Scott Ziegler, former assistant superintendent for Human Resources and Talent Development for Loudoun County Public Schools, took over as interim superintendent at the start of January, shortly before the departure of former Superintendent Eric Williams.
The Times-Mirror spoke with Ziegler on Thursday about what he aims to achieve while in the superintendent role, how he and administrators plan to continue addressing the COVID-19 health crisis, rising tensions among LCPS stakeholders, and other issues.
What would you say are your top goals as LCPS interim superintendent?
Scott Ziegler: The top goal, of course, is to help us get through what we're hoping is the end of this pandemic. Since taking over this position, I've presented now about two iterations of a plan to get students back into hybrid learning, for those families who selected hybrid learning. We've also been able to open up and really get up-and-running efficiently — probably to the envy of the entire state — our employees' vaccine clinic. By the end of this week, we'll have vaccinated almost 9,000 people.
Beyond that, of course, we're rolling through the budget. I think we've designed a budget that is student-focused, that is learning-focused, that is focused on safety and security. It's also focused on being fiscally responsible with the taxpayers' money and attacking growth in a way that is efficient but is still within the scope of educational excellence that Loudoun County is used to receiving from the school division.
Beyond those, we would start looking at some of the action items on the plan to combat systemic racism, things like diversity in hiring, finding ways for our students of color and our students from diverse backgrounds to better express themselves and to feel welcomed and safe in our buildings in all instances. We've got some work to do there.
Also, [we're] preparing the division for the next superintendent, making sure that there will be a smooth transition to whoever is selected for that position.
Are you able to say whether you yourself are in consideration to fill the position permanently?
The search has not officially started, so I cannot say whether I am a candidate or not. Once the criteria are set by the search committee and by the search firm and with the community's input, if I look to be a good match for what the community and the School Board feel they need in a superintendent, then I would consider offering myself as a candidate, but we're a long way from that.
LCPS enrollment dipped significantly in the past school year, with more than 4,000 fewer students attending Loudoun County schools than administrators had anticipated. However, LCPS estimates next fiscal year's enrollment will increase nearly 10 percent. What makes you so confident? How are you and the school system hoping to rectify the numbers after so many students left the school system during COVID-19?
There is a whole lot of art and science, mostly science, that goes into projecting those numbers. When we look at the projections, we look at things that are quantifiable, things like home sales, things like new development. We know there's a trend toward people moving further out from the [Washington, D.C.] metro area as telework becomes a greater possibility on a more permanent basis for more and more people, that they're looking for other places to raise their families, so we know there's still a big influx of people moving into Loudoun County. We know that the developers are on track to continue developing and to continue building, and that there's a trend for families to move from single-family housing units to large, attached housing units.
Beyond that, we know when we look at the numbers in that enrollment dip ... that 50 percent of those numbers are from our very youngest learners, and so we are referring to that group of learners as "red-shirted kindergarteners." … In the commonwealth of Virginia, it's not mandatory that students enroll in kindergarten, so when we say they are "red-shirted," we think that many families of children in that age group have decided to defer enrollment for a year or have looked for alternative enrollment for a year, and we anticipate those families coming back. We know a full 50 percent of that enrollment dip was in grades pre-K through 2, so there's a good chance that they will come back.
We've also done things like track devices that were issued to students during last school year, and we know that over 1,000 devices were retained by families. When we contacted them for return, they indicated that they were planning to come back to [LCPS] once the pandemic subsided and they believed it was safe to re-enroll their students. We believe all of those factors combined together give us a high amount of confidence in our projection numbers for the upcoming school year. But for the pandemic, we would have been on track last year to meet that enrollment growth.
It has now been more than 300 days since students have been fully in-person at school, and many are struggling to keep up with their curriculum in the hybrid model. Does LCPS have plans to offer remediation and academic assistance to help students catch up?
We are in the beginning process of planning for expanded summer school, for expanded remediation and supplemental instruction to take place over summer school. The superintendent's proposed budget includes $7.7 million towards expanded summer school, including things like extra staff and extra transportation, in order to meet the needs of students who may have had difficulty during hybrid learning.
That's a plan for the future, but our teachers and our staff members continue to identify students through our tiered system of support, to put supports around students as they need them. When we see grades drop off, those students would be referred for extra support in the school. That could include meeting with the counselor, it could include tutoring sessions with the subject-area teacher on Mondays, which are asynchronous days. We have supports at the school level that are in place even now, and those will continue into the summer and probably into next school year as well.
As far as you can tell, has that tiered support system been effective so far?
It's always effective, though I haven't had a chance to disaggregate the semester grades yet. I know anecdotally we hear the parents report falling grades, but I haven't had a chance to analyze that yet. But I think our tiered system of support in general is pretty successful. This year, the unique circumstances of the pandemic means those supports may not be as effective as other years, but we do a good job of reaching our students and working for our students.
Our teachers are working very hard, and I think there's a narrative in the community that teachers are having an easier time this year. I would counter that our teachers are doing more work than they've probably ever done in [their] careers. When we say that students are struggling, our teachers are aware of that, and our teachers are committed to student growth and student learning, and they're not letting kids just slip through the cracks. They're delivering their content this year, they're developing relationships with their students this year. Many teachers are seeing individual growth and corporate growth at the classroom level, and that will continue as we travel through the end of the pandemic and return to hybrid learning, and also as we return to, hopefully, more normalized learning in August when students come back.
Per your estimation, is there any chance all grades will return to full-time in-person learning before this school year ends, or is it just too early to responsibly answer that question?
