; Brooklyn Park, Minnesota: We have seen historical numbers of social unrest across our country and in our nation’s capital over the results of the U.S. presidential election and the death of George Floyd and others like him who have been disenfranchised and discriminated against. I am reminded daily of my call to action to help remedy social injustice by intentionally helping our student population, 62 percent of whom come from underrepresented populations. It is critically important that we continue to educate everyone on cultural competency and advance social justice with positive action within our communities and across the country.

Kenechukwu Mmeje EdD ’12; vice president for student affairs; Southern Methodist University; Dallas, Texas: The COVID crisis challenged me and my colleagues in unimaginable ways—we were attempting to respond to an unprecedented pandemic, which affected every aspect of our operations. The uncertainty caused fear, frustration and doubt among my staff. In retrospect, I should have been more confident in my team’s ability to rise to the occasion and adapt as needed to devise innovative solutions to the challenges resulting from the pandemic.

Roxane Fuentes BA ’94 EdD ’15, superintendent, Berryessa Union School District: I wish I would have known when we closed our schools on March 13, 2020, that we wouldn’t be returning in a few weeks. At the onset we believed that school operations would be interrupted temporarily, leading us to a first set of strategies. As time went on, we pivoted to a longer-view approach. Overall, this has been a transformational time for educators as we have had to reinvent and reimagine our long-ingrained approaches.

As you’ve shifted to remote learning, what has been your greatest concern?

Gothold: We were focused in the beginning on ensuring students and families had access to the basics—meals, mental health services, emergency child care—and to devices and internet connectivity for distance learning. At the same time, I knew we had to focus on ensuring continuity and coherence in learning. Distance learning is more than finding activities for kids to do online. Powerful teaching and learning matter, and regardless of if you’re in person or remote, we need to see student engagement, high expectations and a relentless pursuit of making sure our students are learning.

Parker: Our students’ social and emotional needs rise to the top, followed by their ability to maintain academic growth and success. Not having daily in-person contact puts our students at a disadvantage, and we need to work hard to ensure their mental, spiritual and emotional health are addressed through a robust system of multitiered supports, to include behavioral health, student support team meetings and frequent check-in’s with counselors, our chaplain and deans of students.

Pre-pandemic, “normal” didn’t mean success for every child, and that has to change. —Paul Gothold EdD ’17; superintendent of schools; San Diego County Office of Education

Ekchian: Our greatest concern continues to be ensuring all children receive high-quality, impactful instruction and support that facilitates student learning. This distance-learning experience has intensified concerns about equitable access to instructional and technological resources necessary for student success. We continue to provide resources, refine our programs and offer in-person services whenever possible to ensure all students maximize their learning during this transition.

Irving: As an open-access institution, we pride ourselves in changing the lives of everyone who comes to our door by providing hands-on training in career and technical education. Our primary concern has been offering all of our programs and courses in an equitable manner for our diverse student population. Over 85 percent of our [career and technical education] programs require face-to-face labs and experiences. Furthermore, many of our students struggle financially during strong economies, and, unfortunately, their struggles have only increased during the pandemic.

Mmeje: My greatest concern has been ensuring all of our students continue to benefit from many of the critical resources on which they rely for basic living and to sustain their academic pursuits. Some students were unable to return home due to travel restrictions, due to housing or food insecurity, or due to their athletic training schedules—ensuring continuity of services to these students was paramount.

Fuentes: Mental health has been the No. 1 concern in Berryessa Union during this pandemic. Students are feeling isolated from their peers, have more challenging home situations, and feelings of depression quickly settle in. Families and staff are dealing with new pressures and stress. Our district, already maximizing the support of school social workers, invested in even more partnerships to expand accessibility to mental health services, and frequently send messages of gratitude, support and wellness.

Who or what was your most helpful source of professional support as you’ve navigated the pandemic?

Gothold: My most helpful source of professional support was the team at the San Diego County Office of Education. They anticipated many of the things that are now in reopening plans, and have worked closely and collaboratively with the county of San Diego in order to serve as a resource to the traditional, charter and private schools in the county. The planning assumptions and recommendations we released last spring were used as a model locally, in the state and across the nation, and I’m very proud of that.

Parker: Being a part of our Enterprise Leadership Team, Aha Kūlia, has been a tremendous help—collaborating with colleagues from areas like our administration, communications, legal and finance, as well as the heads from our Kapālama and Keaʻau campus daily. This results in frequent exchange of ideas, real-time response to crisis situations (positive COVID cases on campus) and continued resourcing for student and staff needs. Along with a strong support system at home from my husband, our dog and my immediate family, I could not navigate this continuing pandemic without them.

Ekchian: Effective distance-learning instruction involves many layers of training. I am incredibly proud of the way our administrators, teachers and staff have worked collaboratively to develop cohesive supports to ensure student success in a safe and healthy environment. We created a wide range of opportunities for training and sharing of essential practices for effective instruction, technological expertise and safety. Additionally, this fall our district convened an advisory of trusted members of the health care community to counsel the Board of Education and superintendent on best practices to ensure student and employee health and safety during the pandemic. This group has been invaluable as we prepare for the careful and deliberate return of students for on-campus instruction.

