Superintendent in a Storm: Highline’s Susan Enfield on Officials ‘Abdicating’ Pandemic Responsibility, Weekends on the Couch and the Importance of Being a ‘Person First’
Special Report: This is one in a series of articles, galleries and interviews looking back at two years of COVID-related learning disruptions, taking stock at what’s been lost — and where we go from here. Follow our coverage, and see our full archive of testimonials, right here.
To mark the 24 months since schools shut down because of COVID-19, The 74 spoke with parents, educators, researchers and students across the U.S. We are running some of these interviews in their entirety to give complete accounts of where we’ve been and where some think we’re going.
Susan Enfield is finishing her 10th and final year as superintendent of the Highline Public Schools, near Seattle. A finalist for chief in the San Diego Unified School District, Enfield has been a confidant for fellow chiefs and outspoken about the burdens placed on district and school leaders during the pandemic. In a January interview, Enfield described how she’s relied on her “sister supes” for support and said watching students return to learning in the classroom has been “a tonic for the soul.” She also spoke about how state and federal leaders have “abdicated” their responsibility during the pandemic, how educators from other countries are shocked that U.S. principals conduct contact tracing and spending weekends on her couch.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The 74: Feb. 14 marked 700 days since most schools began closing. That number even took us by surprise. What’s your initial reaction to it?
Susan Enfield: I didn’t know that 700 days could both seem so long and so short simultaneously. The last couple of years have felt like a lifetime in and of themselves and yet at the same time it feels like it’s gone by in a flash. I think about all that we have accomplished and all that we’ve adapted to, but what I really am sort of fixing my sights on is the next 700 days.
What was the moment you realized everything changed? What were you doing before and after?
A very good friend of mine who works in the Northshore School District, which was the first in the United States to close, called me, end of February, and said, “I think we’re going to close.” And I said, “You’re nuts. What are you talking about?” And he said, “And I think the rest of you won’t be far behind.” I said, “No way, there’s no way they’re going to close schools.” I mean I really was incredulous.
In the ensuing days and weeks, it became abundantly clear that indeed, we were going to close, and so I quickly shifted. I think as leaders, you shift from your initial emotional response to putting your strategic hat on and preparing and figuring [it] out. Our last day with students was March 13, and so the week before that, I was watching what was happening, and I knew closure was coming. Our state hadn’t announced it yet, but I knew it was coming.
I went to my chief operating officer and said, “Get prepared meals in place.” I went to my chief technology officer and said, “Let’s figure out what we’re going to do around Internet access. Get as many hotspots as you can.” I went to my teaching and learning team and said, “Start getting packets together.”
We all mobilized so that when we eventually did have to close, we were as prepared as you could be. At least we had a bit of a head start. I think that’s the luck of geography. I’m in a region that was so close to the initial districts that closed. Of course, we thought we were planning for a matter of weeks. I don’t think any of us envisioned months-long, a year-and-a-half long of students being out of school.
The last couple of years have meant every day is a fresh challenge, and I don’t think anything surprises us anymore.
What other decisions do you remember having to make in the first weeks after schools closed?
Superintendents have a wonderful sense of camaraderie. We’re kindred spirits. There’s a tremendous sense of collegial support and that predates the pandemic. But boy, did the pandemic really heighten that. I was in constant communication prior to that closure with districts in my region and South King County of Seattle. There is a group of superintendents, and our districts all serve very similar demographics. We Have a lot of transition of students and staff between our districts. So we really try to make decisions in unison because it makes the most sense for our families. It minimizes the chaos. Once we heard that Seattle had made the decision to close, that’s when we knew we had to make the decision. We reached out to the governor and the Department of Health and said, “Seattle made its decision. We really need the state to make a decision and that would be what’s best, but we’re going to act on our own if you don’t.”
We really had to take matters into our own hands. That’s been a huge theme of this pandemic. School districts have taken on tremendous responsibility. Others have abdicated their leadership, and I use that term very, very deliberately.
The governor said he would make his decision by the next day. It was a Thursday, and I remember this distinctly. When the decision came out, it was early afternoon and Friday was a non-student day. That meant we were sending students home that Thursday and they weren’t going to come back to school for — at the time, we thought several weeks, but what ended up being longer. I called my principal supervisors in and said, “You need to get to all of your principals, and you need to tell them to get to teachers and to end instruction early so that they can explain to students to the best of their ability what’s happening.”
We have so many students in our district — this is not unique to Highline and this is not true for every child, I want to be clear — who think of school as a safe place. It’s a haven. It’s where they feel connected and supported with their friends and their teachers. [It was troubled by the] thought of sending them home and them not being able to process with their teachers why they weren’t coming back on Monday. I think that was one of the things I’m really glad we did to minimize some of the trauma.
