Kevin Cody

New Hermosa Beach Schools Superintendent Jason Johnson tackles the pandemic

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Jason Johnson became Superintendent of the Hermosa Beach City School District on July 1, as cases of the coronavirus in the area were skyrocketing. Photo by Philicia Endelman

by Ryan McDonald

Six days into his tenure as the Superintendent of the Hermosa Beach City School District, Jason Johnson was told to prepare to keep campuses closed. The warning came July 7 in a conference call with Barbara Ferrer, the director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, and other district leaders from around the country. Rapidly escalating case counts for COVID-19, Ferrer warned, meant that districts might have to continue with an exclusively distance-learning model when school resumes in the fall.

“It seems to me what is happening in L.A. County from the Department of Public Health’s perspective is a crisis. I walked away from that conversation feeling very discouraged about the state of Los Angeles County. It was definitely a sobering conversation,” Johnson said in an interview. 

Johnson is beginning a new job in a new school district in the midst of what he called “the most dramatic change in education, ever.” He spoke on July 9, as he and other officials anxiously  awaited official guidance from the public health department as to whether reopening schools would even be possible. Some districts, including the Los Angeles Unified School District, California’s largest, did not wait, and announced that they would begin the year exclusively with distance learning. On Monday evening the protocols finally arrived, and they likely created as many questions as they answered.

“The protocols do not authorize schools to reopen for in-person classroom instruction,” began a crucial and confounding paragraph in a statement announcing the release of the guidelines. “School re-openings will be guided by the state and by each district’s decision on how to best configure learning opportunities during the pandemic, considering the levels of community transmission and what science tells us about the risk. For those schools that reopen their campuses, they will need to adhere to the public health and safety requirements detailed in the protocol.” 

In other words, everything is up to the district or to the state, but if you want to reopen, you have to do what the county says. In-person classes can resume, unless science says they can’t.

If the coronavirus pandemic has felt like a lurching ride in a malfunctioning elevator, it is in part because COVID-19 has scrambled the lines of authority that tether government to the governed. When counties close city beaches, Sacrcamento shutters tiny taverns, and the President of the United States claims, alternately, “absolute authority,” and “no responsibility,” who exactly is in charge?

Despite the occasional Tea Party-style protest, the resolution of controversial issues over the past few months has tended to proceed less through government overreach than via a buck-passing up the political hierarchy, perhaps in the hope of diluting the frustration decisions are likely to create; a can of paint that tumbles from a higher rung may land with greater impact, but its misplaced hue will thin over broader ground. Johnson, who interviewed for the superintendent position as the world appeared to be coming apart, said that far from intimidating him, the tumult of COVID-19 was what drove him to seek the job in the first place. “I don’t necessarily know that I would have applied if we weren’t under such conditions,” he said. 

“Even though it’s a very hard time to come in, this is the time. If there was ever going to be a moment this is the time to step up, this is it. That’s what leadership is about, right? It’s not about coming in at the quote-unquote right time. It’s actually about coming in at the wrong time,” Johnson said.

The coronavirus pandemic closed campuses in Hermosa and around the country in mid-March, forcing teachers to reinvent the classroom in the course of a weekend, and parents to devise childcare plans for the rambunctious and the defiant, the hormonal and the nap-resistant. Within eight weeks of these closures, government bodies and nonprofits began releasing recommendations on how schools could reopen. The surge of advice reflected a sense that distance learning was a necessary-yet-imperfect substitute for in-person instruction, but also a widespread faith that the novel coronavirus could be sufficiently tamed by the fall to allow hundreds of children back on campuses.

That faith now looks like overconfidence, even hubris.

On Monday, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health issued guidelines for how schools in the county might reopen for in-person instruction in the fall. Above, Johnson inside a classroom laid out to provide six-feet of social distancing among students. One of the two seats at each desk would remain empty. Photo by Philicia Endelman

Johnson’s selection became public at a school board meeting on May 27. That day, the county Department of Public Health announced 933 new cases. The seven-day average positivity rate for COVID-19 tests in the county hovered under five percent, and there were 1,477 people hospitalized with an active infection, which represented considerable progress from the previous month. The day before, the department had officially changed the name of its Health Officer Order from “Safer at Home” to “Safer at Work and in the Community,” to reflect the growing number of sectors of the economy that would be allowed to reopen. Places of worship, indoor malls and offices could all resume in-person operation as Southern California strode toward a new normal. 

