On a warm summer’s day in July of 2021, Dr. Steven Cook officially started his job at the superintendent of Bend-La Pine Schools.
There was reason for optimism.
COVID-19 restrictions were easing. Indoor mask mandates had largely been lifted for people who were vaccinated.
Case numbers had been dropping for weeks.
There was no doubt the upcoming school year would still face the challenge of managing through a pandemic, but by most measures, the threat of COVID-19 appeared to be easing.
Two months later, with the doors to local schools reopening, the Delta variant was pushing case counts to new heights.
“Thousands of decisions have to be made to pull of school in a pandemic,” Cook said. “But there’s not a playbook to how to do K-12 school in a pandemic.”
A difficult job under normal circumstances, made even harder by the pandemic.
“I have seven bosses. I have 2,300 employees. I have 18,000, almost 18,000 students. And probably 100,000 critics,” Cook said.
The seven bosses he references are the members of the Bend-La Pine Schools’ Board.
In July, just days after Cook started on the job, a school board meeting turned into a shouting match, many expressing frustration over plans to have kids wear masks in schools.
“The school board is a representative of the people and so, not everybody is going to be happy so they are bringing that,” he said.
But people also brought their concerns about Critical Race Theory to the meeting.
Critical Race Theory is perhaps best described as a lens for viewing history and how racial bias has led to laws, standards and norms in American society.
It is often criticized in conservative-leaning publications as a new standard in classrooms.
Cook says that simply is not true.
“I’m not sure there is any school, any public k-12 school district in the country that is actually teaching Critical Race Theory,” Cook said. ‘And I think more of what it is, is a signal of someone’s values that they are wanting to express that they don’t agree with a particular direction maybe with relations to equity and inclusion.”
Cook acknowledges issues surrounding race, equity and inclusion are places where the district and state educations system as a whole need to improve.
“There’s work for us to do to continue to work on making sure that our historically marginalized students are recognized and valued and that the system supports them,” Cook said.
As to frustrated parents, loudly voicing their opinions during public meetings, he has a simple message.
“Trying to remind folks that, that unhappiness doesn’t have to come out as abuse or yelling,” Cook said.
Two months into the school year, the district report no signs of the COVID-19 virus spreading rapidly within its halls.
Thousands of kids have had to quarantine and hundreds have tested positive, but it has yet to lead to a single school closing its doors.
With kids back in the classroom, teachers are finally assessing just how much was missed over the last year and a half of disrupted school years.
Economic disparities often show in the classroom.
The chasm seems to have widened during the pandemic.
“Some kids actually came out better off by missing because of the resources and the support they had in their homes actually provided them a better opportunity,” he said. “And some kids, that gap, for those kids that didn’t have that kind of opportunity at home, that gap got even larger. Those kids lost so much ground and that’s what we’re struggling with.”
There is no quick fix.
Regardless of the pandemic’s impacts, Cook is encouraging an education theory called ‘warm demand.’
“A culture of warm demand is based on two things, relationships and expectations,” he said. “High relationships, engaging relationships, allow us to push kids to higher expectations oftentimes than they might even have for themselves.”
In more relatable terms, think of the teacher or coach who made a difference in your own life.
The person you looked up to and pushed you to succeed. That, says Cook, is warm demand.
“I know that person believes in me, I know that adult trusts me to do my best,” Cook said.
It’s been a long journey, from his roots as a science teacher in Kansas, to administrative jobs in Colorado and Idaho, and finally Bend.
Like so many in Central Oregon, Cook said the job appealed to him because of the quality of life and community values.
And though not in the classroom as a teacher any longer, Cook’s eyes still light up when he talks about the impacts schools can make.
“If there was ever any doubt about the importance of a public education system, we’ve seen over the last 18 months the importance of how it can be a game changer for so many of our young children,” he said.