Letter from the Editors | In search of humility, empathy, and common purpose

A pandemic is not for the faint of heart. It calls on us to be our best selves, but can bring out the worst.

This has never been more true as it relates to the ongoing debate over how to reopen schools. It’s been a process marked by fits and starts, changing and opaque guidelines from county and state officials, and a virus that, despite the recent miracle of vaccines to keep it at bay, is not going away any time soon. The failure by political leaders in this state to prioritize education and the needs of students has been shameful.

We mourn the sense of order that has been taken from us, especially the school day routine that provided stability and connection. Distance learning is a poor substitute for the real thing. Hybrid models are only moderately more palatable, even while they are a step toward normalcy.

Many families have been surprised to learn over this past pandemic year that the Piedmont Unified School District cannot, in fact, operate with the independence of a private school. It probably bears repeating that as a public, K-12 school district in the county of Alameda, in the state of California, the school district is bound, or shackled, depending on where you sit, by a complex set of education code requirements that constrain it from going its own way. Add state and county health guidelines to the mix and it’s a miracle any public schools in California have been able to open.

Piedmont is a small town, one that prides itself on civil discourse and neighborly feeling — indeed  civic connection is its bedrock. It’s what enables the school district to garner support for school parcel taxes year after year. Our sense of shared purpose is behind million-dollar bond measures to modernize and enhance PHS buildings, like Measure H1 and additional funding, through Measures G and H, to support PUSD teachers. The Piedmont Education Foundation’s annual Giving Campaign raises millions of dollars to provide other essentials and extras. That we regularly and collectively lift up our public schools is no small feat, and is only accomplished by, yes, sharing a common purpose and working together.

Regrettably, we have watched our beloved school community flounder over how best to reopen schools — even as we believe all stakeholders are sincere in their varied efforts to solve the vexing challenge of safely returning students and teachers to some form of in-person learning. 

We’ve logged endless hours watching the thoughtful, but occasionally clumsy, school board grapple with the crisis. Elected officials should treat this crisis with the seriousness and urgency that it deserves, not with platitudes and rounds of congratulatory remarks that ring hollow to desperate parents. 

We’ve marveled at the ability of PUSD administrators to work tirelessly and thanklessly to adjust to changing circumstances, but winced when they’ve made consequential missteps that erode confidence and trust, such as proposing an online learning curriculum from a third-party vendor as an instructional model. 

We’ve been inspired by parents who’ve stepped up — signing on to serve as substitute teachers, for example, or exploring COVID-19 testing options to add another layer of safety. Many have delivered compelling and heartfelt messages on behalf of their students during public meetings.  

But we are disheartened by divisive rhetoric on social media, where armchair experts hold forth daily. Science, of course, should guide us, but cherry-picking data serves no one. It feels good to vent in the comfort of a private Facebook group, but social media breeds discontent, and is never truly private. The lack of respect for those in the educational field that is voiced on that platform, in survey comments, and in emails to the school board and district administrators is breathtaking. It feels disingenuous to pretend that district officials, teachers, families — and children themselves — don’t share the goal of reopening campuses to full-time in-person instruction.

Teachers, who have borne so much this past year, have risen to the challenge of adopting new models of teaching. And yet parents are sometimes left wondering about a negotiating process that does not appear to prioritize student needs, as evidenced by the deficient middle school schedule.

Toss in a local paper that thrives on inflaming versus informing, and it’s no wonder we’ve landed in this sorry spot.

At the last school board meeting, CSEA President Nicole Straley talked about how many district staff feel unheard and underappreciated. It’s apparent that much of the community feels the same way, and that Zoom sessions and online soap boxes are no way to restore connection.

This is a call to our readers – and fellow citizens around town —  to exercise humility and empathy, assume good intentions, and to work with common purpose as our school community struggles to find its footing in a challenging time. We implore everyone to set a good example for our children — the students who need so much right now. The upcoming school board meeting on March 24 is an opportunity to move forward with common purpose.

The Piedmont Exedra editorial team — Brigid Gaffikin, Holly Hanke, Mary Ireland, Nick Levinson, Julie Reichle, and Barbara Love — are parents of current and former PUSD students and have volunteered in Piedmont schools for over 20 years.

UPDATE: Anonymous comments policy
Since running this editorial on Friday night, we’ve received a number of comments, some anonymous. Although there’s a case to be made for anonymity, we believe commenters should be accountable and the debate should be transparent, so we will ban anonymous comments on all our articles going forward. We have been lax in following our own commenting policy HERE that requires the use of a full name. The anonymous posters have been notified and they are welcome to repost their comments with their names at any time. Thanks to everyone who is participating in good faith and using their real names. We will approve all comments unless they contain derogatory or offensive language. 

