School super

James Pandolfo is the new Telluride school district superintendent. He officially starts his new job Wednesday, but has already been involved since February in decision-making as the district contemplates the school year during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Amy M. Peters/Telluride Daily Planet)

On Tuesday morning, John Pandolfo was trucking along I-70 toward the Colorado-Kansas state line with his dog, Rosie, and his cat, Tori, on his way to Telluride to take up his new position as the superintendent of the R-1 School District. Though he doesn’t officially step into the post until Wednesday, Pandolfo has been involved with district-wide coordination and communication ever since he was hired in late February.

Since 2015 Pandolfo has served as superintendent of Vermont’s Barre Unified Union School District where he was named Vermont’s Superintendent of the Year in 2019. 

“Our goal with John was to make sure that he’s been part of the conversations during this unique time,” said outgoing superintendent Mike Gass, who departed with his wife, Marcie, for their new home on the central Oregon coast last Friday. “Are you going to open? Partially open? Are you going to open online or as a hybrid? So that John totally had input on how the organization is going to open and run and was aware of what’s been going on with federal dollars.”

Gass, who served as district superintendent for the past five years, took an elementary principal position in Waldport, Oregon, where he has the opportunity to “stay in the education game while also downsizing a little bit.”

Once here, Pandolfo will attend a meeting with the Telluride Education Association (the organization that leads the local teachers’ union), followed by a school board meeting to finalize the 2020-2021 budget, followed by a full-day of AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) training, all while still officially working his Vermont superintendent’s job through Tuesday.  

Despite entering his new job during the COVID-19 pandemic, Pandolfo believes he’s up to the challenge. 

“We’ve been able to get a start on planning for the fall even though there are a million unknowns,” he said. 

During the chaos of COVID-19, Pandolfo intends to “take charge” and serve as “the voice of reason” via consistent and responsive communication.  

“I’m doing the research, making sure I have the answers and am on top of ever-changing guidance from the state and federal direction,” he said. “And I’m letting everybody know that it’s going to be OK.”

School Board President Stephanie Hatcher says it’s paramount that a plan for a “continuum of learning environments” is in place before school begins. 

“My top two concerns about the pandemic are the district’s ability to provide a safe workplace environment, and our ability to address gaps in learning that can be exacerbated in an online learning environment,” Hatcher said. 

To that end, the district is preparing for myriad possibilities by coordinating a coalition approach “design team,” comprised of approximately 40 teachers and principals, to examine communication, technology and curriculum, and teaching and learning across grades K-12 in the context of COVID-19.

“About half of our teaching staff were able to step in and put their minds together around how to make this educational experience for next year fairly seamless, knowing that it could ebb and flow to online, hybrid and in-person instruction,” explained Gass. 

Pandolfo added that the design team, supported by federal funds from the CARES Act, aims to have protocols in place by the end of the month, enabling teachers to begin individual course planning.

The district is also working with county health officials to figure out how to re-configure classrooms given current state and county guidelines.

“Working with (San Miguel County Public Health Director) Grace Franklin, we’ve been able to decide what works and what doesn’t work,” said Gass. “What class sizes can be, how to social-distance kids. Are we going to eat in classrooms or the cafeteria?  Can we transport kids on buses? How do we do activities? Which sports are going to go and which ones are going to have some different structures to them?”

Franklin says that while the Colorado Department of Education has provided a tool kit for moving forward, there’s not a lot of detail yet which means the district is suspended in frustrating limbo in terms of retrofitting classrooms, for example. 

“Going back to normal probably will not happen until there’s a vaccine,” she said. “Or herd immunity, which is when at least 60-70 percent of people need to have had this virus and recovered.”

Teachers are scheduled to return to school the week of August 11 with students returning the week of August 19. Additional updated information is forthcoming at the end of July. 

One thing Pandolfo knows for sure is that students learn best when they are face-to-face in the classroom and in relationships with teachers. 

“We know how much students miss their teachers and school staff when they’ve been home like they’ve been,” he said. “Face-to-face instruction is our ultimate goal. But if we can’t do it safely, then we’re not doing it right.”