For the first time I can remember in my 14 years here, Verona’s schools feel behind the curve.
Not only has the Verona Area School District delayed the start of school, as many districts have, it will not have extra in-person support services ready then, and nobody really knows when or if it will.
The district also won’t have much information ready for parents about how schooling will work until just a few days before school starts. It’s already had to move back the date of its back to school guide to Sept. 3, rather than early August.
This uncomfortably late rush is not the fault of teachers or most district staff, who I know firsthand are generally dedicated, competent and caring. It’s not even the fault of leadership at the national, state or county level, though all have had a hand in bungling the most important part of our economic recovery from COVID-19, getting kids back to school full time.
No, this lands squarely at the feet of the school board and its longtime superintendent, Dean Gorrell. They failed to communicate properly with one another for a vote that took far too long during a confusing, uncertain time for the entire world, and they appear to still be having problems getting on the same page.
The result of the board’s Frankenstein plan to blend immediate, half-day in-person schooling for the youngest three grades with virtual learning for the rest has created a true monstrosity for Gorrell and his administrators as they put together an unrealistic package of bus schedules, facility use, technology and lesson plans. It should be no surprise there is no room to fit the “plus” into the Virtual+ plan the board appeared to think it was voting for.
That’s right, the board didn’t actually vote for Virtual+, and their clearly upset superintendent didn’t make it clear to them that producing that plan in five weeks would be a fool’s errand. He waited three weeks to inform board members of their misunderstanding, until well after the plan could not be changed, in what appears to be a carefully placed middle finger at their careless, last-second decision to pull the rug out from under his feet.
Sure, the idea of socializing the youngest and preventing future achievement gaps sounds noble enough. And because of the moves resulting from these massive, new facilities taxpayers just bought, there’s more room for social distancing.
But how the board expected teachers and support staff to plan both types of learning in just over a month is beyond me. And how some of them think this fractured plan will help parents – who can’t use these half-days to go back to any in-person jobs – also makes no sense.
Certainly this is one more frustration for Gorrell, whose final year before retirement will be a continual adjustment to changing conditions in public health, rather than the victory lap of enjoying the new facilities he put so much effort into.
But he unfortunately has reaped what he’s sown with his notoriously control-freaky style.
For years, Gorrell has driven board decisions even more than most suburban superintendents, controlling the flow of information and presenting things the way he wants them to look to meet his own goals. Usually, that works for him, even if it sometimes gets under the skin of his partners at the city, in the police department or in the school buildings.
This time, he failed to anticipate the groundswell of parents’ desire to see their kids interact with someone, anyone but themselves, even if just for a little while. And by pushing the vote on this until late July – ostensibly waiting for guidelines from Public Health Madison Dane County – there wasn’t time to take a breath and rethink it.
As a result, his team was not prepared for the small, fringe uprising led by a former board president that suddenly turned into a poorly considered 4-2 vote for a bizarre compromise nobody had even discussed until that night.
I’m not sure what the board members all thought was going to happen, but I suppose it doesn’t matter now. The genie isn’t going back into the bottle, and all of us – including the teachers who have to deal with this mess more than anyone while trying to safeguard their own health – will have to make do with the consequences the best we can.
As much as we all want things to be “normal” again, there is nothing we can do to make this school year even a tiny bit normal. So let’s stop pretending, please. And realize that for our kids, living through this time in our history is educational on its own.
I know it’s a hard time for everyone, harder for some than others, and we’re all tired of this pandemic. It’s made us suspicious and reactive, and we’re not all making our best decisions.
But let’s hope our board and our administration work together better than this whenever it’s time to send the rest of the kids back to school.