18 Local Leaders in an Age of Crisis: Barbara Jenkins and Teresa Jacobs
Orange County School Superintendent and Orange County School Board Chair
It was mid-March, and Orange County Schools’ 14,000 teachers were scrambling to close classrooms as the coronavirus pandemic gathered steam. School officials were hustling to dispense materials and digital devices and organize at-home online learning for 212,000 students from 202 schools.
Superintendent Barbara Jenkins and School Board Chair Teresa Jacobs led the charge that resulted in students’ completing the school year from their homes. Jenkins, who has run the district since 2012, says managing the complexities of online education, student engagement and parent buy-in during spring 2020 was a major achievement for the district.
“As messy as it was for families and schools and everyone else to get that pivot completed and finish out the school year with distance learning, it was quite an accomplishment,” says Jenkins, who has earned multiple awards and honors, and under whose leadership the district won the prestigious Broad Prize for Urban Education in 2014 along with $500,000 for student scholarships.
Throughout 2020, Jenkins, Jacobs and the school board have worked as a team to fulfill the mission of their diverse district’s strategic plan while solving pandemic-related issues for students who hail from 199 countries and speak 164 languages and dialects.
Operating and creating policy for the eighth largest school district in the nation in the midst of a pandemic has been no small task. As summer waned, medical experts sparred with state and national leaders about the risks of in-class learning versus potential online education setbacks. Parents fretted. Teachers differed. Students were torn.
The 2021 school year kicked off Aug. 10 with all students signing on to the district’s LaunchEd online at-home program. On Aug. 21, about 30 percent of students shifted to in-classroom learning. The rest chose to remain with LaunchEd. One-third of Orange teachers asked to teach face-to-face, while another 17 percent elected to teach online from an empty classroom. On-campus rules mandate face masks and social distancing. “When we say, ‘You’ve got to wear face masks, it’s not a joke,’” Jenkins says. Otherwise, “if something happens, and if we have to shut down a classroom, we’re going to pivot right back to LaunchEd because your learning is so critical.”
It didn’t take long for the first pivot. On Sept. 8, Olympia High School closed for an intial 10-day period after six COVID-19 cases were confirmed and students were sent home to attend classes via LaunchEd.
Jacobs, who chairs the eight-member school board following eight years as Orange County commissioner and another eight years as county mayor, says that instilling optimism is a must, despite coronavirus fears. “Whether it’s happening face-to-face in a classroom or with LaunchEd, we’re still all committed to the same goal,” she says. “We’ve got to help our students succeed.”
Plans are in place to meet the needs of students in exceptional education programs and to support families without internet connectivity or resources to stay home for their children’s online learning. And if current school plans have to change, she says swift communication is key.
“It’s extremely important we are maintaining confidence and trust about the decisions we’re making,” says Jacobs, who also chairs the 17-member OCPS K-12 Mental Health Commission. Considering the pandemic’s psychological impact on families, she says the district is prioritizing students’ social-emotional well-being with initiatives like OCPS Supports, which offers mental health and social services as well as support for homeless families.
Jacobs likes the synergy she feels working with Jenkins on 2021 school-year challenges. “We think a lot alike and make decisions in a very similar way, and that’s comforting to me,” she says. And Jenkins welcomes Jacobs’ experience and commitment. “She is a public servant dedicated to hearing thoughts and concerns of the community and truly dedicated to the success and future of all of our young people.”
Moving forward means paying attention to lessons learned so far, Jenkins says: “We’ve learned that, when you face what seems to be an untenable situation, you have to have a high tolerance for ambiguity, and you have to remain flexible.”
Will the coronavirus pandemic ultimately change the face of education? Yes, Jenkins says, with one caveat.
“It has forced public education to be able to shift to distance learning, an environment that most of our young people are absolutely comfortable with. The potential for having blended models, especially for high-schoolers who may be working and taking courses online, is an opportunity for a very positive permanent shift in public education.” But the key to that shift, she says, will be internet connectivity for all, regardless of a family’s socioeconomic status. “Will there come a time when internet connectivity is a given? That is everyone’s right, and everyone’s possibility.”