I think it's too early to responsibly answer that question. We're moving in a direction that's going to take into account in-school transmission. We're going to need some time to look at that data, as well as the efficacy of our students and staff implementing our mitigation procedures and processes. As that data comes in, we'll have better information to make informed decisions about expanding in-person learning, and we will also have both the other primary metrics. We'll be able to see what direction those go and [whether] the vaccine has an impact on those.
We [also] have the secondary indicators and the tertiary indicators. Secondary are things like the percent of ICU beds available, the percent of hospital beds available, the percent of health care workers that are infected with COVID, and then tertiary to that, we have the ability of LCPS to provide substitutes as needed, the ability to switch back and forth if there's an incidence of transmission in a classroom. … There's a lot of factors, a lot is in that not-yet-known category, and it's going to take awhile to assimilate, disaggregate, and apply that knowledge and data we'll be gaining over the next several months.
Nearly 8,000 employees are expected to have received vaccinations by the end of this week, thanks to the LCPS vaccine distribution pod. Is LCPS expecting all teachers and staff to be vaccinated — including both the primary and booster shots — before hybrid learning begins for all grades?
The shot is being given to teachers who expressed an interest in receiving the shot; there is no mandate from the division or the state that all teachers receive the shot, so it's a voluntary program. … We believe that all teachers who expressed interest in receiving the vaccine will receive the first dose before hybrid learning goes into effect, and we will get as many the second dose as we can before hybrid learning goes into effect, but teachers receiving the vaccine is not part of our guidelines for a return to hybrid learning, nor is it part of the new state guidelines from the Virginia Department of Education.
The vaccine is one of our many mitigation factors. We also have, of course, our mitigation efforts that have been in place for awhile now, that include things like mask-wearing, physical distancing to the extent possible, frequent handwashing, frequent cleaning of high-touch surfaces, signage around our buildings that encourage flow of traffic, that encourage physical distancing throughout the building. We are — this week, in fact — installing clear, Plexiglass desk-guards around all student and teacher desks across the division in anticipation for hybrid learning. We think that all of these mitigation efforts combined together make schools a safer place to come back and to return to in-person learning.
You mentioned during Tuesday's Loudoun County School Board meeting that the Virginia Department of Education is "starting to de-emphasize" community COVID-19 transmission indicators since they don't take in-school transmission into account. LCPS has, for awhile now, presented numbers indicating in-school transmission was low during hybrid learning. Why is the school system just now starting to put greater stock in that data — rather than community transmission metrics — when it comes to the safety of returning kids to classrooms?
The question around community metrics versus in-school metrics has to do with the evolving nature of what we know about, and how to interpret, COVID around school operations. Very early on, looking at the community transmissions — the percent positivity and the number of positives per 100,000 — that was really the guideline from the CDC and from the commonwealth of Virginia. As we've grown and other localities have experimented with in-person learning, the knowledge around COVID has changed. Then there was this shift to looking at the school-based transmission metrics and the school-based mitigation metrics as having greater weighting than the community transmission metrics.
I don't think it's that we didn't look at those before. I think the knowledge, the corporate knowledge in general across the country, of what COVID looks like, has developed and grown, and now our guidance and our plan for returning to hybrid learning is evolving and changing as that knowledge changes and evolves. That's a hard paradigm switch, because we understand that for months, as a locality, as a school division and as a state, we have emphasized those first two community transmission metrics, and now we're asking our teachers, our staff and our families to really take this huge evolution to look at what the emerging knowledge base on COVID-19 has shown us, which is more important at the school level for students than the community transmission rates.
As we talk about COVID as a community, it's important that we look at it with four … words in mind as we do that: patience, flexibility, comfort with the not-yet-known and grace. When I talk about comfort with the not-yet-known, it really goes back to what we knew first semester, and we developed a plan that laid out these guidelines, and then the School Board added the first two community metrics to our hybrid decision-making model. That was the best knowledge that we had at that time; we did not yet know that the science was going to show us that in-school transmission rates were what we should really be looking at.
A parent who participated in public comment at this week's School Board meeting made national news headlines and went viral online for a rant in which he called the board "a bunch of cowards" and demanded they "[r]aise the freaking bar." What is your response to his comments, and to Loudoun parents who identify with him?
I would go back to those four norming principles … and in that sense, I have patience for what he said and I will look at his comments through the best lens possible, applying grace there to know that he cares about his children and he's frustrated about the situation that he finds his family in. While some of that frustration is understandable, I would also respond that the School Board has a plan in place and has been acting with the best interest of all the children of Loudoun County in place since this started.
I don't think that an angry outburst is the best way to express your opinion and your views, but I'm willing to extend that parent grace and understand where he's coming from, and hear his opinion and his views on in-person learning, and discount the outburst nature of his comments and try to get to the root of those. If he is going to continue to come to the School Board to speak his mind and speak his opinions, then I would encourage him to do that inside of those four norming principles, and have a civil discourse and find more productive ways to express his frustration.
What else would you like Loudoun County parents, students and community members to know about the goings-on at LCPS right now?
I am optimistic about the future of the school system. We have a lot of great things going on, even through the pandemic. In the coming months we plan to bring back our "Learning Spotlight" at the first School Board meeting of each month, to spotlight what's going on in Loudoun County. We've had some great things happening with our computer instruction, a lot of kids being recognized for the great work they've been doing in science and technology. I've seen great examples of learning activities and connection activities that are really doing well.
There is a great number of our students and teachers who are doing well, and so I am optimistic about the future and to continue the work that we've done, both in terms of learning and in terms of making strides in our equity work, and our goals and aspirations in both of those areas.