Just eight months after being selected as the new superintendent of St. Charles Parish public schools, Ken Oertling’s adjustment phase was officially over when the calendar turned to March.
Suddenly, he was tasked with leading the district’s administration and teachers, its more than 9,000 students and their parents, in response to the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic – this was suddenly a trial by fire.
“I’ve never looked at this as a challenge we couldn’t overcome,” Oertling said.
Last school year represented the first the longtime St. Charles Parish educator has served as superintendent of a district, and the challenge perhaps couldn’t be greater even as he begins year two at the helm. Schools closed statewide at the order of Governor John Bel Edwards in mid-March. The move was a necessary one to ensure safety for students and schools personnel alike, but nonetheless threw several daily elements into disarray. Necessary school work was thrust into limbo. Parents designated as essential employees would need to find a day care solution for their children. School lunches no longer being provided would create another issue for many families. Major activities were suspended or cancelled.
“It threw a little bit of a curveball at us,” Oertling said. “It’s a challenge like nothing we’ve ever encountered.”
Early this month, school was finally back in session after months of discussion, planning and setting up contingencies. Oertling said the detailed plan for reopening came together via a strong collaborative effort over weeks of discussion, with the safety of students and staff set as the top priority.
“We’re so excited and ecstatic for our kids to return, whether that’s through the physical classroom or online,” said Oertling at the time. “We know the impactful role we play in not only educating our children, but also ensuring they have emotional wellness support, ensure their nutritional needs are met and they have opportunities for physical activities … we take that responsibility very seriously.”
He said all parties are being asked to adapt to numerous and considerable changes on the fly, and that the adjustment won’t be an overnight process.
“The challenges are still here on a day to day basis, and as such we’ll modify our approach when needed,” Oertling said. “We’re accomplishing two school systems with the same pool of resources. The challenges that come with this are so monumental from the standpoint where we’ve never dealt with something like this before. We won’t have all the answers immediately, but we’re going to be flexible.”
Among the chief balancing acts for the school system will be maintaining what is effectively two different, separate school systems: one being in-classroom learning, the other e-learning from home.
More than 7,000 students will be primarily working on campus and in the classroom, while more than 2,000 will utilize e-learning as their primary option for at least the current semester. The biggest challenge in that regard, Oertling said, comes from the standpoint of staffing, as the e-learning program requires it just as the in-person classwork does.
“We’re not alone in that, obviously,” Oertling said. “We’re trying to run two school systems with the same pool of resources. There aren’t as many teachers out there to hire. It’s challenging from that standpoint, but we’ll move forward and address it the best we can.”
Just getting to day one of the new school year meant clearing several obstacles. Giving up wasn’t an option, however. Polling of parish residents, he said, indicated the majority of respondents favored returning to school on time.
He added a major emphasis was also put on communication during the break between the end of the school year in March and this month’s reopening.
“The more you communicate, the more people trust in you,” Oertling said. “Whether that’s videos, social media, letters … it also fills some of that void.”
COVID-19 has forced numerous institutions between a rock and a hard place, and schools are no different. Protocol on day one is what was carefully crafted to best provide an education while limiting potential spread of COVID-19, but things can change rapidly. Early in the reopening process, two positive cases – one at Destrehan High, one at Norco Elementary – made news, and the school system made adjustments to protocol in response. District representatives said before the school year began that it was very likely there would be positive cases cropping up during the year, but that limiting such cases was the highest priority.
“We expect to encounter things on a daily basis that will shift our approach,” he said. “We’ve been asking everyone to keep three things in mind: adaptability, flexibility and understanding. There’s no question there will be challenges. We’ll learn from them and overcome.
“You can allow yourself to get buried in a crisis, or you can build in a crisis. I look at this as an opportunity to improve. You open your mind to doing things in a different way. Sometimes it can be a better way. It’s been difficult to build in this time, but I’d rather build than get buried.”