“If you don’t look at challenges as opportunities, then all you see are the barriers.”
Upon being chosen as the new superintendent of St. Charles Parish schools in 2019, Dr. Ken Oertling no doubt knew there were challenges awaiting him in the coming years, some of them major.
He, nor anyone else, could have possibly envisioned exactly what awaited.
This school year is his third in his position after succeeding former Superintendent Felecia Gomez-Walker. His first saw the school year cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic. The school district was tasked with overhauling its operations to safeguard against the illness in Oertling’s second year. And now, in his third, Hurricane Ida wreaked havoc parish-wide, damaging each of the district’s campuses, displacing countless teachers, students, parents and staff members and hurling school operations into limbo.
As far as initiations to a new position go: this one is unique.
Prior to the storm and a year removed from first implementing COVID-19 protocols, the experienced gained by a school year of addressing COVID left the district in better shape entering 2021-22.
“We were in a better place,” Oertling said. “Based on last year’s plan and the implementation of it … while we experienced some additional concern with the Delta variant, we felt we pushed through those challenges. And then, of course, Ida hits.”
Oertling’s outlook and approach haven’t wavered, nor those of the many school district employees working to bring students back into the classroom – forward is the only direction to go, and there’s no time to dwell on what’s happened.
“We’ve gone through some pretty challenging times, as a whole,” Oertling said. “If you look at the last two and a half years, from the start of COVID to now, it’s something our whole school system has had to take on. At the same time, it doesn’t define who we are. And the things we faced and had to address with COVID, I think, prepared us for some of these challenges we’re facing today (post Ida).
“Challenges are opportunities. If you don’t look at challenges as opportunities, then all you see are the barriers, and none of the possibilities.”
Last week, the parish saw the first school reopenings since the storm, with students returning Wednesday. These schools – Ethel Schoeffner Elementary School, Luling Elementary School, Mimosa Park Elementary School, R.J. Vial Elementary School, St. Rose Elementary School, Albert Cammon Middle School and J.B. Martin Middle School – represent the first of three phases of reopenings, based on the damage done by Ida and work needed at each site. This week, a second phase of schools were preparing to reopen. Closer to the end of the month, the third and final phase is targeted.
Reopening for COVID-19 a little more than a year ago brought its own set of challenges. That, in many ways, was a different animal, with several months between the early closing of the 2019-20 school year and the beginning of 2021. This time, the school year had already begun, and the wheels had to begin turning toward recovery immediately.
“(The process) literally began Day 1,” Oertling said. “We call it Hotel Central Office … we have six or seven staff members who slept here those first two to three weeks … every school was impacted, but at the same time, every employee was impacted in various capacities.”
The team that initially hit the ground running included John Rome, Kade Rogers, Andy Mire and Teresa Brown, who Oertling said have been working “before, during and since the storm” to get schools reopened as quickly as possible.
“Seven days a week, 12 to 20 hour days. They’ve sacrificed a lot,” Oertling said. “When we talk about this return effort, it started five hours after this storm had passed.”
They were the first of many who came together and worked hard to make a return happen, keep parents informed and make each campus safe to attend, with several uncertain elements out of their hands for weeks – such as the return of power to each campus.
“We know the importance we have to our communities and to our families as a support system for our students,” Oertling said. “Not just academically but socially, emotionally, in terms of mental health and nutrition. We gladly accept that responsibility and we know it’s important to get open to be able to provide that support. But we have to do it in an operationally safe way.”
That last part has been the most challenging aspect, he said – returning safely meant quickly assessing and addressing logistical issues.
The reopenings thus far were made possible by a common goal and the relentless work of so many toward it – one reason, perhaps, why Oertling doesn’t spend much time dwelling on his own strange circumstances in his first years as superintendent – these are different times for everyone, he says.
“To see the impact that storm has had on our community, I think we all certainly feel a greater sense of purpose to open our schools,” Oertling said. “I feel inspired every day by the people who work alongside me on a daily basis and who realize the importance of what we’re doing. And to be able to get back and see the faces of our teachers, administrators and ultimately our students, it’s pretty phenomenal.”