Forest Hills Superintendent Dan Behm gives insight on the latest education changes
Name: Dan Behm
Role: Forest Hills Superintendent
1. What has the past week for you looked like as a superintendent? Are there many meetings happening? Constantly watching for updates?
“The past few weeks have been somewhat of a blur. I have a great team of colleagues in the district who help in so many ways. Additionally, the 20 superintendents within the Kent county region collaborate several times each week. This is both an unprecedented situation and a dynamic one that is constantly evolving. In mid-March, when there were 12 known COVID cases in Michigan, it was almost impossible to predict how things would be five weeks later. I am in multiple meetings each day as this issue continues to evolve and its impacts grow.”
2. What tough decisions have you had to make?
“It has been really tough to think about all of the experiences that students are missing throughout the final months of the school year. Performances, sporting events, field trips, traditions, prom, and end-of-the-year activities are special for students, families, and staff members. It is very tough to see these events and celebrations sidelined. In some cases, these culminating events celebrate years of hard work and achievement by our students. It is increasingly likely that we will not be able to assemble hundreds of people together for commencement by the originally scheduled dates. I want to postpone our three commencements, if necessary, rather than simply cancelling them.”
3. How receptive have parents and students been to the switch to online schooling?
“The reaction to online schooling from students and parents has been generally supportive. Some parents want more schoolwork. Some parents are struggling with many challenges: lost wages, health concerns, fear of losing a job if they do not work harder from home, childcare issues, and meeting basic needs. Some households lack devices or internet capabilities that have almost become a necessity during the stay at home orders. Other families are discovering new opportunities for deeper family connections and authentic learning that are not necessarily tied to any formal school curriculum. I think teenagers are enjoying a more biologically-conducive sleep schedule!”
4. How have you been accommodating students who don’t necessarily have daily access to the internet or a computer for online school? And those who depend on the school for a meal?
“We have distributed over 1,000 Chromebook devices to students. Additionally, we reconfigured our wireless network to create internet hotspots in designated areas of our parking lots at all of our schools. We have distributed over 80,000 meals since the middle of March. These meals can be picked up without having to fill out any forms and without having to meet special qualifications. I am so grateful to the staff members who are making all of this happen on a daily basis.”
5. What level of responsibility would you say you have for important education decisions, and what is it like being the leader of those changes in such an uncertain, challenging time?
“As the superintendent, I am ultimately responsible for the education-related decisions in our school district. Even more important, I am responsible for keeping students and staff members safe throughout the educational process. Right now, staying home and apart from one another is the safest thing we can do to combat this pandemic. I am originally a history teacher. History tells us that unprecedented and daunting challenges befall nations and peoples, sometimes with little warning. This type of global pandemic has not been seen in over a century. These events are incredibly disruptive and destructive in terms of both the threat and the response. However, these crises also offer opportunities for innovations, breakthroughs, and re-commitments to timeless ideals that may have waned over time.”
6. How are you assisting students in IEP programs, the ELA program, or students who need extra academic support?
“Our staff members are reaching out to students and families. Our first priority is to make sure students’ basic needs are being met. The brain cannot learn new skills or information if it is under threat or in a state of trauma or disruptive anxiety. We are assessing these needs in all of our students. For students who have unique needs or disabilities, our teachers and specialists are connecting with these students and families individually to ensure they are first doing okay, and then, second, that they have the resources to engage in new learning. Also, we are reserving Fridays as a day for students to make individual or small group connections with their teachers. This is sort of like “office hours” with a professor at the university level where a student can receive extra support.”
7. As a parent, how have you felt during this pandemic?
“Working from home and ensuring that my nine year-old and seven year-old daughters are doing their school work is a new challenge. I am adjusting. This is a crisis that is requiring everyone to exercise their adaptive skills and I am no different. Most importantly, as a parent, I want my kids to stay healthy.”
8. Who or what do you look to for policies on education? (Whitmer, other districts, etc.)
“I am collaborating with superintendents multiple times a week. We are facing similar challenges, and it helps to learn together and share our best thinking. This is definitely one of those situations where we are ‘building the airplane while we are flying it.’ My assistant superintendents are doing the same thing with their counterparts from across the state. We are reading articles and sharing ideas daily. Our teachers are wonderful innovators. Sometimes, we simply need to free people up and get out of their way to do their best work.”
9. What adjustments are being made to current academic requirements for Forest Hills high schoolers?
“The Michigan Department of Education has asked districts to ‘do no harm’ with respect to academic requirements, grades, credits, etc. The first priority is keeping everyone safe and minimizing the spread of this virus in our community. Given this, we are relaxing academic requirements in many ways. At the high school level, students and families have many options to choose from with respect to grades and extended time to meet academic requirements. At lower grade levels, we recognize that parents may be stretched thin with respect to time and resources. Our instruction is focused on only the essential topics for learning during the final eight weeks of the school year. Teachers are adding in additional resources for students and parents who may be looking for more learning opportunities and enrichment.”
10. How is the district providing support for students, their families, and staff affected by the pandemic?
“The main way we are supporting families is with food distribution, access to technology devices, and creating as much of a connection as possible to learning routines and opportunities. For families who are dealing with an active COVID-19 infection, school work is not the priority right now. For families who are sheltering in their homes, we can support them by creating as much of a familiar routine as practicable for the students in that home. I have seen the look of a second-grader when she sees the face or hears the familiar voice of her teacher. This is priceless during this time of loss.”
11. This is no doubt an unprecedented crisis that’s affecting families, students, and staff across the district, so do you have any words of wisdom or advice for them?
“It is important to keep perspective and remind ourselves of the ‘why’–or the purpose–of all of the sacrifices we are making. Left unaddressed, this virus would infect hundreds of millions in our country, kill millions of citizens, overwhelm our healthcare system, and destroy our economy in the process. We are fighting this virus by keeping our distance from one another. We have all been conscripted into a war against an invisible and lethal threat. Our first priority has to be to defeat this virus as soon as possible. It is also important to remember that we feel the best and we do [our] best when we support each other. While we need to be physically distant, we need to be emotionally and spiritually close to one another and spread care and love far and wide. Twenty years from now, we will remember how we treated one another and how we felt more than anything else.”