During a public health crisis, professionals from across a range of sectors become valuable and vital extensions of the public health workforce. This is particularly true for educators who are responsible for making decisions that impact the health and wellbeing of thousands of students, teachers, and staff, and by extension their families.
We spoke with Dr. Errick L. Greene, superintendent of Jackson Public Schools (JPS) in Jackson, Mississippi, to learn about how they are responding to the Covid-19 pandemic and what makes them hopeful during this crisis. Dr. Greene took the helm at JPS in the middle of a completely different crisis, during which he had to navigate the district of nearly 23,000 students away from a proposed state takeover. The new strategic plan he and his team developed to provide an “excellent education for all” was interrupted by Covid-19, which caused Errick to figure out how to keep the district moving forward together while faculty, staff, and students were physically separated. Our conversation with Dr. Greene has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
What has been the most challenging or difficult professional decision you’ve had to make so far during this pandemic?
There have been a few, but one of the most challenging decisions was figuring out how to maintain our meal service during school closures. No one really debated the need – that’s been established over and over again; but the added challenge in this situation is the health threat for our team members who prepare and distribute the meals. Even with the use of personal protective equipment and appropriate social distancing, we know that every day our team members take on additional risks to their own well-being and that of their loved ones at home.
What are you most concerned about right now personally and professionally?
Like most, I hate not knowing. We can plan better when we have a sense of what’s to come and for how long this crisis will hold. Because there’s so much unknown amongst our leaders and the public, myths live like truths and fear abounds. Those myths and that abiding fear, if not checked, cause people to behave in unsafe ways. Because our individual health is so linked to that of others in the community, I’m concerned that those making really bad decisions will cause all of us to suffer far more/longer than necessary.
How are you staying connected with coworkers and colleagues?
Because we’ve been so busy and committed to finding a “third way” of educating our scholars, my team and I have been connected pretty well during this time. We’re using video conferencing like nobody’s business. As intense and tiring as it can be, I definitely feel like we’re maintaining the level of communication to make informed decisions and to implement with care and excellence. This level of connectedness is much more challenging while school is open because we’re dealing with the issues of the day (tyranny of the now), as well as trying to chart a course for the future.
My family and I are checking in pretty regularly (almost daily), but usually by text and phone calls. Unfortunately, we aren’t using video technology as much and, therefore, I don’t feel the same level of connectedness with them. (NOTE TO SELF: GET ON IT!) My friends and I have done virtual game nights and happy hours, so that’s fun. For both family and friends, I still feel the miles between us, and oftentimes I feel it even more because I know that I can’t jump on a plane this weekend and go see them.
What makes you hopeful amid this pandemic?
As much as I know we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us to reimagine public education, I do consider it a silver lining that so many of us education leaders are thinking in that way. Education will be forever changed. The question that we’ve got to answer is whether it will be better or just different
What words of encouragement do you have for educators?
This is clearly one of the toughest times that we have seen in our lifetime – sickness and death, unemployment, despair, and separation from our families and support systems (churches, friends, etc.). Thankfully, we’re already starting to hear from those who don’t do this work how much they appreciate us now. They’re gaining a better understanding of the challenges and the value of educators. They’re also coming to grips with some of the inequities found in education. My hope is that our society will emerge from this horrible time with a much stronger commitment to supporting public education. I encourage all of us to remain steadfast and committed to excellent education for all children because that’s the only way that our society will rebound in the long term.