On Monday of this week, the Department of Public Health announced 2,593 new cases. The seven-day positivity rate had more than doubled, to 10 percent, and there were 2,056 people hospitalized with COVID-19, raising concerns about the medical system’s capacity. The health officer order had been amended once again, closing places of worship, indoor malls and nonessential offices.

“I really believe that we’ll get back to a sense of normalcy, even with the virus. I do think it’s going to take longer than any of us ever anticipated,” Johnson said. “If you’d have told me in March that I would be sitting here wearing a mask, talking to you about the precariousness of next year, I would have called you a liar. Maybe it’s a bad thing, but I’m stunned that we’re here.

I’m stunned that COVID cases are exploding in Los Angeles County.”

Johnson arrives in Hermosa after a decade as a teacher and administrator in the neighboring Redondo Beach Unified School District. But at 35, he is young relative to superintendents around the country.

Years ago, not long after becoming principal at Lincoln Elementary in the RBUSD, Johnson began asking questions of his then-boss, Superintendent Steven Keller.

“Jason early on used to ask me a lot of questions about being superintendent. I’d go home tell my wife, ‘You know there’s this new guy Jason, he’s asking me a lot of questions,’”  Keller said, his voice taking a tone of mock suspicion. 

The inquiries, Keller said, were not about matters of mere strategy, but “deep, thoughtful, reflective questions.” They also never seemed to stop, and one day, after what Keller estimates was about 30 minutes of discussion about being a superintendent, he realized that Johnson “had it in his mind that one day that was  where he would go.” The experience confirmed for Keller than Johnson was thoughtful and observant. The ensuing years would convince him that Johnson could get things done.

“Here’s the thing. He asks questions for a reason. Wise, wise young man, but he also takes that information and does something with it. I know plenty of people that ask smart questions, and they walk away and don’t do anything with it. Jason puts that in the databank. Believe me, that data collects. And ultimately he responds with action,” Keller said.

 

Filling in the gap

Johnson grew up in Carson. He attended school in the Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District as a permit student under a program that allowed the children of adults who worked in the region to attend its schools. (His father worked in a supermarket in the area.) The experience of growing up in a working-class area but attending school in an affluent one taught him to treasure a good education. It also taught him that people everywhere are basically the same.

After graduating from Peninsula High School, Johnson had what he described as his most valuable educational experience, at El Camino College. He recalled that on the first test he ever took there, in a philosophy of religion course, he got a D. After the professor handed back the exam, he walked up to her desk, certain that there had been some sort of error.

“I remember her saying, ‘You know, you’ve got to work,’” Johnson recalled. The moment profoundly shaped his approach to education. “You’ve got to work to learn. It makes you better at what you do. Learning is work. It’s good work, but education is what you make of it.”

From El Camino, Johnson transferred to UC Berkeley. After graduating, he entered the Teach for America program, which placed him at Markham Middle School. Markam, in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, serves a population hamstrung by deep poverty and decades of systemic racism, and endures challenges that make Hermosa’s debates over parking lot queuing seem quaint. According to the Los Angeles Times, in the year before Johnson arrived at Markham, there were over 500 suspensions issued, and at least 19 “assaults on staff members.”

Johnson was a special education teacher at Markham. The inequity he was exposed to made him reckon with the forces beyond his control that had helped him succeed, and instilled a belief in the importance of inclusion.

“The truth is that school as an institution, for a big portion of people beyond just special education students, is incredibly difficult. I really believe that our mission as educators is to fill in that gap, to make it accessible for all,” he said.

