Four Years Later, Susan Enfield Reflects on Her Time as Superintendent with a Mix of Pride and Regret

Four years ago at this moment, over half of the nation’s educational institutions shut their gates in response to the escalating seriousness of the COVID-19 threat. 

During that period, Susan Enfield held the position of superintendent at the Highline Public Schools located near Seattle, close to the initial U.S. outbreak site. Much like her counterparts in neighboring districts, she found it hard to believe that sending students home was a viable option. 

“I am uncertain if that was the correct decision at the end of the day,” shared Enfield in a recent conversation with The 74. “It might take a while for us to truly comprehend the impact it had on all of us.” 

Amid the escalating debate surrounding the reopening in the fall, Enfield voiced her perspective on the challenging position leaders were in as they tried to navigate between the needs of students and the concerns of parents and employees. She likened the situation to attempting to fit “an enormous square peg into a microscopic round hole.”

Similar to many families and educators during the subsequent months and years, Enfield made a move, departing Highline in 2022 for the larger Washoe County Public Schools in Nevada, encompassing Reno. Initially seen as a stroke of luck in the “superintendent lottery,” she ultimately resigned in December, opting to return to the Seattle area.

“I am delighted to be back,” she expressed. “Now is the time for me to pause and contemplate how I can contribute from a different perspective.”

In an interview, she delved into the past 48 months and the impact of the pandemic on the national education system, noting both its transformative and non-transformative aspects.

The interview has been abridged and clarified.

The 74: The Northshore School District, situated not far from Highline, marked the first national closure due to COVID. What do you recall from those tumultuous early days of the pandemic?

Susan Enfield: I am genuinely amazed by what educators nationwide managed to achieve under extremely challenging circumstances. I am proud of our response. If I remember correctly, we distributed over 13,000 devices within the initial weeks of school closures. It instilled a great sense of pride witnessing how people united during a period of intense uncertainty and stress to care for our children.

For schools like ours that stayed shut for a prolonged period, I question if that was the best course of action. Numerous students missed out on significant school time, and we are aware of the implications it had on them.

The reopening of schools in the Highline Public Schools faced criticism from certain teachers. (Highline Public Schools) 

Transitioning from Highline to Washoe, what contrasts did you observe in how the districts managed the closures?

The approaches of the districts were intertwined with local politics. The Puget Sound area leans heavily blue politically, while Washoe is more of a political purple. Washoe students returned a year earlier than Highline students, a decision that was likely the right one.

One notable advantage Highline had over Washoe was in device distribution. With under 20,000 students at Highline and over 60,000 at Washoe, the scale was vastly different. Given Washoe’s expansive geographical coverage, distributing devices posed a significant challenge. These disparities highlight how each district reacted to the crisis based on their political context and the unique makeup of their district.

X/@HighlineSchools

If given the chance, what would you have done differently?

Looking back, there are likely some actions we would revise. However, I had to acknowledge the factors within my control. Our state governor mandated the closure of schools. At that time, the adverse effects of prolonged school closures were not apparent to me. Yet, given the significant fears and uncertainties about the virus, especially within a district like Highline with numerous multi-generational households, the concerns were legitimate and valid.

How have the past four years transformed you on a personal leadership level?

These years have reinforced my values as a leader. While I have always advocated for prioritizing health and family, this period magnified the importance of not just preaching but practicing these values. I had to ensure the well-being of my team.

There is a local saying here on clear days: “Mountain’s out.” I recall one Saturday when I tweeted a picturesque image of Mount Rainier, stating, “The mountain’s out and it will be again tomorrow.” As leaders, we had to delve into our core identities and values. The pandemic affected not only our children but also our teachers and staff, who had to relearn how to engage with others after a prolonged period of isolation.

Enfield, known as “Duck” by her father, initiated the “Ducky Awards” to acknowledge her staff. (X/@WashoeSchools)

What are the primary takeaways from the last four years?

During the pandemic, there was significant discourse about not reverting to the prior “normal.” However, given the deeply entrenched bureaucratic processes in the vast U.S. public education system, I anticipated a return to familiar practices.

While we adopted and continue to embrace some changes like virtual meetings, enabling increased family involvement in special education meetings – due to the convenience for parents – we still face challenges like the digital divide. Many children lack internet access, leading to setbacks in this area.

A pivotal lesson is that we cannot emphasize instruction while neglecting the holistic well-being of our children. It is essential to ensure that both our students and staff receive the necessary resources to maintain physical, emotional, and psychological health. Despite the benefits technology offers, the essence of in-person interaction cannot be understated – the connection, eye contact, and physical presence hold immense value.

Given the speculations about another future pandemic occurrence, how do you foresee the system responding?

We now have established strategies. Our preparations are more robust, with available guidelines to navigate the logistical challenges. Hopefully, having collectively experienced the previous pandemic, the pervasive fear and uncertainty may be less profound.

I recall conducting virtual gatherings with my family in California, witnessing their meticulous cleaning routines while I was assisting in meal distribution, which left no room for comparable levels of panic or fear on my part. While I was critical of several officials during that period, in hindsight, I comprehend and empathize more, recognizing that everyone did their best under the circumstances.

Do you anticipate the likelihood of schools closing once again?

This is an intriguing question. While I stand by the perspective that extended school closures may not have been ideal, Washington state officials have highlighted the remarkably low death rates we witnessed. The perfect answer remains elusive.

Although I was vocal in criticizing various elected leaders back then, I now harbor more empathy and compassion. I believe everyone operated to the best of their abilities based on the information available.

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