Lessons from the classroom

GRPS Superintendent Leadriane Roby talks masks, vaccines and a welcoming atmosphere for all.
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Courtesy James Heimer

It’s not easy to be a teacher right now. A debate over masks, vaccines and more has put students and educators in the midst of an intense political debate over how to handle COVID-19. Health experts almost universally say immunization, face coverings and more are helpful ways to stop the spread of the disease; the public doesn’t always see it that way.

Enter Leadriane Roby, Grand Rapids Public Schools’ superintendent. In leading one of the state’s largest school districts, she’s had to contend with the virus, with the challenges of distance learning, and a year of political tumult that’s gone far beyond just the virus.

Roby spoke by phone to Grand Rapids Magazine in early September. Here’s what she had to say.

Grand Rapids Magazine: Can you take us to the first day of class this year? What kind of emotions were there in the school district — fears, hopes, etc. — for the start of this new school year?

Leadriane Roby: High energy. I would say we noticed that across our district, and we were in all of our schools, our teams spread out to greet students, check in with teachers, check in with building administrators and secretaries. There was a lot of excitement. There was a little bit of trepidation, I think, because it’s like, what is this going to look like and feel like, but people were genuinely happy to be in-person, lots of smiles, and even bigger smiles from parents as they were dropping off. Because it’s been a challenging 18 months, right?

GRM: Let’s talk about masks. GRPS first said there wouldn’t be a mandate but changed course days before classes started. Why the change?

Leadriane Roby Courtesy Grand Rapids Public Schools

LR: Looking at our numbers. We have consistently watched what was going on in our county, just tracking that. We also had information that the projections were that we have a group of young people who cannot be vaccinated.

And so, it was like, we need to be smart about this, and we want to make sure that we can stay in school. It made sense for us to just go ahead and move forward with trying to make sure that everybody was masked, regardless of your vaccination status. Because that took away the stigma and the pressure of ‘who’s vaccinated, who’s not.’ That becomes a logistics issue — of somebody having to check and verify. So, it’s like, we’re all just going to be masked that way. We’re protecting one another.

GRM: Given that health experts say masks and vaccines help make us safer, what does the debate about them look like from your office? 

LR: With technology, people can find information and resources all over the place. For administrators such as myself and even at the building level, people will send them information, which is fine, of course — I’m a learner — but I also have my own sources of information, and I go with credible sources.

Just because something is put on Facebook or somebody is stating something and it’s not a credible source of information — (from) our health department, our state health department, the CDC, it’s someone outside of that realm — it’s like, OK, it’s information, but it doesn’t mean that it should go into consideration of how we make decisions. And we want to be really consistent, so we’re not going with the wind around people’s opinions, and we’re really using data.

I am not an expert on epidemiology, or pandemics. I’ve learned to be one in a lot of ways (laughs), but I know teaching and learning. I trust my health experts and scientists to tell me, to give me information. It doesn’t mean that I just accept it right at face value. I ask questions, and I want to make sure that I have an understanding. As educators, we are trying to make sure that we have information and that it’s factual and we can verify it against something else.

GRM: Every school district in the state and country has plans for how it will grow and get better. If it were not for COVID-19, what would be your top concern for GRPS, and how has COVID-19 changed your approach?

LR: I want kids to always have a positive, robust, rigorous experience, academic experience. And I want it to be fun. The two can be welded together like peanut butter and jelly. You can learn and still have fun. Always my top concern is, are kids learning, and are they enjoying the experience?

Because learning is not just about, ‘I’m just teaching you stuff.’ You’re growing from it. We can disagree and still be appropriate and kind to one another. We don’t have to resort to name-calling or finger-pointing, blaming. And to me, that’s the work of an educator, to kind of look at things that may be going on, and talk with your young people, your scholars, to say, ‘You know what, how would you have a discussion with somebody who may be diametrically opposed to something that you believe in? How do you have a discussion with someone and still maintain the relationship?’ I think that’s a life skill. It’s a life skill that, I think, sometimes, the adults have lost.

GRM: So, the death of George Floyd or partisan politics. Are those the kind of things you mean?

Absolutely. I’m from Minneapolis-St. Paul and was in Minneapolis when George Floyd — when that happened. I remember it very clearly, just because of where I was living at the time.

If you look at … how we’ve kind of devolved, so to speak, as a society, where we don’t necessarily have discourse, (it’s disappointing). We can have disagreements without being disagreeable, and we look at solutions. How do we help our young people understand that there are other ways to disagree and even be empowered, that you don’t have to resort to causing harm or name-calling or pointing fingers at other people?

I worry as we are getting our newcomers from Afghanistan — how are we going to welcome those refugees into our communities? And how do we make sure that we’re not politicizing people who have come here seeking safety and asylum? And how do we welcome newcomers into a community? How do we welcome newcomers into a community?

In a classroom, you have newcomers come all the time. A kid may move from one side of the city to another and building that classroom community — which teachers do a phenomenal job doing — we also want to make sure that we’re also modeling that as adults.

GRM: When you look ahead, knowing what you know about local data on COVID-19, and schools and vaccination rates, etc., what is your expectation right now about what the rest of the school year is going to look like?

LR: Safety is always first and foremost. I want to make sure that the people who come through our doors feel like we are going to take care of them, not only physically but protect them socially and emotionally as well. Looking ahead, I want this to be a positive school year for every young person who crosses the threshold of our district schools, and that they feel like this is their place to be, and that they’re welcome, and that they can be free to be who they are.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity

This story can be found in the November/December 2021 issue of Grand Rapids Magazine. To get more stories like this delivered to your mailbox, subscribe here

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