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Superintendent Omar Easy on COVID-19 challenges, the need for new school buildings and embracing change in the Wayland community
October 5, 2021
WSPN sat down with Wayland Public Schools’ new superintendent Dr. Omar Easy to discuss how his transition into the role has been so far, his priorities as he begins work across the six schools, and the experience he’s bringing with him.
This conversation has been edited for length.
I read that you used to play professional football?
I played a few years with the Kansas City Chiefs. It was a long time ago. I feel like I’ve evolved so much since then. I’m so old since I played, but it was a great experience. It’s taught me how to persevere and be accountable for different things: being where you’re supposed to be when you’re supposed to be there. It’s funny because now I can look back on it and I see it as a stepping stone for a lot of different things. The type of collaborative leadership mentality that I’ve gained has served me well and has put me in a position to be the superintendent here in Wayland. I cherish those experiences and the history behind it but right now it’s almost like a different memory. I like to downplay it as much as possible. It follows me around and I embrace it in the sense that it was a priceless experience.
I also read that you worked at Everett High School?
Yes. So my entire secondary career in education was at Everett Public Schools. And I have learned and gained so much. We worked some miracles in that school system and I’m proud of it. Being a graduate from that public school system and having lived in Everett, my mom, my sisters and brothers still live in Everett, there’s such a sense of community there and giving back to my community, my foundation. I still have an event there I do in Everett, which is “Shop The Easy Way.” I buy gift cards for 100 students and we take them on a shopping spree during the Christmas season and the holiday season. And it gives me such joy, seeing how happy the kids are to be able to choose what they really want to purchase, and it’s just a great feeling for me. I know they truly appreciate it.
The work we did around the school on academics was extraordinary. I managed to oversee and lead a team of great educators around creating the academy model: we had five wall to wall academies and I implemented the process and oversaw the whole innovative way of doing education. Bringing businesses into education by bringing partners with us. We had five academies: business law and hospitality, science, public health, machine and architectural design and a freshman academy. I feel like I connected with each and every one of the students there and my intention is to do the same here with 2,700.
There have been some hurdles that have kept me occupied since I took the reins in terms of making the system work better for our students and our facility maintenance, not to mention being able to roll out [COVID-19] protocol and following guidelines. But I’m still young. I’m still young in the game and I have some time to get around and meet all the students and the faculty and staff. So far I feel like everything is going well. Every day is an adventure. I look at my schedule often and think, oh my gosh. How can I do this? It’s like every hour on the hour I’m meeting someone, but it’s a great learning experience right now, getting to meet families and teachers and students, and just slowly entrenching myself into the Wayland Public School system and its community. So, so far so good.
Could you talk more about the challenges you’ve been facing?
Honestly, I think every school system has its challenges around building maintenance. I don’t think it’s a secret that we have older buildings. I’m saying this not to—I’m going to use the kids’ word—throw shade on what’s happening right now but to really emphasize that our lower school buildings are old. I’m so happy this beautiful, wonderful high school is here and we did have to go through the process to get this built. I know it took like ten years getting there, but it’s an amazing building. I’m so happy and amazing to see how we can make this building as efficient, productive and student centered as possible. But we have some schools whose buildings are really old, they require a lot of maintenance and things are falling apart. Daily, really.
I wouldn’t say I’m panicking, but I’m concerned. We do have to address our buildings. We do have to have a proactive approach to maintain our buildings, and I intend to do that to make sure we maintain the structures to make sure our students, our staff and our faculty are going to our buildings safe and healthy, and everyone feels a great sense of belonging in these buildings. We need to address our buildings. I’m putting the plug in right now to the Wayland community that we do need some new buildings. We need a new elementary school in the near future, and we need a massive renovation in one of our buildings, if not two. So I’m putting this out there and crossing my fingers because I think our students here in Wayland deserve the best. And that’s our intent, that’s our big picture goals: it’s to build some new schools.
How has COVID-19 been part of that process?
You know, it’s difficult. Let’s be real, it’s very difficult. I often feel bad because our students didn’t create this, we didn’t bring this on ourselves. It happened, the pandemic happened, and I think for school departments it’s a challenge. In more cases than one, the state is kind of in this reactive mentality where superintendents are trying to navigate these murky waters—where we go, how we do it [and] how we proactively protect our students and staff from this virus. And it’s almost like we don’t know the future but we’re trying to be really proactive and working with the Wayland Teachers Association to protect all of our members of our unions. And it’s hard to put protocols in place. Some people don’t like the thought of wearing masks and some folks don’t like the thought that we need to be vaccinated. But when we look at the big picture we have to do what we have to do: we have to protect the health and safety of our young ones who cant protect themselves because we don’t have a vaccine available for them.
