Leading during a pandemic: A Q&A with MCPS Superintendent Jack Smith

Leading during a pandemic: A Q&A with MCPS Superintendent Jack Smith

Smith talks about transition to online learning, maintaining mental health

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MCPS Superintendent Jack Smith speaks during a press conference

File photo

At the helm of the state’s largest school district, MCPS Superintendent Jack Smith last month was presented with an unexpected and sudden challenge: transition more than 166,000 students and 14,000 teachers to online classes.

The move comes during the global COVID-19, or coronavirus, pandemic, that has shuttered all schools in 46 states, affecting the education of more than 55 million students, according to data compiled by Education Week.

Maryland schools have been closed since March 16 and will remain closed through at least April 24. In the interim, MCPS is shifting to online instruction, in which students and teachers meet virtually to continue classes.

Smith, nearing the end of his fourth year with MCPS, answered questions on Thursday about what it’s like to lead a school district during this time.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Bethesda Beat: You’ve been in education a long time, in a lot of places and roles. Have you experienced anything like this? Before this pandemic, what was the most challenging situation you encountered as an education leader?

Smith: No, I haven’t experienced anything like this, to a great degree because of the ongoing nature of it, and because it’s so widespread across the county, the state, the country and the world, and I think that psychologically creates a very different experience in all of our heads.

In terms of other situations, I was in Tokyo, Japan, as an international school principal when the sarin gas attacks happened at the train stations [in 1995]. That created such a wave of panic because our students came from all over the city and the area by public transportation.

Then, I think the events around the sniper situation in the Washington, D.C., area also had some of the same elements because of the absolute uncertainty, much the way we feel now about even going outside, about who to interact with. It was so random and so varied in what happened and where.

Those are the two situations that come to mind that are the most like this. At the same time, this is different even from those.

BB: In a school district the size of MCPS, it often takes a long time for things to change and there are a lot of steps before new initiatives get approved and implemented. The transition to online learning was a lot faster. Can you walk me through how that unfolded from the first day you realized it was a possibility to today?

Smith: On the night of March 12, Karen Salmon [state superintendent of schools], representing the governor, said a variety of things. The first thing she said is that this is an emergency closure for the next two weeks, and you might want to think about reorganizing your spring break to make up these days. …

She simultaneously said and you might want to start thinking about how you’d do a longer-term learning plan for your students to give continuity of learning.

She telegraphed to us that this might go on a lot longer than two weeks. …

On the day she said that, Maryland was the second state in the United States to close all of its schools. By the next Tuesday or Wednesday, about 40 of the states had closed all of their schools. So we actually swung into action that Friday, meeting with associations, with our teacher leaders, with our administrators and started saying, “How can we build a cohesive, online learning experience for kids, when that’s not our typical, usual way of delivering services?”

We’re a face-to-face organization that uses technology as tools in the classroom and different teachers use them to different degrees and that’s always been based on subject matter and grade level. As you can imagine, pre-K [students] don’t use online learning tools as much as kids in the 11th or 12th grade.

… The two weeks before Karen Salmon made that announcement, we put together a bunch of resources because we could see it coming.

We launched those resources — hard copy and digital — then the next two weeks, we put together the longer-term framework. We used a lot of our 12-month teachers, administrators and support professionals to build that. Then, starting this past Monday, we started moving it out to all 14,000 teachers and our support professionals, like paraeducators. It is not school as we typically think about school. It is bumpy. It will continue to have to be course corrected and adjusted as we go.

Right now, we’re told this will end on April 24, but all of us know it may well extend past that. We’ve got to be doing two things right now.

We’ve got to be continuing to build this out and ramping it up while thinking about bringing everybody back to school on April 27.
Simultaneously, we’re doing those two parts.

We have to think about what happens if this goes beyond April 24. We’re thinking about those things and we’re working on them. I got a pretty critical email from a parent the other day that said, “You have told us nothing about grading. You’ve told us nothing about state standards and what’s going to happen with the spring.”

Well, the thing that I’d answer that with is, 75% of the school year was complete by the time we arrived at this point, and each thing will come in the moment it must be provided.

We were also building systems for meals and Chromebook distributions, and building platforms. This morning, there were between 2,500 and 3,000 Zoom classes going on when I checked.

So a lot is happening. Is it perfect? No. Was anybody in our entire society prepared for this? No.

BB: How much advance notice have you been getting about these major decisions, like the one to close schools first for two weeks, then through April? How has that impacted how MCPS is able to prepare and respond?