1, 2, 3, 4 … I declare a thumb war
We also discovered that there was no limit on the number of times a reader could click the “thumbs up” and “thumbs down” approval buttons at the bottom of our articles. After our analytics revealed a few people were manipulating the system (300+ downvotes by one person alone! And 200+ upvotes by another!) we have disabled this feature. If we reinstate it, we will limit the number of times individual IP addresses can “vote” going forward. 

You are always welcome to email us at news@piedmontexedra.com with any thoughts or suggestions about this editorial or anything else we publish on our site. Thank you.

17 thoughts on “Letter from the Editors | In search of humility, empathy, and common purpose

  1. Thank you for all your comments. These are unprecedented times. There is a lot of anger and frustration out in the community. I have 2 kids at PHS. They have weathered the last year and are very happy to be back in the hybrid model.
    I work in a very busy Neuro Trauma ICU. My life has been completely dominated by COVID for the last year. Our COVID numbers are low but remain at a steady rate. I have seen so much death this year and most frontline workers have PTSD. I applaude the school district for being cautious. We have many elderly neighbors and people at risk in our community. Whatever your thoughts on this issue, please recognize the hard work and dedication of our teachers.

  2. Whose interests are being put on the front burner in this little town? The kids have sacrificed so much. By what logic do you ask that they continue to do so when thier peers all over the world have returned to some semblance of normalcy safely? People are leaving Piedmont and PUSD in droves. Has anyone noticed that? I have.

  3. 1. Your call for civility in this time of crisis smacks of privilege, just not the kinds we’re used to talking about (or more accurately, not talking about) in this affluent little town. Privilege comes from power, and right now, kids and parents have very little, whereas district leaders and teachers have an outsized portion of it. Those in power often shy away from conflict and try to play the “impolite” card when those without power try to raise difficult issues. Stop focusing on politeness and start focusing on the real issues. Discourse gets messy sometimes when the stakes are high, deal with it.

    2. There is being an administrator and there is being a leader. Our board and superintendent have done a great job of the former, and a pretty mediocre job of the latter. Just watch a few online school board meetings from other districts who’ve accomplished so much more, and you’ll see why. You can’t make everyone happy and be a true leader.

    3. At some point in a crisis, people (and editorial boards) have to pick a side. I would encourage the Exedra to do just that and stop trying to walk the fence like our district leaders have been doing for the past few months. I, for one, am on the side of students, who have suffered long enough. We have the ability and the means to get our students back to school now in person, safely for all, for much more than 2-8 hours per week. Do we have also the will, and the compassion, to make it happen?

    “Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm.” –Publilius Syrus

    “A good leader takes a little more than his share of the blame, a little less than his share of the credit.” –Arnold Glasow

    “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, concerned citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.” –Margaret Mead

  4. The article is spot on. As someone who supports what the district has done and believes they have been operating based on good faith, I can admit that there is room for improvement on issues such as number of hours for middle school kids, which should be openly discussed.

    That said, some of the arguments brought up by a portion of the Piedmont families have been more an exercise of reverse engineering a predetermined outcome. And if that process of reverse engineering has meant, at times, discrediting school administrators, dismissing teacher’s requests for a safe work environment as union ploys, and minimizing the concerns of many parents regarding the pandemic as mere products of an out of touch slice of the Piedmont community, the impression is that logic would dictate that the end justifies the means. It doesn’t and it shouldn’t.

    We all want our children to be happy, well-adjusted, educated, supported. But we shouldn’t dismiss a once-in-a-century challenge and our neighbors’ realities surrounding that challenge in the process of achieving those positive outcomes for our children. Showing our kids that we must get our way no matter what others want, only instills in them a believe in the infallibility of their ideas, which is wrong. Compromise is important and we’ll only reach it if we give the other side enough room to digest the ever-changing scenario of Covid, and we push for a better outcome for the community at the District level in a positive way. I’m sorry, but things like surveys telling the district how many families will leave PUSD if a specific outcome is reached, or complaining about drops in property value due to decisions made by the District are not conducive to a positive conversation. They are pressure campaigns that benefit those who support them without taking into account many stakeholders in the community. How is that building a better Piedmont? Can’t have it both ways.

    I can get onboard with many of the ideas about further reopening of schools and I’m happy to have a positive conversation about them. But could never be onboard with the tone and the approach some members of this community have taken to reach their goals. And for that, I think the Exedra is on point 100%.

  5. I have been joyfully doing my job with 100% effort since August 10, 2020. I have been happily in person with students before being allowed to receive a vaccine since February 9, 2021. We have been and will continue to be open.
    With grace and patience,
    Claire Stephens
    Kindergarten teacher @ Beach

  6. I moved to Piedmont, like many of you, for the schools. I have volunteered for years as my children moved up from Wildwood to PHS. Many of their teachers, past and present, are now my friends. I appreciate all they have done this last year and consider myself lucky their are people better and more patient than I teaching my kids. And I do believe everyone has good intentions…wanting kids back in school and in a safe way. But none of that means the district has handled this well. None of that means we should not continue pushing and advocating to get the kids back. None of that means we should be satisfied with good intentions when are kids sit in their rooms, hour and hour day after day, watching a screen. These are formatives years and we are watching them suffer needlessly. The lack of transparency, communication, show of true creativity and desire to get them back has been disheartening at best and damaging and unforgivable at worst. Stop making parents who care about their kids the bad guys.

