Sinnette: Teachers Have Raised Their Game Amid Pandemic

Superintendent Wendy Sinnette

There are many words one could use to define the difficult year that was 2020, but one in particular quickly came to mind for La Cañada Unified School District Superintendent Wendy Sinnette.
“I guess you could say unprecedented,” she said recently. “It is overused, you know, because the challenges have been immense. But we’ve met them, and for the most part, have been successful. The amount of work is relentless because we care so much about our kids.”
Nearly 10 months in, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought incessant trials and tribulations to all, and the small city of La Cañada Flintridge hasn’t been immune to them.
LCUSD closed its schools in March and pivoted to distance learning due to countywide restrictions aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus.
Then George Floyd died while in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25, and protesters flocked to the streets to decry police brutality and racial inequality. It sparked a difficult conversation in the LCF community and placed the spotlight on the district’s diversity, equity and inclusion initiative.
Those issues continue to linger, especially in Los Angeles County, as the holiday surge in coronavirus cases, deaths and hospitalizations threatens the possibility of having students back on campus for in-person instruction.
Also, LCUSD has begun its three-year DEI implementation plan by developing a special committee that includes community members, administrators and former students.
“Everybody’s had to dig really, really deep to continue to make progress, and to build skills and refine them and to make sure that we’re doing whatever we are able to so we continue with learning progress,” Sinnette said during an interview.
The LCUSD superintendent acknowledged the past year as the most challenging in her 35 years working in education, but it also gave her some of the most valuable lessons with which to move forward.
“What I’ve learned most is the power of grace,” Sinnette said. “You never know what the next challenge will be, but if you approach it with empathy and commitment to doing your absolute best, you find silver linings. I think as a district, everybody has had to commit to being a lifelong learner and doing so in an unparalleled environment and making mistakes and understanding that mistakes are OK. They’re part of how we learn and that they can produce a lot of growth.”
That growth can lead to progress, which is what Sinnette looks forward to in 2021 as the country navigates the political turmoil and pandemic that will forever be associated with the year 2020.
“We always want to make sure that we’re doing what’s best for our children and making sure they are fully equipped to be active and contributing members in society and that they have mindsets that totally revolve around diversity, equity and inclusion,” she said. “I think if we do our job right and if we include it as a cornerstone of our educational program, we will be educating the leaders of tomorrow who will be the people healing and promoting humanity that is much more inclusive and representational.
“I just think that there are so many lessons learned from 2020. I don’t think anybody will regret seeing it in the rearview but it is one of those things where adversity makes you stronger. I think that we’ve had to learn about the political divide and then we’ve faced the civil unrest; none of these are easy issues to handle. None of them are easy to navigate, but I think that when you’re in them and you’re committed to doing the right things for the right reasons, it’s really a powerful teacher.
It certainly gave LCUSD teachers and staff a renewed sense of confidence and strength to push through the challenges that came with distance learning. After being forced to pivot to that mode of instruction for the final three months of the 2019-20 academic year, the district invested in the development of its instructors during the summer to deliver the best possible virtual learning experience going into 2020-21.
“All of those strategies and tools that people have had to learn can be incorporated so that teachers will have a far vaster repertoire of skills,” she said. “I mean, they’ve always been excellent, but this made everybody grow in their capacity so much, and I think that teachers will have tried things they might not have tried before.”
Steering through the uncharted territory of distance learning has forever changed the district and teachers, and Sinnette believes it is for the better.
“It really forces you to sort of be on the cutting edge,” she said. “And so when we go back to in-person instruction, there will be so much of what we’ve learned that it will only enhance it. We need to hold on to all that we’ve learned because our kids are going to need us on our A-game when we’re back.
“Our teachers have risen to the challenges, and we continue to grow and learn and deliver the absolute best instruction. I’m really proud of them.”
There were certainly moments and achievements from last year in which Sinnette takes pride, most notably that the district was granted waivers from Los Angeles County that permitted elementary school campuses to reopen and deliver limited in-person instruction for children in transitional kindergarten through second grade.
The district also has opened campuses to special education students and learning pods that include students who have struggled the most with virtual instruction.
Seeing an elementary school teacher in action is one of the Sinnette’s favorite memories from the past year, and she said it gave her hope for the new year and assured her that the work she and all district employees have put in is paying off.
“I observed her lesson in the virtual environment and got to see all of the kids’ faces on Zoom and all of the techniques that she used to keep them engaged. That was phenomenal, and then to go in the afternoon and see her work the same lesson in person on campus was just masterful. The kids were engaged, maintaining social distance, but you could really feel the happiness of being on campus.”
The superintendent also spoke highly of the Spartan Wellness Center, which has been working remotely and has continued to provide mental health support to students and families.
“I feel really fortunate that all of the work we have done on social emotional learning, that we had a couple of years of work under our belts as we entered into the pandemic,” Sinnette said. “This time has been hard on people. It’s made people feel isolated at times. There’s anxiety that comes forward. … It’s no longer just about delivering robust English and math lessons. It’s about really caring for the whole child. We want to be sure teachers are provided with that, and it also goes to our families because so much of what the children bring with them to school is so much of the family. We have to work in partnership so that there’s that connection with home and school. It’s a cliché, but it really is a village to make sure that our kids are taken care of.”
Sinnette isn’t resting on her laurels and admitted that there is still much work ahead. She continues to work on a hybrid schedule for La Cañada High School and LCHS 7/8 students and looks forward to moving forward in the district’s DEI initiative.
“I know that the community’s tired but I want them to know that we’ve been vigilant,” she said, “and if there’s been an opportunity to make gains, we’ve taken them. I know people want more, but we’re going to keep fighting the fight to make sure that no stones are left unturned. Our virtual instruction is the best out there and any opportunity to come back on campus safely, we’re going to grab it. And we’re not going to get tired. So 2021, here we go.”

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