Smith: We hear about the decisions like everyone else, during the press conferences. And I understand that on one hand, and on the other hand, the more time we’re given, the better we can prepare. So, we’re in the same boat as everyone else the minute it’s announced.

Now, we were pretty sure last Wednesday that when the governor came on that he was going to say this closure had to extend.

By that time, 46 states had closed all schools and the four remaining states had closed their schools district-by-district. So, essentially, no one was open on that day.

There was no way I could comprehend how they would open schools this past Monday. At the same time, I cannot announce to our community what’s going to happen unless I know. I just have to work off of the information I have and plan for whatever eventuality.

We had started nine days before that announcement planning for that very real possibility [the school closure would be extended] because Karen Salmon told us to on March 12 and because we can read the circumstances that are emerging and growing in our community.
But we get no advance notice of these decisions.

BB: What’s your daily schedule look like? Are you able to get any rest?

Smith: I was just on a phone call right before this one and at the end of it I said … “For the last two days, I’ve just decided I’m not going to start reading email before 8 o’clock in the morning, even though I’m getting up at 5:30 or 6.”

I cannot read email and be useful from 6 in the morning until 11 at night.

We were on the phone from about 9:30 yesterday morning until about 6:30 last night on Zoom, conference calls, one-on-one calls. There was no break.

I was trying to eat my lunch yesterday afternoon while keeping my WebEx on mute and spilling food on myself trying to maneuver the computer and the laptop and iPad.

It is a challenge, absolutely, but it’s no different than what millions of other people are going through right now, so I’m not spending time feeling sorry for myself. I’m just saying, “OK, how do we work through this?”

But I do encourage all of our staff and our community members to just think about when you shut it off and when you turn it back on, because one of the problems is that it never stops. We just have to be thoughtful about that.

BB: How are you coping mentally and emotionally? And how are you ensuring your staff members, who are also working around the clock, are caring for themselves?

Smith: I certainly think being here with my wife, Gayle, has been a silver lining because, obviously, with my job, I don’t get to spend nearly enough time with her. But that has been a really wonderful thing that came out of this terrible situation, is just having time to spend time with her.

Frankly, she sends me things all day long while I’m on phone conferences … that either make me laugh or are poignant and remind us all that we’re human beings and we have to keep connected. She sends me many things that I go on and share with my colleagues in the school system to use.

One that she just sent me that is fascinating is museums are putting out activities where they take famous paintings like American Gothic -— the one with the guy with the pitchfork and the man and woman standing there — and people are recreating these paintings with photographs in their homes.

So I sent that on to [central office staff] to use with our students because I think it’d be a great contest for our students. Some are hilarious and some are so much like the famous painting that you can’t even believe someone recreated this in their homes using their children and themselves as the subjects of these paintings.

Those sorts of things help a lot. Just laughing, being with people you love. I talked to my son the other night on the phone at 11 o’clock for an hour. Those things just make a difference, I think.

And I think the advice I would give to our staff is we all need to stay connected and remember the relationships are the basis of our learning. Whatever we can do, we should do, but we cannot push ourselves to the point where we’re not of value to others and ourselves. That balance.

BB: Your decisions right now impact hundreds of thousands of students, employees and families. How heavily does that weigh on you?

Smith: It weighs very heavily. When I look at the pictures of my own grandchildren in New York and Indiana and Maine online with their classes doing work on the computer screen or on the piece of paper, then I realize 166,000-plus children, just like my grandchildren, are in this exact same situation in Montgomery County. So, I feel the weight of that responsibility very heavily and I’m so incredibly thankful for all of the people around us in the school system and in the community who work together to do whatever we can to do the best we can on behalf of our children.

BB: What’s been the toughest moment for you?

Smith: That’s an interesting question, and this is a weird response, but what was the most challenging was when we went through Monday and Tuesday last week without any announcement about the future of schools.

I was going, frankly, good grief, Friday is coming. What is it that we’re going to be needing to do? And we didn’t know exactly what the context is going to be.

Those days before the announcement were very, very hard.

BB: What about the most uplifting?

Smith: Oh, many of them. I get a lot of messages from staff and I read each one and appreciate them. Sometimes, they’re suggestions, sometimes they’re just, “Hang in there,” and it’s very encouraging. Lots and lots of those.

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com

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For other Bethesda Beat coverage of the coronavirus, click here.

To see a timeline of major coronavirus developments in Maryland and Montgomery County, click here.

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