New Supt. Called on Quickly to Make Critical Decision on COVID-19

Nine days into a new job – particularly as the leader of a large school district like Everett – most people would still be learning the ropes, but for Supt. Priya Tahiliani, those ropes last Thursday rapidly became an obstacle
course with potential life and death consequences.

Last Thursday, having only been on the job since March 1, Tahiliani was suddenly sitting around a table in a very serious conversation with Mayoral
staffers, City department heads, the Fire Chief and the Police Chief – and many of them she had never met before. Most were looking to her for guidance on whether they should be the first district to close the schools – and close them for a long period of time.

Having never had to make that call before – and being the first district in the state to make such a call when best-practices were still not yet clear – it was tremendous stress.

“It wasn’t in my superintendent entry plan, that’s for sure,” she said on Monday from her office. “It was a collaborative effort and I have to give the mayor credit for his help and decisiveness.

We all sat around the table and discussed the implications for every
department. It has definitely been stressful – not just because of the rapid streams of things we hadn’t planned for – but more for having to be mindful of the safety and health of students, families and teachers with every decision I was to make.

“That was a huge moment,” she continued. “I’m not going to lie. Being the first city to call off was not an easy one. The decision came down to the people of Everett and what having to do what we needed to do. We knew we needed to do something.”

The result was Everett was the first large district to close down its schools in the wake of the fast-moving COVID-19 outbreak on Thursday – with the closure starting Friday. In that moment, there was contradictory advice – even from the federal and state government – with some saying closing entire school districts wasn’t the right approach. There were also many who said countries that closed schools early had better results in containing the outbreak.

Many districts did not close schools, including Boston and Chelsea. Later, on Friday, Chelsea did close when they had a potential case of the virus emerge in one of their middle schools. However, Boston did not finally make the decision until late on Friday.

There was no easy answer.

“We just knew something needed to be done and we decided to take action,” she said. “On Friday night, when I got home and Boston followed suit, it was a relief. It’s nice to not be out on a limb, but we needed to do something. We wanted to protect Everett students, families and staff. It proved to have been a good move.”

One thing that did make it easier, she said, was the support of Mayor Carlo DeMaria in being decisive about closing down City Hall and City buildings. No other municipalities had taken such an action either.

“The mayor cameo out very clear that all public buildings should close and canceled all public meetings,” she said. “For students we were thinking two weeks didn’t seem like enough time…That was a very bold move for him to make.”

Tahiliani said another reason they closed so far into April was she wanted families to be able to put together contingency plans for childcare and work over the long-term. She said they could always re-evaluate and scale things back if that is possible, but she didn’t want to continue every two weeks putting families in a planning spiral.

Right now, staff members from the custodial department are beginning to deep clean and sanitize all the buildings. After the closure, Tahiliani said they left the buildings to sit idle, as there was evidence that the COVID-19 virus can only exist on many surfaces for a maximum of three days. With that waiting period over, the staff began to work in each of the buildings and will continue to do so over the next several weeks.

At the same time, the schools are beginning to transition into online learning. Live, online tools were posted to the school website on Tuesday, and paper packets of homework by grade-level are available Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the Meals to Go program at Everett High.

“Right now, it’s less about internet access (as there is free internet now through Comcast for students) and more about getting devices to students,” she said. “We’re doing inventory of all our devices now and we’ll see about the idea of checking them out to families of students who need them.”

There is a letter going out this week, and online materials for students are beginning to be posted. She said it is also a time for everyone in the City – whether private individuals or school employees – to begin to think how to use technology better.

“I do think it is a good time for us all to begin to know how to be more technologically savvy,” she said. “I think K-12 education is a place we don’t utilize technology as well as we should. This provides us a great opportunity to do that.”

Along those same lines, she said when and if things normalize, it will be time to address having computers for all students in Everett Public Schools – a standard the district has been slower to adopt than other districts around Everett.

“Definitely, 100 percent, that has been a conversation we have been having,” she said.

She said perhaps they could have such technology for the students to keep at school, and then if there is a situation like this, those devices at school could easily be taken home for distance learning.

However, right now, she said she is anticipating the creativity of the teachers in Everett – with many of them already proposing interesting and innovative ideas.

“Teachers have a lot of interesting ideas,” she said. “They are probably already doing things that we haven’t asked them to do. I imagine there will be an opportunity to look at innovative things teachers might have been doing before this and are continuing to do now. These are things maybe we could all learn from.”

Processing the entirety of the events from the past seven days, Tahiliani said it wasn’t what she expected in her first two weeks on the job, but it certainly proved to her that she made the right call in coming to Everett.

“All things considered, I’m still very, very happy that I started on March 1 when I did,” she said.

“You learn a lot about a place when you’re in a situation like this,” she said. “What I learned is Everett is an amazing community and people are concerned for each other.”

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