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.
Since November 2017, Sara Bonser has been serving as superintendent of schools for the Plano Independent School District in Collin County, Texas–first as interim superintendent until she was officially appointed in March of the following year. In her career as an educator, Sara has worked as a chief academic officer, chief administrative officer, and assistant superintendent for student and family services.
As the superintendent of schools, she uses the knowledge she has gained in all of those roles as she provides leadership and guidance to a staff of more than 7,000 faculty and staff who serve nearly 53,000 students who live across 100 square miles. We asked Sara about how she is responding to the Covid-19 pandemic and what makes her hopeful during this crisis. Responses have been lightly edited for clarity and length.
What has been the most difficult professional decision you’ve had to make during this pandemic?
The decision to close schools was difficult and made before orders were issued from state and local government officials. Working closely with other superintendents in our region, we began discussing the public health crisis in early March. The team was closely monitoring what was then a growing concern that soon after became a declaration by the World Health Organization of the Covid-19 global pandemic. My colleagues and I knew that school closure was a definite reality in light of so many staff and families who had traveled all over the globe during spring break and were about to re-enter our school buildings.
Ultimately, on March 12, we made an announcement, along with several other districts in our region, that we would close schools for one week, March 16-20, as a precaution in order to mitigate the spread of Covid-19. While having to make fast-paced, yet thoughtful decisions, our response to Covid-19 has always placed students, as well as the health of our school communities, at the heart of all decisions.
What are you most concerned about right now personally and professionally?
It is great to be asked what are our concerns “right now.” We’ve been asked many times to talk about how this situation will affect the future, either the future of Plano ISD or the future of education as a whole. But our greatest energy is spent on what is happening right now—all that we are doing to help kids today.
Our number one concern right now is the health and wellbeing of our students, families and staff. We know that we have an important role to play in mitigating the spread of Covid-19 in our community.
Everyone has worked around the clock in each department and at every campus to turn our education system virtually inside out. We are not really looking at the clock, but at the work we must do to take care of kids, teachers, staff and parents.
During this time of school closure, Plano ISD is dedicated to ensuring that students continue receiving meals and have the resources they need to continue learning at home. The district is also making sure families and staff members have access to timely and reliable information.
How are you staying connected with coworkers and colleagues?
This transition to a nontraditional, remote learning model has been an intense learning experience for students and staff, alike. We know the importance of human connection and we are staying engaged with our educators through regular online meetings and training sessions, as well as daily communication just for staff. By providing all of these ways to connect, stay informed and learn, we are seeing our educators adopt a can-do attitude as they put the needs of students first.
We have designed a new district website that has information and resources specially designed for parents and for staff. These sites are updated daily to ensure that all of our 7,000 staff and 53,000 families have equal access to information that is relevant and current regarding this unprecedented situation.
We are so proud of our teachers, students and parents for adapting to all of the rapid changes that have taken place and we understand that it is a stressful time for everyone.
Our teachers and administrators miss seeing their kids on a daily basis, but they are handling a very difficult situation with grace, tenacity and a whole lot of heart. Our staff members have embodied the Plano ISD mission and vision, remaining committed to excellence and dedicated to caring.
What makes you hopeful amid this pandemic?
So many great things about our district, our staff and our community have surfaced during this very difficult time, which makes me hopeful. From this experience, we have learned that our educators, administrators and service departments can adapt to the most challenging situation and discover ways to problem solve and help our students to the greatest degree possible.
Everyone in the community has rallied around the school district to help support our food drives, school supply drives, helping students and families connect to the internet and ensure that social and emotional needs are being met to the greatest degree possible.
We have heard from our community in a big way. From parents and business leaders, to nonprofits and government officials—community members are stepping up to show how much they care about education, our students and our families.
What words of encouragement do you have for the public health workforce?
In education, we depend on members of the public health community to guide our decision making. It is critically important that we have the information we need and the expertise of these trained public health workers who are serving on the front lines of this life-altering pandemic. My words of encouragement to these unsung heroes would be first, a big “thank you” for their service. This is a difficult and daunting time, especially for this industry, and I would encourage them to prioritize their own social-emotional wellbeing and take care of themselves and their families while they are busy taking care of all of us.