After finishing his two-year commitment with Teach for America, Johnson found a job teaching special education at Redondo Union High School. Graduating from college shortly before the housing market began to collapse and the nation entered the Great Recession  — “I watched an entire generation of teachers around me in Los Angeles get laid off in one fell swoop,” he said as he snapped his fingers — has given him greater empathy with the economic precarity that now marks the lives of many Americans, including those Hermosa’s schools employ, he said.

After two years at RUHS, Johnson was tapped to become an assistant principal at Adams Middle School. He would join Lisa Veal, who would be the school’s new incoming principal. 

Veal first met Johnson at a Starbucks after Keller suggested that Johnson might be a “good fit” with her. Over a lengthy conversation, Veal and Johnson discovered that they shared a similar vision for the school, one that rejected laurel-resting and embraced innovation.

Overhauling the school’s special education program would be the focus of his two years at Adams. The model Veal and Johnson pushed through centered on co-teaching, in which groups of special education students are put in general education classes. Two teachers, one special education and one general education, would simultaneously support the class.

“It’s a heavy lift, it’s a hard thing to convince teachers to do. But it shows results. Just by simply putting students in a class with higher rigor, that alone increases test scores,” Johnson said.

Getting things rolling required obtaining buy-in from those who may have begun with different ideas, Veal said.

“Our veteran teachers had certain ideas about what [special education] should look like. It took some work trying to get them to change. And Jason can wear you down. He’ll talk you to death,” Veal said. But the plan would never have worked if Johnson had arrived with only bluster, Veal said. Johnson is “relentless to a certain extent, but also listens at the same time.” It took both passion and realism to get what they were looking for.

“It took time. It took a lot of time, a lot of conversations with union reps. It wasn’t clean, it wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t like when we went in there and they all said, ‘This is amazing, you absolutely should do it.’ These were veteran teachers who were highly respected in that field. It was about trying to find that balance, not make too many changes too quickly, not step on too many toes,” Veal said.

From Adams, Johnson became principal at Lincoln, where he again threw himself into special education. Keller recalled being struck by the way that, despite having spent his career to that point working in high school and middle school, Johnson was able to quickly adjust to younger students. The experience of coming in as a leader to a new place and trying to manage big changes, Keller said, was probably good preparation for the task Johnson now has in front of him.

“He just modeled what it meant to learn, listen, ask more questions, and then take that information and say, ‘How do I help improve this delivery of experience for our kids with special needs?’ I would argue — and board members would say this, because we visited Lincoln plenty — he had a lot to do with really bringing an elevated, more impressive special ed program to Lincoln,” Keller said. “His staff had a lot to do with it. But I think it was also that his staff were willing. That they were willing to say, ‘Okay Jason, you want to lead this? Let’s go.’ In some ways, I think it’s analogous to his situation now. If people give him the benefit of the doubt, as they should, I think they’ll be very impressed, very appreciative, of what he can do.”

Johnson used the two weeks in between the end of the 2019-20 school year at Lincoln and his July 1 start date in Hermosa to hold a series of Zoom calls with parents and community members. He showed up at Hermosa’s campuses and met with custodial staff, and spoke with members of the Hermosa Beach Educators Association, which represents teachers in the district. As the start of the semester gets closer, he’ll have to explain what he and the board of education have the power to do, and why they’re making the decisions that they are, a process he hopes to kickstart at a virtual town hall on Thursday. 

“A major goal of mine is to communicate the state of where we’re at, particularly in relation to how we’re arriving at these plans for reopening. For example, a common question is, Why are we unable to open on a five-days a week, full-day, traditional model?” Johnson said at a board meeting last week. 

Keller and Veal agreed that Johnson’s communication skills would be key to his job in Hermosa.

Veal recalled that his motto in their time together was “Overcommunicate,” and that he never shied away from difficult conversations. If an upset parent called the school, Johnson would never try to dodge with an emailed response, Veal said. He would call the parent right back.

High-risk

“That’s the dilemma with masks,” Johnson said, chuckling as my glasses fogged when I exhaled approximately five seconds into our interview. I kept the face covering on, and set the spectacles aside.

