The Times-Independent interviewed Grand County High School Principal Steve Hren and Grand County School District Superintendent Taryn Kay on May 11 about their experience and thoughts about the two prior months, in which local campuses closed, and students were sent home to finish off their year doing distance education amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hren announced in January that he would retire this summer, capping off 31 years with the school district. Kay was named superintendent in recent weeks after JT Stroder announced in February that he would leave the school district.
Both Kay and Hren bring perspectives of seasoned leaders who in recent weeks have faced perhaps the most unique and urgent set of challenges they have encountered in their professional lives, courtesy of the coronavirus. The newspaper asked them what they have learned in the face of those challenges, and what they hope students can take from the experience.
The Times-Independent: Can you two start first by telling us about what it’s been like this past two months trying to organize the district’s response to COVID-19 and having all of the obstacles that you’ve faced? How has that been for you?
Kay: Everybody has just stepped up and done whatever needs to be done in a really masterful way, whether that’s feeding kids, teaching kids, or helping parents. I think every staff member should be commended on their ability to step up and be incredibly flexible and deliver education in a whole new model.
That said, I really think that having school in a physical building is a really important part of our society, and I can’t wait for it to happen again.
Hren: At the high school, for the past two years, we’ve been providing alternative instruction and having all teachers transition all of their courses onto [the online education program] Canvas. Like anything, some of the teachers did that more slowly than others. Some of them jumped on board and really embraced that idea.
That transition online was really helpful to students who were on sports trips who missed school, for example. If everything is on Canvas, they have a platform to go to see if they’ve missed anything and to be able to turn stuff in. So, for us, the transition went, overall, relatively smoothly compared to what I think people from the outside looking in might have thought it was like.
There’s always this idea of “Let’s privatize education.” I guarantee you that the public school system was able to pull this off in a two-day period in a way no private enterprise could have done in the same two-day period. Our schools did it.
I also echo what the superintendent said: I think this brings to light that person-to-person contact — the actual, physical classroom — is really the best place for education to take place, especially for some of our courses at the high school: Our CTE classes, our woodshop classes and others. You can’t do wood shop remotely.
The Times-Independent: Taryn, what to you is so important about doing school in person?
Kay: We want to educate whole people. The academic piece is one thing that, for most people, is better done in person than via distance education. But the social and emotional piece of education is infinitely better to do in person than via distance education.
Also, we are for many kids their safe place. We are for many kids their source of food, and while we’ve been able to maintain that source of food, we haven’t been able to maintain the safety net that schools can provide. When you’re looking at developing whole people, it’s really critical to do a lot of that face to face.
The Times-Independent: What are some of the lessons that teachers and students will come out of this for those who are returning and for graduates who are going to the next level? What is something you hope that students and teachers can take out of this experience as a positive learning opportunity?
Kay: Cultivating and developing positive relationships with each other as humans is the most important thing we can do. I think when you have the ability to do that face to face taken away, it amplifies how necessary positive relationships are to make anything happen in society. It kind of defines who we are.
I would hope that teachers, but most particularly students, would take with them the importance that their peers and other humans are to them and their lives. If they can take away the importance of relationships and how critical it is to treat one another with kindness and respect, then it will have been worth it to have COVID among us.
Hren: It is all about relationships. I say that to our staff all the time.
With seniors or any students, many are realizing that, in life, things don’t often go exactly how we planned. This is an extreme example, but if you can, look at the positive side of things what can be gained and keep that attitude of positivity that is going to bring them further than anything else.
In this situation, a lot of it is out of our control, so we have to adapt and do what’s necessary to move forward. That’s the goal.
The Times-Independent: Taryn, we want to know about any preparations that will go on over the summer for the coming year. What are you doing to prepare for contingencies? What is different in your preparations during this pandemic?
Kay: We are going to be prepared for whatever comes our way, but specifically, we’re working as an administrative team to be prepared for three different types of scenarios:
One would be having all of the kids all of the time, a more traditional kind of school. That’s what we hope for, that come August, all of the kids get to come back, and we have some extra hygiene measures in place, and we do all we can to assure everyone — both students and staff and parents — of the safety measures that we’re taking.