The greatest gift we give to children is a sense of predictability, a sense of calm, a sense of what is known. For children to be thrust into chaos and the unknown is one of the most traumatizing things that can happen to them. Our goal was to give them a sense of calm, that it was going to be OK.
What has been the darkest part of the pandemic for you?
We lost two middle school students to suicide early in the pandemic. I’m grateful that did not continue, though that was my greatest concern. We lost staff members [to COVID] as well. The loss of human life has been the darkest part — knowing how hard this was and how out of my control it was to do more to help.
When we were handing out meals one day, a woman drove up. I would always ask, “How are your children doing?” She started crying and said, “Not good.” I had her pull over to the side, and I said, “Tell me what’s going on.” She is a grandmother and she said her grandson had special needs and he had regressed so quickly within a couple of months that he would walk in circles around the kitchen and not talk to anybody. She was literally begging me to do something and there was nothing really that I could do. At that particular moment, we weren’t in any way equipped to bring even our students with special needs in. Nobody was coming back yet. It was those moments you realize how hard this was on people in so many ways, and that as a leader, a fellow community member, a fellow human being, there wasn’t more you could do to alleviate their pain and suffering. I think those were the darkest moments.
What have you done to take care of yourself, to get through the rough times?
Early on, a group of female superintendents from around the country — we refer to ourselves as “sister supes” — had a standing Sunday afternoon Zoom where we would check in. Sometimes we would do a book study, but a lot of times it was, “How are you doing? What’s going on?” Going for walks with my husband and frankly allowing myself to feel pain and to grieve. I think as leaders we do need to inspire hope and let people know it’s going to be OK and be strong. But we also have to sort of balance that strength and courage with vulnerability. There were weekends where I didn’t get off the couch. I’ve been pretty honest about that in conversations with others. I said to someone once, “If one more person says, ‘You got this,’ I’m gonna smack ‘em.” A year and a half ago, I didn’t “got this,” and [people] were lying. I’m sorry, they were just lying.
I don’t think we do ourselves, our colleagues or anyone any service by faking it. I think superintendents need to feel and care for themselves and share those feelings. I’ve been pretty honest and vulnerable about my struggle. It’s also in some ways reassuring to staff, like “Oh my gosh, it’s OK that I’m feeling like my life is imploding because the superintendent feels that way.” You say, “You know, I was in a fetal position on my couch this weekend, but I did what I needed to do to take care of myself so I could show up on Monday. We’re going to get through this, and the way we’re going to get through this is one day at a time, moving forward together.” It’s strength, courage and vulnerability — that mix. It’s not equal parts everyday. Sometimes it’s heavier on one side.
What gives you hope now, 700 days later?
That’s hard, because the last few weeks with the Omicron surge have in some ways been even harder than those initial days. I think back to spring of 2020 and the planning that we had to do. My team and I never worked so hard in our lives. It was 24/7, figuring out how we were going to do a hybrid model. I have an extraordinary team, but it pushed us to our limits. I thought that was as hard as it’s ever gonna be, but there’s been something about the last few weeks coming out of the winter break and coming perilously close to going remote again. It’s a little harder to find hope right now. I think we thought we’d be in a very different place. That said, I do feel like we’ve turned a corner in this most recent surge.
People struggle hearing this, but we are moving into the endemic phase of this, and that may not be what everyone wants to hear. We are moving into living with, rather than living in fear of the virus. I am hopeful that in the coming weeks and months, we are going to collectively come to that understanding and adapt to a way of life that will be far more familiar — I don’t use the term normal anymore — but a way of living, a way of working that will feel more familiar to what we knew prior to the pandemic. I think entering that phase gives me hope.
As hard as it’s been working in schools during this time, I also have the great gift of going into schools and seeing children, educators, nutrition services, transportation workers and custodians who are doing such extraordinary work. Nothing gives you more hope than seeing kindergartners engaged in their learning, so happy to be in their school with their classmates and their teachers. It’s a tonic for the soul. When you’ve committed your life to working in public education, you get up every day believing the impossible is possible. We’ve accomplished things over the last 700 days that if someone had told us three years ago, “In about six months, you’re going to be doing these,” we would have said there’s no way we could do that. We did it and we’re stronger for it. I think we could all use a nice vacation, but we’re stronger for it.
What’s one thing about superintendents that you think nobody has understood from the beginning of this crisis?
That we’re people first. I had school staff that were very upset with me during the period when we were bringing students back to school in hybrid. I had a meeting with them. They wanted to have a healing conversation, and the prompt, as we went around the room was, “What do you need people here to know?” I was part of the circle, so I got to answer, and I said, “I need you to know that I’m a person first and a superintendent second. So when you are attacking the superintendent, when you are attacking the district, you are attacking me. I bleed like the rest of them. I feel like you do.” I think this notion that superintendents need to be superhuman and that somehow we make these incredibly difficult decisions that we know have tremendous impact on the lives of children and families in a way that is capricious or uncaring is so far from the truth.