If Hermosa reopens its schools in the fall, anyone “entering school property,” including buildings, fields and buses, will be required to don a face covering, the protocols released Monday state. (Exceptions include young children taking naps and meal times.) All students, staff, and visitors will face temperature and symptom checks before entering the school. It’s unclear what a school will have to do if it reopens and a student or staff member tests positive. 

“Some beloved aspects of the traditional school experience will not be possible right now if they  require students and teachers to be in close contact with each other for extended periods throughout the day,” Ferrer said Monday.

Johnson said that his goal is to have a draft of Hermosa’s reopening plan, which districts are required to create under the public health department’s protocols, ready by early August. Along with securing approval from the school board, the agreement would be subject to the collective bargaining guidelines of the agreement with teachers.

Representatives from the Hermosa Beach Educators Association could not be reached for comment on this story. But last week, the California Teachers Association, of which HBEA is an affiliate, issued a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom and state legislators, describing even hybrid models for on-campus instruction as “high-risk.”

“It is clear that communities and school districts have not come close to meeting the threshold for a return to in-person learning, even under a hybrid model. In fact, with recent health orders issued in 26 counties impacting nearly 85 percent of Californians, we are going backwards,” the letter read. “How can we reasonably expect hundreds of students, and in some cases more than 1,000 students, to come together on one campus for an entire day without putting their health and the lives of every adult on that campus at risk?”

At Thursday’s town hall, Johnson plans to present the results of a survey issued to parents and staff. As of last week’s school board meeting, Johnson said the survey had garnered 354 responses from parents, and 31 from faculty. The data was not yet complete, Johnson said, but he acknowledged that parents were more eager for kids to return to campus than staff. Eighty percent of parents have indicated that they are willing to return for a hybrid model.

Likely some of this lopsided result can be explained by simple exhaustion. When schools were closed, it was not clear that it would be for very long. “This move to online instruction will remain in effect for at least a week, however, families should plan through the conclusion of Spring Break, returning April 13,” read a statement from the district issued March 13. COVID-19 soon proved more intractable than anticipated.    

“One of the problems is the sense of there’s-no-end-to-this. That’s hard too, because we live in a community that is statistically less affected by COVID-19, as of right now. That’s the challenge. We live in a county that is in crisis. But it can seem like locally…” Johnson turned his gaze outside his modest office, which overlooks Hermosa’s South Park. It was high noon, cloudless and blazing hot. The door was left open to the park’s broad central field, and the giggles of children wafted in as they scampered along the grass, adults doing their best to keep up. Families mostly kept to themselves, though a few of the youngest kids inevitably became entangled. The scene could not rightly be called shameful or irresponsible, but it felt like a different planet than the one occupied by meatpackers and seamstresses sickened by the score.

Jennifer Cole, president of the Hermosa school board, acknowledged the pressure the district felt to reopen for on-campus instruction. She said it could not overshadow the wide-ranging responsibilities the district has. 

“I’m an educator, a parent, and a community member, and I represent the people of Hermosa Beach on the school board. I don’t represent them as a scientist, and I don’t represent them as a doctor. That’s just not my profession,” Cole said. “And so I can’t base my decision on a parent’s strong desire to go back, to get kids back into school. Desire can’t be what we use. I can’t roll the dice. This isn’t a scientific experiment. I’m not going to be on the wrong side of history on that one. I’m going to have to make a decision based off of L.A. County Public Health’s guidelines. Yes, Hermosa is a smaller entity, it doesn’t have as many cases. Maybe you don’t even know someone who has COVID. But that can’t be what we guide our risk level to go back to school on.”

The pandemic has so transformed society that it can easy to forget that there will some day be other crises and opportunities to confront. In selecting Johnson, Cole and the other board members had to think years down the road, about how he would handle a time when on-campus instruction has fully returned, and at three campuses instead of the district’s current two. (North School remains under construction, while work at View is scheduled to begin as soon as it concludes.) In taking on the superintendent job, Johnson will have to prove himself a man for all seasons by starting out in a summer unlike any other.

“I’ll tell you one thing I’ve learned about being a leader,” Johnson said. “You don’t get into it for the kudos. You get into it because you really believe in serving your community.” ER

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