Across the country, district leaders are struggling to keep their schools open as COVID-19 makes adequately staffing them nearly impossible. In the El Reno school district, a farming and oil-producing community a half-hour’s drive west of Oklahoma City, Superintendent Craig McVay must make daily decisions about whether to keep schools open—a judgment that could threaten the safety of his 3,000 students and 400 staff members. The first few weeks of January brought a cascade of teacher absences, and every staffer who stepped in to substitute—including McVay himself—contracted the virus. McVay talked with Education Week writer Catherine Gewertz about these high-stakes management challenges. Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Every one [of the 17 central-office staff members who substituted in classrooms] since we came back from break in January is either sick or has been sick with the virus. They came down with it at some point after they subbed.
We had a really difficult situation earlier this month in our high school, so I subbed two days. The group was in the gym, and it was four different classes because we couldn’t find coverage, so I covered that afternoon. We had all those kids, 75 kids, in the gym and one adult there, the adult being myself. That was a Wednesday, and I tested positive on Friday.
I’m double vaxxed and boosted, and I chose not to wear a mask that day. I took the easy, stupid option. Maybe 10 or 15 percent of students were wearing masks on that particular day. [Oklahoma law bars districts from requiring masks in their schools.] Yeah, not the smartest decision I’ve ever made. If I could go back and do it again, I would have masked.
I went home into five days of quarantine. It was a couple of days of a low-grade fever, and a cough; hay fever-type symptoms. I was allowed to come back to work after the fifth day, masked.
[The day I tested positive] I was supposed to be a pallbearer at a funeral. It was a former coworker from another district who passed away of COVID. We’d taught side by side. That was the seventh former coworker in seven days who’d passed away. I also lost my aunt [to] COVID on New Year’s Day. In our school district, we haven’t had anyone [staff or students die of COVID]. We’re blessed in that regard.
I subbed yesterday in a 4th grade classroom that was literally going to be uncovered. The choice was to put that entire 20-child classroom in another teacher’s class, or I could step in and sub for them. I had math and science, and I’m a social studies teacher. I have a 20-year administrative history of managing a budget. But yesterday in 4th grade math, I had no real clue what I was doing. So that was literally babysitting. I was glad to be there. We had a good time. The kids loved it. We were keeping them safe. They were getting fed. They were with their classmates in a social environment. But there was no standard-covering that day.
Over the last two years, we’ve stayed face-to-face as much as possible. In my entire time as a school administrator, over 20 years, I’ve been able to make a decision, feel confident about that decision, and live with the consequences. But beginning 21 months ago, not a single decision regarding COVID have I ever felt like, oh yeah, I’m positive this is the right way to go.
The worst thing I could possibly do is [make a decision that would cause] a student to get sick and maybe even die. The next worst thing is the death of a coworker. Someone has to make that decision [to keep schools open], and it could be a life-or-death decision. I have a great staff, and we take full responsibility, but nearly every one of those meetings over the last 20 months, almost all of us have left wondering, did we make the right call? It’s a pretty heavy load sometimes.
I live two miles north of town. I have a little farm out there. It’s an old farmhouse with a front porch. And I find myself in a coat, on the front porch, at 2 o’clock in the morning. That’s the kind of heaviness that you carry around. The worst part is that I might be sitting in my rocking chair on the front porch and my phone will go off. It’s a text from one of our principals: Hey, I just lost my eighth teacher, of 16, for tomorrow. And, you know, there’s a personal toll to that. It’s been really pretty tough to deal with.
This is my 35th year [in education] and my last year. I’m 61, and I’m retiring at the end of this contract. I’m really, really torn. I’d told the board, in one of those periods we thought the virus was gone, that I wouldn’t be renewing my contract, that I was gonna sit on my front porch and spend most of the time with a grandbaby on my knee. Now we’ve hired our assistant superintendent to become our superintendent. It pains me to leave under these circumstances. I’m looking for that next Greek alphabet letter to come through over my shoulder, praying to God that we miss it.
These superintendents run school districts more than 1,000 miles apart. One in a rural community. The other in the suburbs. But as they discovered in conversation with one another, the heavy toll of leading during the COVID-19 pandemic and making life-or-death decisions about health and safety is a profound shared experience for them.