Luis Valentino is the brand-new Coachella Valley Unified School District superintendent. When he accepted the position after spending 3 1/2 years as the chief academic officer at Portland Public Schools, it meant he could finally come home to his family.
“When we left Albuquerque, (N.M., in 2015), I had become a consultant here in California, primarily. We knew we were going to come back to California; we just didn’t know where,” he said. “That summer, we needed some vacation down time, and as we were driving through, we ended up staying here for a couple of days in a hotel. Then, because we had a time share, we stayed in Indio for a month. Even as hot as it was, we actually enjoyed it. Our son needed to enroll in school, so we were on our way to live in Long Beach—but, as we’d started to enjoy it here, one thing led to another, and before we knew it, we enrolled him in school here.
“The plan was to stake some roots here and become part of the Coachella Valley, but soon, the superintendent in Portland asked me to do some consulting work for him. So, thinking I’d be there for a month or two, the plan was always to stay here. Then he invited me to stay and work for him—and I was there for 3 1/2 years. Still, there was no plan to uproot my family. So, for me, getting this job was a blessing, as you can imagine.”
In a recent phone interview, Valentino discussed the challenges being faced by the east valley school district, as all CVUSD schools get set to welcome students back on Aug. 12—for what will surely be a unique and challenging school year. He said that he plans to do a lot of observing and learning to start.
“In looking at the practical aspects, we have to get back to school,” Valentino said. “We have to re-enter—and then how are we going to address the academic slide that took place during this whole period? All districts were impacted, including this one, so we can’t shy away from the fact that there’s a lot of work ahead in getting students back on track, and then accelerating their learning. And how are we going to do it in a way that keeps students safe?”
Valentino said the district also needs to meet the needs of students whose families decide it’s best for them to continue distance-learning from home, due to the ongoing pandemic.
“Also, how are we going to address the trauma that everyone faced, whether it was a student, a teacher or a central office (staffer)?” Valentino said. “In CVUSD, the district lost people, and there’s emotion attached to that. How are we going to return to some level of normalcy around the emotional aspects? How are we going to help people get whole again?”
Valentino said he did not yet know, as of our mid-July conversation, how many students would not immediately return to in-person learning, because the district’s survey of families had not yet been finalized.
“That’s something that we should have already begun to put in place, but we will,” Valentino said. “I (recently) had a conversation with one of our directors who is working on registration and enrollment. I asked her if we are seeing more or fewer families than expected enrolling their students in the school district. She said that, surprisingly, it’s been very positive.”
Valentino conceded that the Delta variant and the resulting rise in COVID-19 cases may change some families’ minds.
“We know that there are going to be some families who are going to want independent (schooling), especially if we can’t demonstrate to them that we’re going to keep their child safe,” he said. “That makes sense. That’s why it’s so important for me to get a safety plan that will help ensure that families who are nervous will see when they come on campus that we are doing everything we can to keep their child safe.”
It’s possible the Delta variant may result in stricter county and state guidelines for schools.
“Right now, we’re following the latest news, and we’re building off of that,” Valentino said. “… For our school district, that puts us in the difficult position of not being able to finalize any policy (regarding masks, social distancing, etc.). School principals need to speak to their staff, and to the parents, and they don’t want us to be wishy-washy about what we’re sharing. They want us to really know what we’re talking about. So my concern is that we might not have the (COVID safety) information soon, which means will have to postpone our final decisions.”
Valentino said the district is also weighing whether or not to require that students 12 years and older be vaccinated for COVID-19 in order to attend school in person—and what exceptions would be allowed to such a policy if it were enacted.
“Our board members are really thinking hard about that question,” Valentino said.
It’s also unclear whether sports will fully return to “normalcy” once school starts in August.
“I don’t have a definitive answer for that, but I do have hopes and expectations,” Valentino said. “That’s because in my previous district, Portland Public Schools, I supervised athletics as well. We were the first ones out of the gate to bring students back (to athletics), because what we found is that the students who came back to participate in extracurricular activities saw their social and emotional well-being improve. We had a lot of challenges with depression and suicide ideation, so we needed to find a way to bring some of those students back … If we can keep our athletes safe here, then I believe, personally, that they would benefit greatly from being able to participate in athletic events.”
Valentino said he anticipates it will take more than a one-year plan for students to make up for the learning that was lost during the pandemic closures.
“Part of the first year (of recovery) included the summer-school programs. I was really pleased that in California—and actually in most states—there was more-robust summer-school programming than there has been in the past,” he said. “This district had a lot more students participating, which is great. … So we already have some data to start us off in understanding how severe the academic slide was. Also, when we return, we need to assess the social and emotional well-being of our students. … (We’ll be) learning more and building out a short-term, a mid-term and a long-term plan. Interventions are going to be a part of this work throughout the school year. I know that CVUSD has both after-school programs and Saturday school.”
Since a substantial segment of the CVUSD student body may not return to in-classroom learning right away, I asked Valentino what was being done to bridge the “digital divide”—a lack of internet access suffered by some families within the district.
“One of the things that this pandemic magnified has to do with internet access and the divide that exists,” Valentino said. “Actually, some communities have zero (internet access). They rely on the school. So, the role of the school will be expanding access at the school. Also, we can work with the community and the service providers. My understanding is that Verizon has been a good partner here, especially in the eastern-most part of the valley, where the digital divide is magnified even more. So, (we need) to identify how free and low-cost services could be made available. I know we have portable Wi-Fi (hotspots) that enable students to gain access, and that was put in place early on in the pandemic. We need to expand that option.”
Valentino said he hopes a permanent fix to internet-access issues will come one day in the not-too-distant future.
“The permanent fix, quite frankly, is for the school district to plan for owning its own network,” Valentino said. “The state of California has made quite a large amount of money available—and the federal government has, too—to help districts, especially those with rural communities within boundaries, build out networks. … Is there a way where we can actually create community-based access? That’s possible, especially now. CVUSD has been thinking about this for over a year.”