On Aug. 4, the Palm Springs Unified School District will open school doors and welcome back all students, teachers and staff to a daily routine of in-person classroom learning for the first time since the pandemic closed classrooms in March 2020.
Everyone will be greeted, at least in spirit, by Mike Swize (pronounced “sweezy”). He will become the district’s new superintendent of schools on July 1, upon the retirement of Sandra Lyon from the post she’s held since 2016.
Swize is certainly not new to the school district; he’s now spent 31 years working for the district, and was sought out by the PSUSD Board of Education early on in the search for Lyon’s replacement to provide his insights and input.
“I was able to meet with the school board and talk to them about what I felt the district needed, what the district’s strengths were, and what some next steps might be for the district,” Swize told the Independent during a recent interview. “And as part of that process, I did let the board know that I would be interested in the position if that’s the direction that they chose to take.”
In early March 2021, Board President Timothy Wood offered Swize the position. Fittingly for these times, the offer came during a Zoom board meeting.
“The school board invited me in (to participate) with Dr. Lyon and shared with me that their recommendation was that I be appointed as the superintendent,” Swize said. “It was very nice, very congratulatory and really positive. There’s a lot of enthusiasm in the district for our future, and it was a very exciting conversation.”
In his 31 years with PSUSD, Swize has worked in a variety of jobs. He’s been a teacher, a bilingual programs coordinator and a principal for both elementary and middle schools. He was also the director of the English learners and elementary curriculum, and since 2011 was the assistant superintendent of educational services.
“I love this district very much, and I’m proud to have worked here with so many amazing people,” Swize said. “Working alongside Dr. Lyon, and the other assistant superintendents, Dr. Tony Signoret and Dr. Brian Murray, the district was really moving in a very positive direction and making some significant changes. Although the mandated school closures created some new challenges for us, we continued to work closely together to navigate through that. So, to me, (my hiring) was the school board acknowledging all of the incredible people in this district, and the direction in which the district is headed, and really reinforcing that we’re on the right path. We need to continue to make improvements, and focus on a few things, and do them extremely well—with shared values around equity, innovation and high academic outcomes for all students.”
When asked what work the district needs to do, Swize cited ongoing issues of equity and diversity.
“Our school board, along with a broad group of stakeholders, has established some specific goals for us in those areas, and working with the entire district to advance that work is going to be a top priority,” Swize said. “Overall, we need to continue to focus on some of our key academic indicators. Are students reading proficiently by third-grade? Are they being successful in their high school integrated math course work? Are students college- and career-ready? We need to do it in a way that (shows us to be) a positive district, where we are valuing culture and relationships, and attending to the social and emotional needs of our staff, our students and their families. That’s something that we’re all very proud of in our district.”
After 15 months of disruptions due to COVID-19, the district is recommending that some students at critical transition points—such as graduating seniors, or transitioning fifth-graders or eighth-graders—attend one of a variety of summer-school programs being offered by the district.
“We are limited in the number of seats that we can offer, just to ensure that we’re staying with very small class sizes and to keep all of the health and safety protocols in place for students and staff,” Swize said. “So, in some cases, the teacher recommendation or student need may outweigh the demand or interest of students to participate. … That being said, this will be the largest summer program we’ve ever run in person … and we’re excited about that opportunity.”
Unfortunately, that means that this year’s “summer break” will be anything but a break for Swize and many of his PSUSD colleagues.
“Correct! That is right,” Swize said with a chuckle. “That’ll be true for so many of our school staff as well. I know it’s been said a lot, but this has been such a unique year or year and a half, and we’ve had so many people working so hard, and they’ll continue to be working hard through the summer—and then we’ll be ramping up and excited for the fall.”
We asked Swize where the district stands regarding the ongoing efforts to eliminate the “digital divide”—the lack of broadband access from which some students suffer.
“We’ve continued to work on that throughout the year,” Swize said. “Every time we’ve had a specific instance where a family was challenged, we were able to provide some kind of support to make it better. We did end up distributing over 6,000 hotspots—sort of portable WiFi—during this past school year. That was in addition to the 22,500 Chromebooks that went to every student so they had their own device. Then, in some areas, where one company’s WiFi hotspot was not as reliable as another company’s, we actually wound up swapping those out for families. So, in essence, we were shopping for them to get them the best internet (connections) in their homes that they could. We provided that to every family who asked and to whom we could get that service.
“There are a few communities or neighborhoods that are still really challenged with reliable internet access, as they were even before the distance-learning time period. So we did open our schools and were using the school buses to bring in students to give them a reliable internet source—and we did that before we even opened the schools for hybrid instruction. In other cases, we gave multiple hotspots to a family so that individual children in a home could be on their own internet connection instead of sharing one at the same with multiple siblings. We will continue to offer all that support, but at the same time, we are really planning, and looking forward to, everybody being back on campus for the majority of the time starting this August.”
What can students expect when they return in August 2021? How normal, in the pre-COVID-19 sense, will the daily schedule and operations be?
“Well, like so many in the state, we are anxiously awaiting the June 15 ‘Beyond the Blueprint’ guidance to come out from the state,” Swize said, referring to the date when the vast majority of COVID-19 restrictions and limits will be lifted. “I can tell you that we have a meeting scheduled as soon as that comes out to discuss the ramifications for the fall. But we’re preparing for all of our students to be able to return five days a week for full days of instruction. Some of the other questions—around masking, social distancing, if there will be different sets of rules (for different) grade levels—those … are the details we’re really waiting for. Our plan is to be prepared at the beginning of August to open our doors up for five days a week of full-time instruction, and to be inviting all of our students back to in-person learning.”
Finally, we asked if the district has any initiatives in place to address the psychological or emotional needs some students and families may have as a result of the pandemic.
“This extended period of pandemic has been challenging for everyone in their own unique way,” Swize said. “Certainly, as a large school district that serves over 22,000 students and an equal number of families in the community, we do know that this has been a difficult period. So we are focused on providing additional support in the social/emotional arena, making sure that all of our schools are prepared for students to come back to school and to offer them the support that they need. We’re adding counseling and mental health support and all kinds of things designed for students, but also for families and staff as well. … All of us, in whatever ways we can, are working hard to ensure that, as a community, we come out of this extended period healthy, happy and with a way for us to continue to educate children moving forward.”