I do think this pandemic has presented some opportunities for us to be innovative. We’re having classrooms outside in tents. We’re streaming classes on our devices. We’re looking at flipping classes. We can hold classes from across the country.”
I think COVID-19 brought us some really good things and some awful things. Our students experienced death and longing for socialization with each other and I think our kids, our students will be better for it. We have adapted and adjusted. We have a real mental health crisis. Students are not adults, and they’re not well from being isolated and away from each other and sometimes being virtual doesn’t help.
But I do think this pandemic has presented some opportunities for us to be innovative. We’re having classrooms outside in tents. We’re streaming classes on our devices. We’re looking at flipping classes. Who ever thought that our teachers and administrators could be so proficient and exemplary with Zoom and Google Classroom? COVID-19 dealt us a dirty hand and we really did the best we can to do best by all of our students.
Were you involved at all in the process of what the day to day school life would look like for kids? For example, what schedules would be and what rules on campus would be?
I wasn’t involved in the gritty pieces of the scheduling. But from the standpoint, “what does it look like when we come back to school,” I think one good thing the state did for us was they said early that there won’t be a virtual option, so they took that off the table and said you must be in school, in person. So we knew we had to work this out. From there I had to decide what to do with the space I have in each of our buildings: how far apart are students in the classroom to maintain a safe distance? How many tents do we need in each building?
Our cleaning staff, our custodial staff, has been doing an amazing job, my hat’s off to them. They’re amazing and extraordinary to make sure that our students and staff are coming back to an environment that’s clean and safe and healthy. There have been some bumps along the way, those decisions around what does it look like, what’s the protocol for if and when someone becomes infected with the virus, what do we do, who does the testing and where, what company would do that, what does quarantine look like for students, what does the learning experience look like, what can we provide and how can we provide it.
We have a really strong team of administrators and we get together as an admin council and talk about these different things and our principals have an extraordinary amount of experience, and we’ve hired some new assistant principals this year. I think that’s another benefit COVID-19 has provided us: federal funding has provided us the opportunity to add to our leadership structure and add more resources around education for kids. I think it’s been a challenge but it’s fair to say we embraced that and we’re adjustable and we made adjustments and so far—I’m keeping my fingers crossed and knocking on wood—it’s going pretty well.
How has COVID-19 impacted the District’s financial situation? Last spring there were a lot of conversations about the buses and budget concerns. How’s that looking now?
I think for one, the school committee has done an amazing job managing our budget, figuring out what we need and how we’re going to get it done. The town has been very supportive of that process for us as well but right now I feel like we’re in a good place, barring any sort of COVID-19 changes where we have to do something like the pivot to a different kind of learning. Because we really all thought that we would go back to a normal way of educating our students so obviously there were some cutbacks to what we put into our budget around COVID-19, but the state has some funds that could assist. ARC money, American relief money and the Cares Act fund [can help us] in case something happens that was not in our operating budget. So I feel like the school committee did a really great job.
I’ve been hearing that the class sizes in Wayland are getting bigger, and that there may have been some issues this year particularly with the high school’s freshman class. Is that true at all?
The truth to that is that yes, we have seen an uptick in student enrollment. There’s no doubt about that. Whether that’s because students are coming back from private school that they have gone to during the pandemic or if it’s because, no surprise, Wayland is just a really attractive place for folks to move to and to live. I feel like our school system has been one that’s really reputable. It’s attracting a lot of new families, and I’m happy about that. So yes, there is an uptick, especially in our earlier grade levels. Our class sizes have creeped up a bit, but for someone who has come from an urban school, when someone says our class sizes are high, I’m like, huh, I’m thinking this is private school status. But in all seriousness, for us and where we are right now, we’re at a place where we’re getting to that ceiling.
Tracking with what we were just talking about with the buildings and the budget, are there any concerns that our buildings can’t support that many students?
There’s no doubt. There’s no question about it. I’m not Chicken Little yet, but I’m watching it. I’m cautiously keeping my eyes on the numbers. Our schools right now, our three elementary schools, are at capacity. We’re finding space in the hallways. We’re putting petitions around for offices and small group meetings and conferences. I had to work with our director of finance and cut the library up in a way that we could maintain the library feel and students can go to the circulation desk and do all the things they should be able to do in a library but also find space for small group meetings for our students or office space here or there or OTP and ELL testing and everything. So we have been creative. But it comes to a point where we don’t have any more space available and right now what’s really helping us is those tents. Those tents were brought in to have kids go outside and do lunch or have a class outside, and it’s helping us with the space. But the weather will change, and we won’t be able to use the tents much going forward into the winter months, but right now, yes. Our schools are at capacity and space is just not available.
