Conversation with a Parent Volunteer, Dr. Gita Lisker
|SAR Academy in Riverdale, NY was the first Jewish day school in North America to shut down because of COVID-19. Almost immediately, a parent group partnered with the school to help coordinate what the distance learning would look like, and parents were heavily involved in planning the reopening of the school, with all the contingency plans, in Fall 2020. The parent group included a number of medical professionals, including Dr. Gita Lisker. Jewish Educational Leadership spoke with Dr. Lisker just prior to the opening of the Fall 2020 semester. Below is an edited and abridged transcript of that conversation.|
JEL: I understand that the plan to return back to school involved a significant amount of parent involvement. Could you describe how that came about?
GL: As you know, SAR was the first Jewish day school in the US to shut down because of COVID. That happened right before Purim. A caterer in the neighborhood volunteered to prepare Purim meals for the families of the staff, and a number of parents volunteered to pick up the meals and deliver them. While we were there we asked if there were other ways in which we could be helpful, and it turned out that lots of parents had medical questions. Remember that this was just in the beginning, when we knew much less than we do now about the virus. A few of us, including Dr. Rocker, as medical professionals, began to field questions. That quickly morphed into a hotline, also staffed by volunteers, who fielded the calls and passed on the questions to us through a system which protected the privacy of the callers. We also conducted some town hall meeting with parents and students to help them understand what was happening and to hear their concerns.
In June, when the statistics about the spread of the virus seemed to be improving, discussions began about how to manage the return to school after the summer. The medical team was brought on for those discussions, as well as a number of other parents with various areas of expertise. There were many things to address – protocols for entering the building, masks, social distancing, the need to reconfigure classrooms and public spaces, and to rework the ventilation systems. A parent who is an architect was instrumental in reconfiguring the spaces and dealing with overall issues related to the physical plan, especially in the high school.
JEL: Was this a grass-roots parent initiative, a board initiative, or an initiative of the school’s professional leadership?
GL: It was a combination of the above. We were already volunteering our medical expertise; this was the natural progression. The school’s administrative leadership is extremely thoughtful about everything they do – no decision happens without a complete exploration of all the different angles. They listen carefully to the advice of experts and the concerns of the different constituents – parents, students, staff – yes, they invest heavily in caring for and listening to their staff. It all happened organically. This is a school with a tremendous amount of parent involvement and parent volunteers for many things, so it was only natural.
JEL: Now that the plan is in place, are the parents still involved? In what way?
GL: There are always issues coming up. Of course, there are the medical questions. They are not as panicked as in the first few weeks, but parents want guidance. During the summer there were lots of questions regarding camps. Then there are the policy issues which are complicated and always changing because the CDC is constantly changing their guidelines.
JEL: Do you see this as replicable in other areas of the school?
GL: I certainly think so, and it is probably happening in other areas too. I know about my involvement on the medical side in this situation, and I know that there are many others involved in other areas as well. This is a school in which the parents see the kind of investment by the administration in the staff and the children, and that motivates parents to want to be involved and helpful in whatever ways they can.
JEL: You mentioned staff a number of times. What was their role in this process?
GL: There were definitely staff representatives who made sure that the staff was heard. Many staff members have a lot to contribute, not only for their own classrooms, but to the bigger picture. For example, science teachers contributed the understanding of aerosolization of the virus.
JEL: Your experience with what you describe as good leadership and the partnership model of the school with the parents – each contributing their own expertise, could also work for other parts of our children’s education. The need for parents and schools to support each other, both in school and outside. What advice do you have for other schools or the parent groups in other schools who may be interested in learning from your experience?
GL: Schools have invested thousands of hours and perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars planning and preparing for reopening. Of course it is important to appreciate all the efforts behind the scenes that go into the running of the schools, but all of those efforts will have been wasted efforts if we are not careful outside of the school the way we are inside. We have a shared responsibility to keep everyone safe, and that means that we need to be diligent in all the different areas of our lives to keep our students, our families, our schools, and our communities safe.
JEL: What did you learn in the process about school leadership?
GL: Good leadership welcomes input from lots of different sources and tries to make sure that everyone knows that they are heard. That doesn’t mean that everyone gets what they want, but everyone knows that they were listened to carefully and taken seriously and that their concerns are being addressed. Everything requires a team, and great school leadership knows how to motivate, assemble, and coordinate that team which includes a wide range of people.