  7. Why is it disingenuous to wonder if district officials share the goal of reopening campuses to full-time in-person instruction? I still have not read a communication from PUSD where they state, clearly and unequivocally, that this is their priority goal. This goal would mean not spending time and resources on planning that is not consistent with full-time in-person. If it is the goal, they are missing a huge opportunity to rally the community and all the stakeholders in our educational system around it. Like, yes, what do we have to do to reopen, let’s do it!! How can we help? I’d bet any parent in town would contribute whatever was needed towards this goal. Instead of being given a seat at the table, it seems that parents are having to advocate for our students through other channels. I am no longer comfortable simply assuming we share a common purpose. I have a kindergartener and a 504 plan student and we don’t know what to do about next year; screen learning does not work for us. I feel that as parents our voices need to be heard. I would argue that if this is uncomfortable for the other stakeholders, then there is an imbalance of representation in this issue. Our educational system will be stronger if parents are encouraged to be vocal partners.

  8. The issue isn’t Piedmont Polite, its Piedmont Priorities. I have one kid in private school and another in PMS. My child in private school has has more in person instruction in one day than my child in PMS has had all year. The private school has had ZERO transmissions.

    The private school, at every opportunity, tries to do in person and clearly articulates a student-first approach. We get monthly updates on new efforts to teach in person. The private school has made it clear they’d do more if the state allowed it.

    Meanwhile, PUSD doesn’t communicate the same priorities. While my kid in private school was attending daily sports practice and in-person classes, PUSD was taking a parent intent survey. Last October, Piedmont had the option to send elementary schools back to in person which didn’t happen.

    The contrast indicates a clear difference in priorities in two schools located just 20 miles apart. Not once during the pandemic did PUSD communicate passion and clarity for bringing kids back to live instruction. California is among the last places on the planet to go back to in-person instruction. This is isn’t about being polite, its about priorities. Its hard to watch one child sit in front of screen all day while their sibling comes home raving about being with teachers and friends.

    As a parent, I’ve lost trust in PUSD because I don’t know or understand their priorities. We’re in a crisis and PUSD could have, like Marin, stepped up and led during a tough time. Instead, we’re now at a ludicrous 2.5 hours of live instruction per week inching–not rushing–to get back to normal.

    Next year, we’ll be sending both kids to private school.

  9. Exedra Editors are correct in being critical of the “local paper” aka The Piedmont Post. For a small town newspaper the Post has admirable coverage of sports, local art, society events and provides a well followed advertising space for our active Piedmont real estate industry. However many in town are well aware of the Publisher’s bias in critical civic issues such as taxes as the Post operates as City Hall’s media outlet, large projects such as the failed Blair Park conversion to soccer fields and School Board issues. While the Board should not be immune to thoughtful examination, the Post camouflages its editorial bias as objective news stories. Balanced reporting is needed so the rhetoric will calm down during this challenging, frustrating and deadly Pandemic.

  10. Thank you for writing this! These are such challenging circumstances and I have been very disheartened to read/hear such negative comments on FB and at school board meetings regarding the teachers and administration.

    With the number of constraints the administration is dealing with and the constantly changing guidance from the state/county, I think it is a miracle that they are still standing. I can’t imagine how difficult and frustrating it must have been (continue to be) to create plans that become obsolete almost immediately and then have to go through the same exercise again and again.

    When I listen to my son’s teachers working hard and teaching (often to a room of kids with their screens turned off) I am struck by how difficult and challenging that must be – and I truly appreciate all the energy and time and commitment they have to teaching our children.

    This whole pandemic has been terrible and has caused us all to have to live with extraordinary levels of uncertainty and lack of control. In spite of those challenges, I believe the BOE, Superintendent Booker, teachers and staff have been working very hard manage many different variables and to educate our children. I appreciate all their efforts.

  11. Spot on article. Thank you for eloquently and succinctly voicing the opinion of many in the community. Mix pandemic, changing regulation and guidance at Fed, CA and county levels…add constantly changing data and scientific knowledge and huge variance in the risk-tolerance among the stakeholders -teachers, families, etc- and you have an impossible task for the district managers. Anything decided and done would have left many unsatisfied, regardless. The district has done an admirable job under those conditions.

  12. Your article was on point. I would like to point out the obvious. Yes our children have not had the best educational year but our children have survived a world wide pandemic. That’s huge! It will get better please be patient. The District is doing the best they can with what they dealing with.

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