Orange County Superintendent of Schools Al Mijares, Ph.D., talks Top Teachers, Employees and Leaders, and how they continue going above and beyond no matter what the challenge.
Parenting OC: How has the 2021-2022 school year gone so far?
Al Mijares: It has become something of a cliche to say that this is a year like no other, but we’ve had good reason to make that statement for three straight school years.
This has certainly been a challenging year. Even though the Omicron variant generally produced milder symptoms overall, the sheer number of cases among students and staff walloped our schools as they reopened following winter break, causing widespread absences, staffing shortages and disruptions to learning.
Fortunately, those rates are tapering off, and it is our hope that the worst of this pandemic is finally behind us as we gear up for spring. In the meantime, it’s worth noting that Orange County schools were among the first to reopen in the state, and they have continued to serve as lighthouses within their communities, modeling resilience while distinguishing themselves throughout this crisis. Here’s just one small example: While far outpacing the state on assessments, Orange County schools earned seven National Blue Ribbon awards in the fall, and that is the nation’s highest level of distinction. Keep in mind that only 28 schools earned this honor in California, meaning Orange County accounts for one-quarter of the state’s Blue Ribbons.
POC: Now that we’re in the midst of Omicron, what is the OC education landscape looking like?
AM: I believe we are returning to some semblance of normalcy — or as normal as can be expected amid a pandemic. But many of our students have experienced pronounced traumas, and we must be mindful of those experiences and the need for targeted supports and interventions as we accelerate learning. At the same time, we know that teachers, support staff and administrators are fatigued after two years of crisis management and extreme challenges in their own lives. This is a time for all of us to give grace, to lean on one another and to unite behind the common goal of producing healthy and thriving students, families and communities.
POC: This is our School Heroes issue, when we honor the Top Teacher, Leader and Employee in Orange County schools. Can you talk about how the pandemic has changed the roles of those working in education?
AM: I think “heroes” is certainly an apt descriptor. Our teachers and school employees have worked themselves to the point of exhaustion to keep their schools and communities safe. They’ve had to interpret and demystify public health guidance at the local, state and federal levels. They’ve had to find new and innovative ways to engage and inspire students. And they’ve had to balance the needs and interests of diverse stakeholders who haven’t always agreed with state and local health orders. Suffice to say, these challenges weren’t part of their training or credentialing requirements. But we are getting through this together, and there is one common goal that really remained unchanged through the pandemic — identifying and meeting the needs of each student. Orange County educators understand that every child we serve is an individual with unique needs, experiences, abilities and learning styles, along with boundless potential. That’s what drives our work, regardless of external circumstances.
POC: What heroic acts have you witnessed among teachers in OC schools throughout the pandemic?
AM: With educators and support staff serving nearly half a million students across our county, there are too many heroic acts to list, and there are countless stories of kindness and compassion that may not be known beyond the students and families impacted. But we are consistently hearing about educators who have gone above and beyond to keep students connected and engaged, and who have assisted families with supplies, technology and other critical resources, including mental health support.
I do want to acknowledge one way the Orange County Department of Education staff has helped pitch in during the Omicron surge. To help school districts weather staffing shortages, about 100 managers from OCDE’s Educational Services division were deployed to local campuses in January. Their roles included working with students in classrooms, assisting with contact tracing and performing other duties necessary for school operations.
Several schools have posted messages of gratitude to our team on their social media accounts. Some staff members and students even wrote thank-you cards and notes. And that appreciation flowed both ways. Our managers got a front-row view of how much support local educators provide their students, and how beloved they are by those students.
POC: What about leaders like principals and employees across campuses? What challenges have they faced?
AM: Not enough can be said about the role principals and support staff have played. These employees have been on the front lines of national debates over COVID-19 safety protocols and instruction, and, again, many dealt with loss and hardships in their own lives. But their work has produced learning environments that are safe and welcoming for students.
None of this has been easy. It is extremely difficult to maintain a sense of calm, cohesiveness and normalcy on campuses when you have constant reminders of a potentially threatening virus, from face coverings to contact tracing and shifting quarantine protocols. Yet educational leaders and support staff across the county have found ways to foster positive and welcoming campuses where students can learn, play and laugh with friends. That is extraordinary.
POC: How would you define being a Top Teacher, Leader, Employee in this day?
AM: Our top educators and support staff connect with and understand students. They inspire them, and they help them discover the aptitudes and aspirations that lie within. These professionals challenge young learners to reach their full potential, but they also challenge themselves to take intellectual risks, to dare, and to refuse to accept the status quo. We are fortunate to have so many of these individuals in Orange County who have found their calling in education, and we must never take that for granted.
By Jessica Peralta