Irving: As a former board member of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), I have been privileged with access to resources. The AACC membership, which includes presidents from across the country, continues to be a resource in helping me be a successful president and refine our efforts related to pandemic planning. Additionally, it has been resourceful to have a college COVID-19 planning team to help shepherd this work forward with the college community.

Mmeje: The resources I relied upon most heavily have been professional associations such as the American College Health Association, the American College Personnel Association, the Association of College and University Housing Officers–International and the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators for COVID-response best practices and trends in the field. Additionally, I relied heavily on my campus colleagues and a small informal network of trusted senior student affairs officers from across the country who I check in with regularly for support, encouragement and to discuss the challenges associated with leading during crisis and uncertainty. These invaluable resources have been critical in sustaining me personally and professionally through these difficult times.

Fuetes: I am always so grateful for my Trojan mentors and colleagues. I have a supportive circle who do not hesitate to pick up the phone when I have a question, need to talk through an issue or just need to vent. I have also greatly appreciated my colleagues sharing their resources with me so that I can best support my own school district and students. When you have so many challenges, mentorship is a supportive system to have in place for yourself, especially when dealing with a crisis.

How has the pandemic changed your views on the education system as a whole?

Gothold: The pandemic has illuminated the educational and opportunity gaps that we have been fighting to eradicate, and has made it clear that we must do better for our most vulnerable students. The pandemic has also reinforced the importance of county offices of education. In San Diego County, the Office of Education has been a hub of information, connecting with county public health and with schools. Throughout the pandemic—in consultation with school district and charter school leaders, bargaining association and parent representatives, and experts in topics such as food service and special education—the office has created materials to support districts and schools in reopening.

Parker: A September 2020 Brookings Institution report said it best: “It is hard to imagine there will be another moment in history when the central role of education in the economic, social, and political prosperity and stability of nations is so obvious and well understood by the general population.” What we must do now, however, is to ensure that support for education does not regress but remains strong and constantly front of mind for community leaders, policymakers and government going forward.

Ekchian: The pandemic and our transition to distance learning further exposed existing equity gaps in our communities and our educational system. We had to mobilize immediately to provide children, employees and families with access to technology devices and rethink how students are taught, evaluated and supported. Moving forward, we must place a greater emphasis on closing the digital divide and ensuring students have equitable access to the resources and support they need, both in school and at home, to be successful.

What we must do now … is ensure that support for education does not regress but remains strong and constantly front of mind for community leaders, policymakers and government going forward. —Scott Parker EdD ’14; head of school; Kamehameha Schools Maui

Irving: Who would have imagined that a technical college could be successful in educating and supporting students remotely and through online learning? We spend our time preparing students for the workforce, and the pandemic reminded us we need to continually expand our efforts on how we are able to educate and support our students and advance them to completion. We were forced to reach students in unique ways and to engage within our personal space via Zoom to expand our supportive efforts with our students.

Mmeje: The pandemic has reminded me that our educational system is not as equitable as we’d like to believe, or as it should be. It’s highlighted the inequities that exist among our students—some students have the privilege of focusing exclusively on their academic and co-curricular pursuits, while others are burdened by school and the need to work, some serving as caregivers to younger siblings or aging parents. The pandemic has highlighted the differences in these student experiences. It has also reinforced my strong belief in the advantages of an in-person, residential experience—students are more likely to thrive when they are able to fully engage in the collegiate experience, taking advantage of the many resources provided by our campuses.

Fuentes: The pandemic is clearly magnifying educational inequities that have long existed, and the important role school districts have in providing support services to students and their families. While addressing the needs for digital access and quality online instruction, school districts have also had to simultaneously address issues with food insecurity and social-emotional wellness. Trying to meet these critical needs has also emphasized the inadequate funding of public education in the state of California.

What is guiding your approach as you consider reopening plans?

Gothold: Following the spirit and intent of the guidance—and doing the right thing for kids, particularly our traditionally underserved students—is at the forefront of our planning. Our approach has been to encourage schools to plan for a full spectrum of requirements around symptom screening, physical distancing, facial coverings and limits on gathering sizes, recognizing that conditions may call for full or partial implementation of these measures based on state guidance.

Parker: Student and staff safety remain our foremost priority. We’ve been able to institute hybrid learning for our campus, while offering a distance-learning option for students and families who desire. On campus, we follow [guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] while also requiring the completion of daily thermal screening and an online wellness check. We also offer voluntary COVID-19 testing for students and staff. Finally, our community embraces the concept of Lāhui Kapu, which requires everyone to take responsibility for themselves and each other.

