As schools find new normal post-pandemic, collaborations are key to meeting needs of families

FLINT, Michigan -- The COVID-19 pandemic created unprecedented amounts of stress and grief for people worldwide.

However, teachers and school employees were uniquely in the crosshairs, having to come up with reopening plans, ensure that they adhered to ever-changing health and safety protocols, and worry about their own safety and the safety of students in face-to-face settings. 

Those challenges aren’t ending even as the world emerges from the pandemic, either. There is a nationwide teacher shortage as fewer people are going into the profession. The industry also frequently finds itself in the midst of political battles, the most recent ones centered on controversies over what should or shouldn’t be taught about racism in classrooms. 

Still, though, the pandemic highlighted just how vital teachers and people who work in education are to our way of life. Early childhood programs in particular offer tremendous long-term benefits to communities with thriving ones.

Flintside recently spoke with Steve Tunnicliff, who was appointed superintendent of the Genesee Intermediate School District, earlier this year. Tunnicliff was the assistant superintendent for GISD the previous five years and also is a former superintendent for Carman-Ainsworth Schools.

Flintside: What excites you the most about moving into your role leading GISD?

Tunnicliff: “Well, I mean, obviously it's certainly something that I'm excited about. But at the same time, I would say it's humbling. It's a significant amount of responsibility and trust that's, placed in me and this position for our entire community. I think I'm excited most because I'm proud of public education and I'm proud of Genesee County. I’ve spent the vast majority of my life and all of my career here. To be able to continue that work of educating each and every child through public education here in Genesee County is what excites me most. And obviously, working with about 1,500 wonderful staff that we have in our programs and our extraordinary children and families across the county, that is something I’m very honored to do.

“The role at the GISD is to be a convener and collaborator, providing educational opportunities for our entire community. At the very highest level, I think that (education) can be transformative for a community.”

Flintside: You mentioned the role GISD plays as being a convener. Behind the scenes, you partner with not only schools and educational organizations, but also a lot of different organizations that provide food or other basic services for families. How do those partnerships strengthen GISD and what you can provide to the community? 

Tunnicliff: “Wow. That's a great question. We think that literally anything that impacts our community in a positive way is something that we want to be able to support and be a part of. And you're right, that often goes well beyond traditional education.

“As an example, when we’re working with our Early On program and supporting families at the earliest stages of life, birth to three, that is starting well before the traditional K-12 setting. So of course that requires making sure that people are cognizant of developmental milestones and things like that.

“Another example would just be the health and wellness component of our children and our community, helping families with nutritional decisions and support. There’s just a lot of other facets that reach and connect with education both directly and indirectly, so for that reason we're engaged in a lot of that work that so many different institutions are doing here in Genesee County. That is both the challenge and the tremendous opportunity, that there is such a broad impact that we can have throughout the community.”

Flintside: The COVID-19 pandemic has been such an unbelievable challenge for everyone, but schools have uniquely been impacted and had to deal with all kinds of changes and stress. What have you seen, from your team at GISD, and in other districts you work with, about how schools have had to handle so much change under these circumstances?

Tunnicliff: “Well, most inspiring to me, and this would be not only for our staff here, but what I've observed for all districts across our county is being able to immediately pivot and meet the immediate needs of students and their families. It has been well-documented that, what do we do when students are getting two, maybe three meals a day at schools, and all of a sudden schools aren’t open? So it was just meeting those immediate needs.

“And then, the innovation and flexibility around reaching out and making sure that the kids were still engaged in literacy work and, the creation of instructional packets and keeping kids engaged in that work and helping families.

“In the early months of the pandemic, and all the way through to the beginning of this year, we were recognizing that we had to have some robust and meaningful online opportunities for children. So looking at what that delivery system and model needed to look like, supporting the curriculum perspective of that, but then also the infrastructure perspective of that.

"All of our educational institutions came together to meet those unique needs. As we enter into this school year, I've just been truly inspired by educators, literally day in and day out, addressing new and unique challenges to the very best of their ability.  When there's no playbook, that's when true leadership at, at every single level at the classroom level, really came to light.

“From bus drivers across the county, food service people, so many people were committed to meeting those immediate needs right out of the gate. Teachers were constantly changing the way that they can engage and provide instruction for kids and in many cases, running really different classes on a daily basis. It has obviously been a significant challenge, but at least what I've witnessed is just people's willingness to continue to keep the needs of kids as the key focus.”

Flintside: Do you think the pandemic has brought new appreciation for the vital importance of public education to really all facets of life?

Tunnicliff: “Certainly we’ve seen that. And when I say ‘educators,’ I mean literally anybody that works in this field and all these different roles just rolling up their sleeves and doing what they can for kids and families.”

Flintside: As the country hopefully continues emerge out of the pandemic, with the vaccine rollout continuing, what do you think next school year will look like?

Tunnicliff: “I think we all know that there's probably no part of our society that will emerge from the pandemic unchanged. From an education perspective, we've been challenged to do things in a different way. And in some cases, there are some things that we've learned that I think we should be able to implement better than we were able to do before. 

“I mean, virtual education has been around for quite some time, and I would certainly say that we're better at that work (after the pandemic). We're better able to address the needs of children who aren't able to be in front of us (in a classroom) every day, or certainly better at that now than we were before. But I think we also recognize as a society the value and importance of face-to-face education and really how important it is when it can be done safely.

“It is important to have kids in classrooms and in school with each other on a daily basis, not just for the educational component, but for meeting the immediate needs, like food service programs and things of that nature. But also that social and emotional component is so critical too.

“I think all of those challenges that were highlighted in the midst of this have made us rethink and be better at everything that we do. For example, we know now that we can have unique opportunities to be able to continue learning outside of the classroom. I also think you might see some students or families who will continue to want that virtual option, and school districts are in a better place to meet those needs.”
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