Q&A with Scott Lay, Nevada County superintendent of schools
Special to The Union
The following is a Q&A with Scott Lay, current Nevada County superintendent of schools, and Terence K. McAteer, a former superintendent of schools. The discussion touches on topics including distance learning, school meals and a changed school year:
Terence K. McAteer: How is distance learning going for Nevada County students this spring?
Scott Lay: Overall, I’d say it’s going pretty well. We’ve had to quickly change from seat-based learning to distance learning in a very short period of time. Though it hasn’t been without its bumps, especially in the larger districts, where we had to work out schedules for students and teachers so that everyone wasn’t interfering with other classes. We’ve been using Zoom, FaceTime and Google Classroom as our secure platforms to reach our students, and all three have worked well.
McAteer: What are some of the issues that you are addressing during the shutdown that the public is unaware of?
Lay: There have been a plethora of outside vendors trying to sign up parents, teachers and students for free trials of their educational software, so our Educational Services Department has been vetting these materials to find out which are true and to be trusted. Everyone is being overloaded with these programs, so we are letting parents, students and teachers know which ones are viable. We’ve also spent a great deal of time connecting and locating mental health resources. Students are social animals and often not doing well with being locked up in their homes, so we are reaching out with mental health resources and checking in with many teachers, students and parents with one-on-one phone calls. And finally, we were contacted by the hospital to provide child care services for the medical staff who have children, which we did. We also were asked if we had any bleach and face masks, so we rounded up all of our school supplies together and I personally delivered a large supply to the hospital.
McAteer: Will there be any virtual graduations or proms?
Lay: All of our schools are planning some form of virtual graduation ceremonies for their kindergarten, eighth and 12th grade students. I know the high school is looking into having some form of in-person ceremony in the fall or even during the Christmas holiday period when most students will have returned from college.
McAteer: What is the number one issue these days that keeps you up at night?
Lay: I think the equity component is my biggest worry. We have many parents that are working daily with their students to provide quality instruction and have a good internet connection. But we also have many single parents who are “essential employees” who work all day and then are expected to be the teacher when they come home, even though they are exhausted. We also have many homes that don’t have reliable internet in this rural county that can’t be in contact with their teacher. Finally, we have about 10 to 15% of our students who have not checked in with their teachers, so we are making phone calls to get them involved. I worry that there will be large discrepancies in learning and how we are going to deal with that when we return to being in a classroom together.
McAteer: How often are you talking with school district superintendents and the state superintendent?
Lay: Our local school district superintendents and charter school directors have all become best friends as we’re on the phone or on a Zoom call all the time. This has been very valuable so that we’re all on the same page. I also have a weekly Zoom conference with all of the other 58 county superintendents, and a weekly call with the state superintendent, Tony Thurmond, and his staff. The state superintendent is really listening to the issues that rural counties are facing.
McAteer: Would you say you are getting good collaboration from the state?
Lay: The collaboration has been good. They now understand that our number one issue in rural California is not curricular resources, but the lack of reliable internet connections and Chromebooks. They’ve had Google focus its donated resources on internet “hot spots” and Chromebooks to rural California. The California Department of Education has dedicated a staff member to just answer our questions and concerns seven days a week. I may not like the answer, but at least it’s timely.
McAteer: What are schools expecting on May 15 from Gov. Gavin Newsom’s May budget revise?
Lay: We’re hearing that we’re not going to hear much on that date as they don’t have all the data together at this point regarding the fiscal picture. We know that it’s not going to be good. All new monies that we thought we were going to receive we believe will be eliminated along with any cost-of-living adjustments. I suspect that we will get some greater fiscal guidance from the state in the summer. In the meantime, I have reviewed all of our local district’s fiscal health and happy to report that they are all in a strong position to weather this initial downturn. It’s safe to say that they are also in a much better position than they were entering the 2008 recession.
McAteer: What do you think K-12 public education will look like in the fall?
Lay: The most interesting model to look at right now is Denmark. They are putting social distancing in place with staggered lunch periods, staggered pick-up and drop-off periods and spreading out the classrooms. Certainly, we have all mastered the hand washing, but wearing masks all day is going to be a problem for many, especially our kindergarteners. I think we can make most obstacles work, but we’ve not figured out how to have social distancing on our school buses, and we can’t make enough bus runs to make it practical and feasible with two-thirds less students on each bus. We also might have a large percentage of parents who just don’t want to send their children to school due to health and safety concerns, so we are looking at having the students participate while the classroom instruction is being streamed to them. It’s safe to say that school is going to look different from anything we’ve ever seen before.
McAteer: What about school breakfast and lunch operations?
Lay: Our current breakfast and lunch distributions have gone quite well. As an example, Penn Valley Schools are delivering lunches daily to their rural students via the school bus, with teachers taking turns to hand out lunches, so that the teachers and students get to see one another. As for the fall, were can handle food services quite well.
McAteer: Are discussions happening about fall sports?
Lay: I’m sure that that, too, is going to look different. We are looking toward the C.I.F. (California Interscholastic Federation) that governs high school sports for guidance. The governor will also be issuing guidelines for gatherings, so we will also be following those.
McAteer: Is there any discussion occurring about continuing distance learning for all students in the fall?
Lay: Yes, that’s a tough one, especially for our parents. We’ve talked about, and are planning, for all different scenarios, including distance learning, a delayed start to the school year and a regular start. This will depend on guidance from the Governor’s Office and from our local public health department. The local public health department has been great to work with and has provided some fantastic resources and guidance.
McAteer: Any other thoughts that you’d like to express to the community?
Lay: I’m really so proud of our community. We have heard very little negative comments as everyone understands the rationale to close the schools. We really appreciate our community’s response and we don’t take that for granted. We know that these are exceptional responses during exceptional times.
Terence K. McAteer is a former Nevada County superintendent of schools and a member of The Union Editorial Board.
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