Ekchian: We are steadfast in our commitment to provide on-campus, in-person services for our highest-need children and families while ensuring the health and safety of our students and employees. We have a comprehensive reopening plan that incorporates multiple safety measures and instructional schedules to bring students back safely once it is safe to do so. Over 1,000 students already participate in daily on-campus activities and services, including child care in our technology learning pods, facilitated learning centers, on-site assessments and athletic conditioning. This has given us great insights on how to plan for a larger reopening.

Irving: The needs of our students drive everything. How can we reach our students and provide appropriate support for those who come from underrepresented populations and diverse communities? We have had to reimage ourselves like we have never done before. It is critically important that we view our reopening efforts by effectively addressing student needs while reinforcing the health and safety of our college community.

Mmeje: The leading consideration as we devise our reopening plans is using evidence-based approaches to ensure the health and safety of our faculty, students, staff and campus visitors. I prioritized offering activities and services that allowed students to have a meaningful experience, while remaining safe and in compliance with our established health and safety guidelines. This has led to a significant reconfiguration of many student spaces—spaces that were designed to foster community and promote social engagement were transformed to support physical distancing. Similarly, we focused on prioritizing the needs and health and safety concerns of our faculty and staff.

Fuentes: There are several variables we are considering for our school reopening plan: health and safety, flexibility, social-emotional wellness and quality instruction. East San Jose has been significantly impacted by COVID-19. Implementing all the required safety measures while providing mental health resources have been top priorities. As we gradually phase in in-person instruction, we are being mindful of the importance to reestablish our relationships with our staff and students. We have been through a great deal as a community and will want to have time to honor and reflect on our resilience as we rebuild.

Are there any adaptations you’ve made in response to COVID-19 that will become permanent changes?

Gothold: We have embraced telecommuting. We took a look at which positions can work remotely full time, which only need to come into the office occasionally and which need to report to the office. I think our telecommuting policy, which mirrors a business model, will be with us to stay.

I hope that the increased awareness and interest in doing better for our underserved students will also become a permanent change. We have to capitalize on the situation and leverage our resources to support our most vulnerable youth, whose needs have come to the forefront during this time. Pre-pandemic, “normal” didn’t mean success for every child, and that has to change.

I believe it is a moral imperative to prepare every child for college. If they choose not to go, let that be their choice, not the system’s. It’s imperative we help our schools deconstruct those systems that do not support or that actively harm children, so all kids have access to learning opportunities and all the supports they require in order to be the best version of themselves. So that our schools are places where students’ cultures and languages are honored and they can thrive.

Parker: We recognize that we cannot go back to the way things were pre-pandemic. Distance learning is one of them. Allowing our students access to courses and programs through digital platforms truly created personalized experiences that cater to their needs and individual situations. We also know that digital tools can increase access to learning for those who might not have been able to otherwise access our campus and our educational experiences. The pandemic has also forced us to reflect on how we assess students and engage with students and families. Many of the innovative practices used during this pandemic must continue long after COVID-19 has subsided.

Ekchian: This experience has given us the opportunity to expand our knowledge and use of online tools. Even after students return to more traditional instruction, our district will continue to offer a full-time virtual high school for students who thrived in a distance-learning environment. We are providing teacher leaders with comprehensive professional development on blended learning to bridge distance learning to in-person instruction. The virtual setting has enabled us to significantly increase family engagement in meetings and events. By continuing to utilize these distance-learning resources, and working diligently to close the digital divide, we are preparing for a bright future with increased differentiation, engagement and support.

Even after students return to more traditional instruction, our district will continue to offer a full-time virtual high school for students who thrived in a distance-learning environment. —Vivian Ekchian EdD ’19; superintendent; Glendale Unified School District

Irving: Students can choose whether they prefer a meeting in person, via Zoom or by phone for all student affairs services. Offering the flexibility of choices to students has proven to meet students where they are, and this will continue post-pandemic. Our Student Life & Career Development team stands out—they launched the first virtual career fair in the Minnesota State system, and it was a huge success.

Mmeje: The pandemic has accelerated higher education’s embrace of technologies that enabled many campuses to transition quickly to hybrid or fully remote learning modalities, and also expand the provision of critical academic support services. Practices such as streaming course lectures online or making lecture recordings available for asynchronous learners, providing virtual tutoring, telemedicine (medical and psychological services) and virtual co-curricular programming should be embraced permanently going forward. The aforementioned modifications to learning modality and support-service delivery will be critical to making the collegiate experience more accessible and accommodating of students’ ever-changing needs.

Fuentes: I believe we are going to create a better system than we had before the pandemic. We were working toward becoming 1:1 across all of our school sites. Technology and bridging the digital divide instantly became a must as we moved into distance learning. I told our team our 1:1 launch was here! We quickly activated hot spots, Wi-Fi partnerships, Chromebook and iPad distributions, teacher training and more. As we plan for next year, we intend to continue with our 1:1 initiative. We know that this has changed how our teachers teach and engage students, and that it will have positive long-term impacts.

This story appeared in the USC Rossier Magazine Spring/Summer 2021 issue as “Leaders in Education Reflect on a Year of Upheaval.”