Last year the school committee had meetings where they presented data on the social emotional well being of students. One concern in particular was the transition to high school for middle school students—freshmen last year weren’t doing as well—and at the younger levels there was some concern about interruptions in kids’ learning. Have there been additional support systems implemented or conversations about how to make sure students aren’t impacted in the long run?
Absolutely, that’s a really good question. When I was going through the process I said this multiple times: we have to meet students where they are. There are several different types of social emotional issues, mental health and even behavioral issues. So I came into this role knowing I had to be ready for that. So part of my strategic plan was part of the usage of our [Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief] III funds because I knew we needed to.
I really go with the philosophy that we’re going to meet, model and motivate. We’re going to meet students where they are. We’re going to model to them exactly what we expect of them, and we’re going to motivate them over whatever issues may present themselves. I think we’re doing a fine job at that right now. Our mental health challenges just get more and more difficult. We see an uptick in that area. I did a survey of our families in Wayland about a month and a half ago—the survey is still open, so I’m putting a plug in again—we did a survey and asked the Wayland community to express to us what they see as the top priorities around social emotional skills, mental health, teaching and assessment, and it’s a nice list of things that we feel is important. Some things we’re ready to start addressing, but there are things we need the feedback of the community to help guide our vision as a team for what we’re going to do.
But right now the response has been mental health and social emotional needs. Pulling up in the third or fourth sport is learning loss. The assessment platform that we need to have to help our students. We’re getting good data around that, so that’s going to inform our decision making as we go into our next budget cycle.
I really go with the philosophy that we’re going to meet, model, and motivate. We’re going to meet students where they are. We’re going to model to them exactly what we expect of them, and we’re going to motivate them over whatever issues may present themselves.”
You definitely just touched upon this—about the mental health issues—but WSPN has reported before that in our own surveys students at the high school are really stressed and struggling with mental health issues even in a non-COVID-19 year. Is it true that the Town recently hired a social worker?
Yes, we did! Ms. Latoya Downes-Steinbrink.
Is she available to the whole district?
So, right now she will predominantly be working with the high school. Obviously it’s our biggest school and the age group is warranted in that position. But honestly, we do need someone at the middle school and someone to float between the elementary schools. There’s a need. There’s a really, really severe need for more professional services. But of course, as with everything, finance. For me, it’s like I need to make sure I’m advocating constantly and correctly for things I believe our students need. So yes, we need more social workers, we need a transitional specialist in the district. There’s a need from that standpoint of social emotional and mental health.
What role will the new social worker play? How will she be accessible to students?
So, speaking specifically about who we have right here right now, she’s part of the guidance department and she will work in tandem with our guidance counselors and teachers to identity students in crisis and in need, and sometimes students who just need conversion, build report, relate, connect and need to be provided a gateway or conduit for outside services for students. For me, it’s to make sure that every student she sees gets the right and proper service. So she’s an extra trained professional who can diagnose students’ mental health behaviors and students who are maybe having some other difficulties communicating in a social environment or who are in need of professional attention around suicide. That role should cover that.
In the summer of 2020, we had some Instagram accounts–DearWayland and BIPOC Wayland—that raised some concerns about a pretty racist environment at the high school and a lack of clarity about how report incidents of sexual harassment. There were some initiatives that were happening in the district afterward like the Anti-Racism Resolution and the Healthy Relationships Task Force. Was there any movement on those initiatives over the summer? What’s going on at the District level to make sure those initiatives are staying strong?
I’m aware of the Instagram DearWayland. I’m not familiar with the other one?
The other one was @BIPOCWayland—Black, Indigenous, and People of Color Wayland—was actually the first account that cropped up and that was where students anonymously submitted stories of other members of the Wayland community contributing to racist and intolerant environment.
You know, it is disheartening to really hear that any of our students are having experiences like that. Our students that are at the age they are right now are having to experience any sort of racial discrimination is tough, but I think us as educators in this community hold the answer to these problems. We’re the future: the young folks here in Wayland determine how we move forward.
It’s up to all of us to spread the awareness around how we get better, we minimize or even eliminate the sense of hate and sense of racial behaviors. It’s not up to the oppressed, the Black and Brown students, to push this initiative. It’s up to everyone.”
No one was born with the hate they may have toward anyone who doesn’t look like them. This is learned behavior. But if you can learn to hate someone, you can learn to love someone as well. For me, it gives me hope that I’m in the position I’m in right now to really cultivate and create an environment where every one of our students is safe, and all of them feel a sense of belonging.
