The Cards COVID has Dealt our Schools

By Gwyn Lurie   |   September 3, 2020

Sometimes life’s big questions come with choices, not right or wrong answers. History is kind or unkind to these choices which are evaluated through the lens and luxury of Retrospect. MUS’s then-newbie superintendent, Anthony Ranii, was acutely aware of this on January 8, 2018 when he made what turned out to be one of the most important calls of his career.

“Do you think we should close the school?” Ranii asked me, in my role as the then-Chair of the MUS School Board. It was a tough call. None of us knew what was coming. MUS was in Montecito’s “voluntary evacuation zone.” And by this point, after weeks of Thomas Fire evacuations, fatigue had set in. Ultimately Ranii’s decision was to close the school that day, and he could not have been more transparent about his reasons for doing so, as always. We, the School Board, agreed, since the kids’ safety is always our number one concern, on the chance there might be a big problem, it was better to be safe than sorry. Indeed, there was a big problem, as everyone living in the 93108 knows.

It used to be that such outlier events were rare. It seems that until relatively recently, school administrators mostly had only to concern themselves with the education and day-to-day well-being of students. But in today’s world of multiple concurrent disasters, what used to be a once-in-a-career high-stakes crisis situation, now occurs more like once a year. Like whether to evacuate in anticipation of a natural disaster. Or whether to lock down a campus during an unnatural disaster, like a nearby shooting or, as happened at MUS just a few years ago, a bear sighting near campus. This year’s question: whether or not to reopen school during a world-wide pandemic.

As Kelly Mahan Herrick reports in this week’s cover story, this is the decision facing the superintendents and school boards of local K-6 schools, including Montecito Union and Cold Spring, who Friday submitted waiver applications to the County, which would allow them but not compel them, to reopen their schools.

These are never easy decisions and this one has particularly serious challenges. “It’s a constantly evolving situation,” Ranii explains in a telephone conversation this week. “Science evolves. State mandates evolve. Public health guidance evolves – which includes information about the disease itself. Testing. The efficacy of safety measures – things are constantly changing.”

I asked Ranii about the less obvious challenges, like the strong personal opinions held by the various stakeholders and the politicization of recommended measures, which, for superintendents, bring to bear huge pressures on such decisions. This is apparent in the results of an internal poll wherein the staff came down 65/35 in favor of reopening the physical school and the parents came down 90/10 in favor.

It’s very complicated, Ranii said. “As always, there are different kinds of families, with different needs. We have families with kids with social emotional needs, so distance learning can be very challenging. On the other end of the spectrum there are kids who live with grandparents who are immunocompromised. And, of course, we must do everything to protect our staff members too. We are dealing with a very complex set of circumstances, and it’s a hard needle to thread.”

I asked Ranii what he personally believed, expecting to hear a host of mixed feelings and trepidation. Instead I got a surprisingly clear answer.

“I think they should go back to school,” he said. “Nothing is zero risk, but right now some kids are having big sleepovers, they’re going to the beach, they’re having playdates, so there’s a fallacy that all kids are safely social distancing at home.” Ranii believes that in some ways the schools are in a better position to establish greater safety and parameters than the activities in which some kids are engaging outside of school. As for the families that continue to be ultra-careful, Ranii says, there will be options for them as well.

“These choices are not easy,” Ranii said. “Like educators across the county, as across the country, we’re just trying to do the best we can with the hand we’ve been dealt.”

History has been kind to Ranii’s choice to close down MUS that fateful day in early 2018. In this case, should Ranii and the board choose to reopen MUS, it will not be until we see how this pandemic plays out that we will know whether, once again, Ranii played the cards MUS was dealt just right. Some of the outcome, of course, depends on luck. But I also know from years of working with this superintendent that we can rely on him to share his reasoning explicitly.

For the record, my money’s on him.


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