The second is a situation in which the state says, “You can start school, but you can only have some of the students there some of the time.” So, for example, we’re making plans for having half the students in the buildings for half the time and then the other half come for the other half of the time. We’re talking about those kinds of plans, and we’ve got three or four different ideas about what that might look like.
Third, we also, of course, must have a plan in place if we’re not allowed to open at all. That would look much like what’s been going on recently.
We don’t want to get caught off guard. We want to be prepared for whatever happens. If a decision is made last minute, we want to be ready to roll, so we’ll have information out to the public long before we get there so they know exactly what to expect.
The Times-Independent: What kind of support are you hoping for from the state and local community as you prepare for what may be a totally unprecedented form of education in the coming year?
Kay: From the state, I’m hoping the legislature doesn’t cut funding. That would be the biggest thing they could do to help us: Not cut funding.
I’m also hoping for good guidance from the governor’s office and the state superintendent’s office enough in advance of beginning start dates that we can make good plans.
I don’t anticipate more financial help. I would love that, but I don’t think that’s coming.
From our local community, I want them to know that we want to be back in school as much if not more than they want us to be back in school. It’s our livelihoods, but more than that, it’s our passion, and we believe it’s what’s best for kids.
We will be bound by what we’re directed to do, so we’ll communicate and get plans out as soon as we have them. We know anything short of full-on school isn’t going to be what the community wants. It’s not what we want, either.
We’re all in it together, and hopefully, we can all learn that compassion and kindness that I was talking about earlier because we’re not all in the same boat, but we are all in the same storm.
The Times-Independent: Steve, you’ve been with the high school for so long, and you’re retiring this summer. This year has been so different in so many ways, and we are interested to know for you personally, what are you thinking about and feeling as you’re handing off the reins to the next generation of leadership for the school amid a very tumultuous time?
Hren: Back to what I said earlier about students not knowing what the future holds: It’s one of the things I found out quickly, especially when I became the principal 13 years ago. There’s always something new that happens.
It seemed like, when I would deal with different things that have happened through the years, I would think, “Oh well, nothing else could top this,” or, “Nothing else could be different.” But there is always something different.
To me, it’s almost like this is how it was supposed to be. In some ways, it’s made the transition — this might sound strange — easier because I don’t want anything in return. I know what I’ve done, and it could not be easier for me to just walk away knowing the new principal and new assistant principal are very capable. They’re very astute individuals, and they’re going to do a really good job.
The staff that we have at the high school that we’ve developed over the last 13-odd years is very good holistically. It didn’t really surprise me that they were able to respond the way they did. They’re going to move forward and carry on, and they’ll do great things.
The Times-Independent: What’s your message to seniors who are going to be missing their usual graduation ceremonies and a substantial piece of their senior year? There are also plenty of students affected by this who are not graduating; what’s your message to them as they go into the summer or onto the next step, whatever it may be?
Hren: Most of this graduating class was born during 9/11. Now, they’re going out with another situation that is a huge national ordeal, and it’s something that will mark them. Hopefully, the relationships they have now or the relationships they form in the future will have a little more meaning as they reflect on this time.
If you think about people like my grandmother, who was born in 1903: She lived through the flu epidemic of 1918, the Great Depression, World War II … Those things really changed how people her age lived their lives. They lived differently than people do today. When my grandmother passed away when I was a junior in high school, she was 77 years old. That lady for several years lived on $400 per month, and you’d never know that was what she lived off of.
I hope the graduates take away resilience and adaptability because they will all need to have those things at some point or another in their lives — probably many times.
Kay: For me, watching the grace with which the students have collectively handled this situation makes me feel really good about the opportunities for them in the future. Life throws curve balls at you, and the better able you are to deal with them, then generally, the more content and happy you’re going to find yourself.
I think this has deepened the bond that the seniors have for one another. They have a unique thing now: They are the COVID class. That’s really brought them together. I think if they can take that spirit of being resilient and overcoming all the weird things life throws at you, all while maintaining those close relationships with those nearest them, they’re going to be in a really good position to have successful lives and feel very fulfilled.
Use this experience as a springboard to a resilient life.