Check-in with Gullett

Superintendent of Marion County Public Schools, Dr. Diane Gullett, listens during the Marion County School Board meeting on May 25. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette]
When classes started for Marion County Public Schools (MCPS) on Aug. 24, 2020, the state of Florida had just recorded its tenth straight day of reporting fewer than 5,000 COVID-19 cases a day and Diane Gullett, the new Superintendent of Schools, had only been on the job a little more than a month and a half as the county’s first appointed superintendent.

Fast forward a year and, as students headed back to school on Aug. 10, 2021, the state recorded 151,000 new COVID-19 cases the week prior on Aug. 6.

We sat down for an interview with Marion County Superintendent Dianne Gullett where we discussed responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, keeping schools open, the lack of options for delivering instructions to students, the mental health challenges brought on by the pandemic, and her appreciation for the Marion County community, among other topics.

During the interview, Gullett recalled the uncertainty brought about by the delta variant of COVID-19 showing up in Central Florida and causing a dramatic spike in cases.

“We didn’t know what the changing expectations would be from our health experts. We worked very closely with the help department and followed their advisements,” she said.

One area she was encouraged by was that of all the mitigation efforts MCPS took in 2020, “We never closed a school a day last year.”

Despite the difference in numbers, Gullett said the district followed the same playbook in 2021 as they did in 2020.

“We approached this the same way we did last year. One day at a time, one step at a time, listening to our health care professionals to heed their advice,” she said.

She lauded the district employees who were ready and willing to do whatever they needed to get underway for the school year.

“I think our team has done a phenomenal job,” Gullett stressed. “We all had hoped that the pandemic would have concluded last year, certainly. It did not and so there’s been some different challenges this year associated with the new delta variant. It moved much more quickly and as we opened our doors in the fall there was quite a change from summer school. So, the team had to adapt very quickly to deal with spread in the schools and absences associated with required quarantines.”

Gullett noted the district was clear throughout the process of deciding how to proceed.

“We’ve had quite lengthy work sessions. We’ve been very transparent about what we’re hearing, what challenges we’re facing and what steps we’re taking. We will continue to do that so that everyone is aware of what that looks like,” She explained.

Although the sessions have been long and sometimes draining, Gullett is grateful, she said, for how she has been able to work alongside members of the MCPS School Board.

“I’m appreciative of my board. They’ve been a tremendous source of support through this whole process,” she said.

One change between 2020 and 2021 is the availability, or lack thereof, of alternate methods for delivering instruction to students. Gullett pointed out one helpful program available in 2020 is no longer an option.

“MCPS Online, the innovative learning model that was in place for all 67 school districts, is no longer in place this year. It’s not funded,” she said.

She also said that while many kids responded to in-person learning, there was a contingent who took to the virtual option.

“For the majority of our students, being in our traditional setting in brick and mortar is the optimal way to learn. However, we did learn that we had a number of students that were successful in the synchronous online program,” she stated.

Having teaching and instructional delivery options, according to Gullett, allows MCPS to provide its students with the most ideal situations to learn, however, “It is our responsibility to make sure that students are thriving in whatever learning modalities they are in.”

While Gullett said the state was generous enough to work with them on potential funding issues, she also said having MCPS Online available as an option would have been a benefit to the district.

“I would like to have more support in terms of allowing us to have more choice programs, such as the innovative learning, for our students and our families,” she said.

One area she has focused on is not simply how the students are learning, but also how they’re faring during the pandemic.

“I think the mental health aspect is going to be significant. We are already seeing that there is significant need. We’ve already increased support in that area and will need to continue to support each child,” she said.

She does see, though, where students who are living through COVID-19 are learning how to adjust in ways previous generations might not have.

“The children who have been through this pandemic are learning to be very resilient,” Gullett offered. “They have learned to adapt to challenges easier.”

That adaptation is also taking place for the students who opted to learn from home.

“We have some kids coming back that haven’t been in a learning environment in a year and a half. You go back to last year when they were [last] in a classroom,” Gullett pointed out.

Gullett said she looked for ways to help with that adjustment and found one in a position she created to help bridge the gap between the district and students’ homes.

“Last year I added home school liaisons in every school. So, this year there is a home school liaison. That person is someone who the school staff has hired to be the liaison with families. How do we help connect them with academic gaps, how do we help connect them with community resources to help the whole family unit and help the child become a stronger student?” she explained.

She also found ways to bridge the gaps between the district and community stakeholders.

“We do have such a really generous community,” she noted. “We’ve hired a community engagement director who’s helping to align and connect resources in our community that will best serve our students.”

Gullett offered praise for district employees who, she said, showed how much they cared about the schools and students.

“It’s really the staff to be commended for stepping up when their colleagues are out and there are fewer people carrying the load,” she offered. “They have a really stepped forward to handle that, to be very agile, and adapt throughout the whole process.”

”We haven’t let the pandemic define us,” Gullett added. “I’m most proud of the fact that in spite of all the challenges that we’re facing, as is everyone else in our community, that we still take very seriously the fact that we have students in front of us every day. They don’t get a chance to get this time back, so we have to maximize their learning to the fullest extent possible.”

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