The chaos driven by the rapid spread of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 has thrown one new logistical and financial challenge after another in the direction of school district leaders. Patricia Kinsella took over this summer as interim superintendent of the 650-student Pioneer Valley district in rural Northfield, Mass., after the previous leader left unexpectedly in August for a job as principal of an early childhood center.
In a high-profile incident this month, Massachusetts’ state department of education sent six million KN95 masks to schools that were later found to be possibly ineffective. Kinsella then spent far more time than she anticipated trying to find suitable masks for students and staff.
EdWeek reporter Mark Lieberman interviewed Kinsella by phone on Jan. 11. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
My state, with a big hullabaloo, distributed millions of masks that are inferior in quality. When our communities let the state know that there was a problem with the masks, our state leaders unfortunately did not demonstrate the kind of leadership we deserve.
In my little district, I have spent so much time in the past week searching for high-quality masks. That means identifying manufacturers, identifying a model, and then identifying vendors, and trying to see which vendors have them in stock. And then trying to make the purchases happen.
We were really lucky in our district. Our district physician is fantastic. She’s got a son who’s a med student who happens to do provisioning at our local university. He’s been helping out.
About five days ago when I was looking, one vendor had cases of 440. Two days later, the only thing you can buy is packs of 20 or 60. From Friday to this morning, all you could get were packs of 20. You could buy only up to five of those. I just opened it up right now; they’re back to having 440.
Then we had a vendor who wouldn’t take a school district purchase order. They make the district go through a 10- to 15-day credit check. I placed $1,500 worth of orders on my personal credit card with that vendor. And I had to do it in three separate orders because they have limits on how many masks one person can purchase.
We got two different kids’ models, but they’re not going to fit everybody. The adult ones we got are really good quality. I just wore one for a half hour; it’s not as comfortable as we’d hoped.
It would be great if I could say to a company, “Can you send two samples and overnight them? We’ll look at them, try them on kids, and then we’ll place an order.” I’m not seeing that as an option.
I just spent an hour with my nurse leader opening samples of masks for little kids. There’s an opportunity cost, and that cost is around making sure everything else the district needs is happening.
I’m not an epidemiologist. I’m not a workplace safety professional. I’m going into purchasing as a side gig. I’m happy to do it, but boy.
We’re going to use high school students to send home kits of seven masks and seven paper bags to every family that wants them for their child. We’ll instruct them on labeling paper bags, M for Monday through S for Sunday. Each day your child comes home, takes off the mask, puts it in a bag, lets it sit there for a week. We’re printing instructions, we’re setting up communications with links.
We spent $2,500 on those 4,000 masks. The paper bags aren’t that much money, several hundred dollars. It’s actually not the money right now. It’s how much legwork it’s taking, and the anger and sadness I have observed when people realize that the state sent us inferior masks.
I have roughly 175 staff and 650 kids. We’re four rural towns in beautiful western Massachusetts. A couple of my towns literally don’t have a store. There’s not a lot of commerce up here. At this point in the pandemic, my personal and professional belief is I should be handing masks out to every kid and every staff person who needs them.
District communications say, “Families, please be sure your child has a well-fitting high-quality mask.” I get anxious and angry emails from families saying, “Where am I supposed to get that?” I think, gosh, you shouldn’t be alone in trying to find that, at this point in the pandemic, with a COVID variant that has a transmissibility that far exceeds anything we’ve seen with any prior variants.
And even worse, we never got an apology in which our state leader said, “Goodness, we blew it. We told you they were high quality masks, and they weren’t. Here’s how we’re going to make up for that.” And then actually taking those steps. It eroded trust. And that matters.
I’m organized. And I’m spending hours and hours on this. Multiply that by several hundred districts in the state. That’s a massive opportunity cost and inefficiency, because I’m not going to get the price the state could get. The department of health could tell the department of education, buy these four masks, and buy 10 per kid. They haven’t done that.
I was an assistant superintendent in eastern Massachusetts, and then my family needed me to make a change. Quite unexpectedly two years ago I quit my job, we sold the condo, and bought an old farmhouse in western Massachusetts. We moved out here and I was starting a small farm, and slowly renovating this property to become a vacation retreat center. And I was consulting with districts.
The superintendent in my little district quit this summer, with two weeks’ notice. And I thought okay, I could do that for a year. I am having so much fun and enjoying it so much that I asked if they would consider keeping me permanently. I have 125 chickens. We’ve got some feral cats who just arrived and are going to be barn cats. I take care of my animals and then I drive four and a half minutes to my office. I love it.
I am okay with having a broad brief. I have some community organizing background. I am so happy to be of service in truly a wonderful community.
When we’re talking people’s health and safety, it feels a little different. These are my neighbors’ kids. I see people at the farmers’ co-op. I see people at the transfer station. I have skin in the game.
This is causing unnecessary anxiety for staff and families, at a time when government should be providing clear information, behaving with transparency, modeling not only effective leadership, but leadership with integrity, with a clear and ever-present moral compass. That’s not what we have.