Brian Ricca: To serve in education takes courage, and never more than now

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This commentary is by Brian Ricca, the school superintendent in St. Johnsbury.

We are within striking distance, as I write this, of reaching peak foliage season in the Green Mountain State. Our home is surrounded by trees in the backyard, and some have already begun shedding their leaves. 

I first noticed some of the changing colors in late August in our yard, and shortly after that some leaves began falling. We have plenty of more to go, but our grass is starting to show signs of the impending autumn pile of leaves. 

Typically, I welcome fall and its crisp air because it means cider doughnuts, apple picking and postseason baseball. While my beloved Yankees bowed to the Red Sox and are no longer playing, there is still plenty of great action to watch. It is a tradeoff as the days get shorter, and I know winter is not far behind. 

This year, though, feels different. It's our second year of experiencing Covid in the fall, but it is so substantially harder. The Delta variant has wreaked havoc on the opening of our school year, once viewed with so much hope of normalcy. Our students, especially those not eligible for vaccines, are struggling with community spread, and that is impacting everything we are trying to do. 

Our focus this year is Relationships and Learning. It's tough to build relationships consistently when there are so many disruptions. 

Schools are the only places where mitigation strategies exist in our state. Despite medical experts, politicians, parents and educators pleading with our state leadership, we continue to hear only the good news about adult vaccinations. 

Schools are being offered many testing strategies that we do not have the human capacity to fully accept. It is backbreaking work, and we are being told to just make the best of it. 

And that is exactly what our employees are doing. Our employees are showing up every day. In some cases, they are not doing the same job more than once a week. Our co-principals are reassigning people regularly, trying to staff all positions due to absences, whether those absences are the result of Covid in our building or the result of Covid in other school buildings throughout the Northeast Kingdom. 

Our employees are being told to make the best of it, and that's what they are doing. How? I'm honestly not sure. My best guess is that our adults are letting go of everything that is not mission-critical when it comes to their work. Some are letting go of the predictability of our students showing up every day. Some are letting go of a regular work assignment. Some are letting go of classroom visits. Some are letting go of instructional leadership. There is a lot of letting go. 

No, this is not the year we had hoped for yet. Vaccines are on the horizon but are not in the arms of our 5- to 11-year-olds yet. We don't quite know what the future holds. Our employees can't look there yet, since their focus must be the unpredictable nature of day-to-day. 

So if you see, know, or love someone who works in a school building, please say thank you. Maybe even give them a hug if they're open to it. They've let go of so much to make these first eight weeks. There is so much they cannot change, and every day there are bright eyes behind those masks, yearning for connection and stability. 

While this year has been nothing like we wanted, it's demonstrated something that I've come to know as a certainty in 25 years of serving in education. To serve in education takes courage, regardless of the role. It involves a vulnerability that I cannot explain unless you've stood in front of a classroom and tried to teach a lesson. Or unless you've sat one-on-one with a child who needed a moment. Or unless you've sat in a classroom as an instructional leader, observing the lesson from the perspective of the teacher and the students. Or unless you've needed to call a parent whose child needed to go home. 

To serve in education takes courage, regardless of the role. Never more so than in a pandemic. 

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