Since its onset in early 2020, the coronavirus pandemic has taken a profound toll on educational systems across the globe. According to UNESCO, by the beginning of the 2020/2021 school year approximately 1.077 billion students worldwide were being affected by school closures in some way.
Schools do not only provide a place of learning for their students, they provide support and community as well. Indeed, they are rightly viewed as the bedrock of their communities. In looking to understand how Door County’s teachers, school staff and school administrators have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic—how they have adjusted and continued to teach, to provide support and community to their students—we spoke with Dan Tjernagel, Superintendent of the Sturgeon Bay School District, and with Patti Vickman, Superintendent of the Southern Door School District. Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How has the work of your school district been affected by COVID-19 since COVID-19 came into our world last March?
Patti Vickman: A crisis sometimes forces us out of our comfort zones, and that definitely happened last March. Once we realized that this was very serious and not a temporary situation, we started thinking creatively—out of the box—figuring out how we were going to honor our core mission of supporting our children and their families and continue to give them a great education amidst constant, even daily, change.
Dan Tjernagel: And, there are a number of things that are not the same as they once were: after school activities, concerts, even how we run the school. For example, some kids attend school in person, others have been learning online, while others have had to move between in-person and virtual school because they had to quarantine, or because a grade level or classroom had to close due to a positive test or a shortage of staff.
What hasn’t changed is that we still continue to serve the kids and families of our community—to bring value to the community, and to make sure the kids are cared for and fed. However, the amount of work that has gone into making sure we can adapt, and that our work can continue, has certainly been a tremendous challenge for us as an entity, and certainly for all of our staff members.
Patti Vickman: Yes, because of all of the changing circumstances we’ve all had to do a lot of learning in fields other than education. We’ve needed to learn from medical experts—Dr. Fogarty and Dr. Heise at Door County Medical Center, our school nurses and athletic trainers, as well as Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control. We learned how to address virtual needs. Some families, for personal or medical reasons need their children educated virtually, so staff has acquired more technology skills. So, everyday it seems like there is something new to learn, and no one necessarily has the answer—well, the answer is actually, “How do we come together and then problem solve together?”
How have the teachers and staff been affected by COVID-19? How has it affected their families and home life?
Patti Vickman: Traditionally, when you have a change in education, it’s the profession that changes—for example, you may have to change educational strategies—but, at night you go home and you’re still with your family, you can relax and continue on with your life as it normally is.
So, one thing that’s been hard for our staff with the pandemic is, not only has their profession changed—how they do their work, and the doubled or tripled workload that comes with both on-site and virtual students—but also, personally they worry about their own family members, their own health, and their ability to connect with their own families. So, it’s not only, “How do I reach out to my own students?” but also, “How do I still take care of my own family and keep them safe?”
Dan Tjernagel: There has been a tremendous impact on all members of the community and certainly on our staff. Professionally speaking, I’ve asked our staff to do things they’ve never done before. Certainly, they’ve had to work very long hours—it was an extremely taxing summer for many of our staff, especially our year-round staff—but, time and time again they’ve risen to the occasion, they’re doing anything that’s required of them, whether it’s behind the scenes in maintenance or food service, or with our frontend staff in the office or school nurse team, or with our classroom teachers and classroom support staff. They are all doing a wonderful job to meet the needs of every kid and family that they can, whether in person or virtually.
What is your number one concern as we move forward through this pandemic?
Patti Vickman: My number one concern is the effect, both short- and long-term, that this pandemic will have on our society—on our healthcare workers, on our ability to take the advice of scientists and experts in any field, on our families ability to adapt, on our health, and on our children’s education.
As the leader of a school, the last one I mentioned—children’s education—is huge for me. Experts in education often say that a child really cannot afford to have two lost years without it impacting them for the rest of their life. We have to do everything we can as a community to make sure that no child has any lost years during this.
Dan Tjernagel: My main concern is the division among folks. When I look at my phone or my TV I see so much negativity. We’re all just exhausted with the pandemic and everything that comes with it, but division is not going to pull us out of this. If we’re going to work together well, whether it’s getting through the pandemic or any other worthwhile cause, we know we get the best results when people work together.
So, my biggest concern, and also question, is: how do we bring people together in our school system, community, state, and country, on any number of different topics, so that people are working together in a positive way?
What message would you like to share with the community about taking personal responsibility to stop the spread of COVID-19?
Dan Tjernagel: I think back to my teaching and coaching days. One of my favorite terms while working with my students and student athletes was “perseverance.” Sometimes in life, it takes a long time working hard to see a positive benefit.
As I look at this situation and we hear from our medical experts that we’re not going to be out of this anytime soon, I think it’s easy for people—regardless of their feelings on masks, and vaccines—to be exhausted and to get frustrated.
My message would be that of perseverance. That regardless of who you are—your family situation, your political affiliation, your age—we’ve got to keep working hard and working together to keep things as positive as possible, so we can come out of the pandemic sooner rather than later, and still have unity as a school district, as a community, and generally, as people.
Patti Vickman: Well, one of my favorite quotes comes from the anthropologist and author Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that has.”
I would encourage each person to think of themselves as one of those committed, thoughtful citizens that we need. To think of the small steps that they can personally take—wearing a mask, keeping socially distanced, not gathering in large groups, or reminding others of how important they are in their life and how they want them to take care of themselves. This approach will help our families, it will help our community, and it will help us keep our children in school.
I firmly believe that if we make the hard choices now, and we take all appropriate precautions, we will be glad in the future that we did because we will still be surrounded by our loved ones.