Superintendent Leadriane Roby took the helm at Grand Rapids Public Schools roughly three months into the COVID-19 pandemic, and was immediately thrown into an immersive process with district staff and students’ parents over how exactly the district would function at the start of the 2020-21 school year.
Two months into the job, the GRPS board had unanimously approved a return-to-school plan that will hold classes virtually for the first nine weeks. The plan involves ensuring that each of the roughly 15,000 GRPS students is equipped with reliable wireless internet and a computer or tablet device, but it will also require participation from parents and employers to avoid leaving students behind.
Roby comes to Grand Rapids from Richfield Public Schools, where she was assistant superintendent at the Minneapolis-St. Paul-area district. She’s also a former teacher and principal at Minneapolis Public Schools.
As MiBiz reported this week on employers’ role in this year’s complex return to school for Michigan districts, Roby shares her perspective as the head of a major district and ensuring equity in the process.
You started your job as superintendent in the middle of a pandemic with widespread uncertainty about the future. What’s that been like?
I don’t know that I necessarily have the right words. It’s been challenging and interesting, yet it’s also been very rewarding from the standpoint that people have been all in. The community has welcomed me and has offered to lend a hand and provide support for our district. Within the Grand Rapids Public Schools staff, people have been hands and feet in: ‘Let’s get this done, let’s plan and figure out how we are ready to go when school begins.’ Even through the hurdles and things we didn’t necessarily anticipate, it’s been a very collaborative, collegiate experience.
GRPS has set its distance learning plan. What is the best-case scenario from here?
Best-case scenario: Kids and families feel supported and are getting the things they need. Also students feeling connected to teachers and classmates would be the very best scenario for them. For families, that they feel comfortable with where their children are and that they’re connected to school and their child’s teachers. And most importantly that people are healthy and feel safe. Those are the things I’m hoping come out of this, whether it’s nine weeks or goes longer.
What have been the biggest takeaways for the administration and staff since students were removed from in-person instruction in mid-March?
You have got to ask what people need and be responsive to that. It doesn’t mean that because I say I want apples and only have oranges to give that I can only give you oranges. It’s: ‘Can I give you an orange now and figure out how I can give you an apple later?’ And just being in constant communication — pandemic aside, that’s really important for leadership and organizations.
In some areas of the state, we’ve seen neighboring districts make decisions based on what some of the larger ones decide as it relates to returning to schools. Did you see any corresponding action from districts around Grand Rapids?
Every district, not just in Michigan but across the nation, is struggling with this right now. It’s a national crisis for districts and schools. We’ve had meetings with other Kent County superintendents to compare plans and share ideas and our stories so people don’t feel as isolated. I’ve taken advice, and they have from me. It makes me feel like we’re making the right decision. Every district, like every person, is unique with individual situations — no two are alike.
As GRPS sets out on a virtual learning schedule, how do you address concerns about students and families who may not be able to easily accommodate the situation or who lack resources like the internet or computers?
Obviously, there’s no plan that’s going to fit every possible iteration of what people need. Individual families have very specific needs related to what their history has been and resources. I’d say the balance of physical health where we don’t want students and staff to get sick but also the emotional health of isolation — I don’t want people to feel like they have to choose. No one is saying that’s not important, yet if you’re talking about their physical well being and they get sick, that has so much impact on their social and emotional well being as well.
We are trying to ensure everyone will have the technical and logistical support they need, and making sure we have a one-to-one ration for devices K-12. We also have hotspots for people who may have connectivity issues to bolster that so people are not isolated and not able to get online.
The other part about this is we have our social workers, counselors and support staff that are also that extra layer of support.
What role should employers play in this process?
Great question. I don’t want to pretend I’m the expert on someone else’s business. But it is important to remember as a manager or a leader of an organization to ask employees what they need and be flexible. A lot of businesses have done that and allow people to flex their schedules or times to make sure they’re available for children and things of that nature. It’s about just being flexible and listen to what employees need.