There isn’t a decision that any superintendent I know has made over the past year that they haven’t agonized over. I mean agonized over. Superintendents are used to making hard decisions and taking the hits, but in so many instances, there was no good decision, so I was choosing the least bad option available. That was tough and I’ve seen it take a toll on my colleagues. Some have truly suffered. I’m very fortunate. I have not had that level of attack. Superintendents are thinking, feeling, human beings who are doing this work because we care deeply about our children and our community. We’re trying to do right by them, and we get it wrong sometimes, absolutely. We’re human, but we acknowledge when we get it wrong, and we come back and try to make it right. I think that’s all we can ask of our leaders — honesty and a sense of continuing to try to do better.
Describe a moment when you felt you were getting conflicting guidance or conflicting instructions. What did you ultimately do and why?
It’s been commonplace. That’s been our reality, at least here in Washington State, but I know we’re not alone: trying to make sense of [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidance, Department of Health guidance, local public health guidance, state superintendent guidance. It sometimes does conflict, especially with respect to distancing and contact tracing. Sometimes those don’t align. The CDC may come out with something and we’ve been following our Department of Health guidelines that don’t readily adapt. My families want to know why we’re not doing what the CDC is saying. Well, we’re being consistent in following the Department of Health. It puts districts in a very difficult position because our families and staff are looking to us for answers, and we are trying to give them the best answers possible, but because the guidance sometimes conflicts and quite frankly is ever-changing. it’s sometimes hard to give them the clarity and the certainty they’re looking for, and people are desperate for certainty in any way shape or form they can find it.
I want to be clear. I will lay plenty of criticism at the feet of those in leadership who I believe did not do what they needed to do and did not own what they needed to own. That said, I also understand that everybody, regardless of your position, was figuring this out as we went along and there was no road map for this. I get that. I’ve been very clear that we need to give one another grace, and that goes for our elected officials and Department of Health officials. I believe they’re doing the best they can under difficult circumstances because this is a constantly changing and evolving and fluid situation. However, I do believe that school districts have had to take on a tremendous amount of leadership that should have been handled at other levels of the state and federal government.
My father once told me that when you’re backed into a corner you do the best you can and make the best decision you can. Sometimes you get it right and sometimes you get it wrong, and we were all backed into a massive corner in this pandemic, and we got it right and we got it wrong. For example, contact tracing. Why in heaven’s name were school officials ever put in the position to be responsible for contact tracing? That’s a public health responsibility. When I talked to educators in other countries, their jaws were on the ground. That continues to take a huge toll on my principals and it’s so time consuming.
I work with the best team of professionals at every level of my system, anywhere in this country. I’ll put them up against anybody, and on many occasions they’ve come close to the breaking point. As superintendent, I have to make sure that I’m not pushing them past that breaking point. I think at the end of the day, we’ll come back and wonder if there was a better way.
Did you ever think of quitting and, if so, why didn’t you?
I don’t think I ever thought of quitting. There were moments where I thought I don’t know if I can do this, but that’s different than quitting. I never said, “I’m out of here,” and my decision to leave Highline was not a response to the pandemic. I’m ready for a fresh challenge and Highline is ready for a fresh leader. I didn’t think of quitting. That doesn’t make me super strong and special and courageous. I think I was blessed to go through the past 700 days in Highline. I’ve said many times, I’d rather not have to live through a global pandemic, but if I did, Highline is the place I’d want to be. I’ve taken my fair share of hits with the rest of them, but my board has been so supportive, and so has my staff, my families, my community andmy union leadership for the most part. Of course, there have been disagreements, but I think people have really understood that we’re all doing our best and we’re all in this together. I hope they’ll look back and say I did right by them.
Putting a human face to this is really important, especially in the online era, it’s super easy to type into the chat box or the Q&A box. I remember doing one of our webinars on returning to school and bringing staff back in hybrid, because almost half of my families wanted to send their kids back, and I had a responsibility to make that happen. One staff member typing in the chat box wrote, “Please tell me how long it will take for my husband to receive my death benefits after I die because you forced me back to school.”
I finally said in a long speech at one meeting that you can disagree with me, you can even dislike me. That’s fine. But I ask you to sit back and be honest with yourself and your criticism. I’ve lived in this community for almost a decade now. Whether you like me or not, you know me, and I don’t think anyone would honestly say that I don’t genuinely care about the children and families in this community. I may get it wrong and you may not like it, but to say that I don’t care — that I have to take issue with.