Sometimes it’s around education—how much do you know about a person who may not see or understand the forces of oppression they’re inflicting on someone else. I often say absence of change is oppression, because if we don’t change the way we are right now, you’re still oppressing another person. So getting adults to embrace change and embrace change and support change—I know change is difficult. It’s hard. But for me, if you have students centered at what you do and what you believe in, change around providing more equitable and accessible means for students should never be a challenge.
It’s sad to think our young people have been watching adults behave so badly over the past years, let’s say five or six years now and beyond. We’ve seen so many bad behaviors from adults and people in power. It’s challenging and sad that our young folks are watching this and repeating these behaviors. We don’t have to do this. It’s up to all of us to spread the awareness around how we get better, we minimize or even eliminate the sense of hate and sense of racial behaviors. It’s not up to the oppressed, the Black and Brown students, to push this initiative. It’s up to everyone.
We need courageous conversations and actions about these things. It’s not just for me, the superintendent, to drive this bus. I will be on that bus toward equity. If I have to drive it by myself I will. If we’re moving together in the same place at the same time, I’d rather get to that destination, that promised land, with everyone, by going 30 miles an hour than by going 60 miles an hour and losing some folks. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how slow you go, some folks just won’t be on the bus and we’ll just go ahead and go without them so we can make this thing work. It is sad for me to know and experience some of those things. I’m hopeful that we can change that. We’re the ones, you guys are the classes, you young people who have endured these really tough times, can change the future. You can change the course of where we’re going. For a while there, it was looking really hopeless as a country. Now, helping each other, figuring out what the best way to move along, is where we should be.
Coming back to the Anti-Racism resolution, the plan behind that was for the different departments to adopt it and make some pedagogy differences. Do you know if there’s been any movement on that front?
Time is of the essence, right? I must commend the school committee for putting that policy in place immediately. I think that’s a courageous action. But for me, now that we have this policy, are we implementing it? Are we putting life to it?
Right now it’s each of us looking into ourselves and asking, what are we doing and how are we doing it? What can we do better? I am more willing and able to have any conversation with any department, any teacher, to ask what we are doing, how we can make it better. In our leadership retreat in August, one of the messages I hope they took with them that we talked about extensively, was, it’s okay to make a mistake when we talk about race, gender, biases, any sort of oppression or oppressive behavior. If we make a mistake, let’s own that and hold each other accountable. Own the mistake and say to students, you know what, I tried this and it didn’t work. I made a mistake. But I’m going to try it again, and here’s how I’m going to do it differently. I think simple things like that really shape how we move forward, because it’s not easy to have conversations about race and racism. It has been our original sin: this country has had it for a while. But it was. Now we can change that.
I don’t believe we’re still where we were in 1898, and honestly I don’t believe we’re still where we were in 1921. I use those two dates because—and a lot of folks don’t know this—in 1898, one of the biggest coups against African Americans was planned in Wilmington, North Carolina and the biggest massacre happened when people of color were gunned down and white folks had no just reason, no cause. No one was charged. It happened and people just moved on, and that’s sad. It’s a sad memory in history and we never really addressed that. And then years later, in 1921, Oklahoma happened, and when you really study that event and realize that airplanes were dropping bombs on people in our country—in this very same country—for me, and I speak for me only, it was hard to process, to comprehend that we’re all in the same country and the fact that an airplane strike was called in in a certain area of this country to eliminate a certain group of people, it’s just hard, it’s hard to process. And again, no one was charged. No one was held accountable.
If you don’t study history, it’s bound to repeat itself. But something is happening. I think bringing awareness to that through our educational process is helpful. I said it before—we are not born with hate, so we can choose to love and embrace each other, and I think that’s where we need to be.
Do you know if there are plans to reinstate the Healthy Relationships Taskforce and continue the work that was being done before?
I haven’t actually been involved in any conversations about that, but now that you’ve put that on my radar I might have to dig into that. It seems like something very useful, and if it worked and we saw some good results from it, I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t reinstate that. I’ll be talking to some folks about that. I didn’t know that existed.
What are you most excited about as you begin your work here?
You know, I am most excited about getting to know you guys, the student body, and our staff. I want to be in those meetings with our teachers and really understand the theory and philosophy behind what they do and what they teach each and every one of you guys. I’m excited to go to our drama festival and performances and listen to the band and our music programs. I can’t wait to get involved in our robotics club and see how our students are doing in engineering and the STEM program we have here. I’m really excited to just be part of the Wayland community as a whole. Yes, there are things I want to address, but I’m thrilled to learn more about how our students learn, and how I can support our students to make sure they’re getting everything they need. That’s that feeling when you get up in the morning and you’re like yes, I’m ready to go to work. I still feel that way. It’s long hours, and it’s easy to feel bewildered and frustrated, but so far, I still get up feeling very excited to be at work and be in Wayland, so I’m loving that and cherishing that feeling right now.