When Wayne Whitwam interviewed for superintendent at Hermantown Community Schools in early February, he told the board that part of his first 90-day plan was to get out in the community, meet people face-to-face and spend time getting to know the school and area.
But the COVID-19 pandemic changed the focus of that plan.
Whitwam, who officially took over as superintendent July 1, has been focused on planning for the fall. He said his days have been mostly spent working on the “blueprint” for the 2020-21 school year and working on different scenarios with the expectation of an announcement coming from the Minnesota Department of Education in the next couple of weeks.
“When that announcement comes, we’re going to be working nonstop to get this up and rolling because parents want to know, so we have to be really quick,” Whitwam said.
Whitwam, like many superintendents around the state, is hoping the announcement from the Department of Education comes soon because all of the unknowns are making it hard to drill down details.
“It’s a bit of a waiting game,” Whitwam said. “You’re still planning as much as you possibly can and we're trying to come up with templates for each model … but I believe they will need to be tweaked after the announcement.”
Whitwam said he hopes students will be able to return to school in the fall, but if a hybrid model is implemented where some students will have to do distance learning, they are focusing on making sure elementary students are able to have in-person schooling, as recommended by the Department of Education.
Part of the discussion of the 2020-21 school year revolves around masks. The Department of Education has yet to make it a requirement for reopening schools, but strongly recommends that districts require masks, with exceptions for those with medical conditions that would make it difficult to wear them.
Whitwam said he understands that mask-wearing has become politicized, but that “we want our students back and if wearing masks means I can get the students back, I’m willing to do that.”
“My three goals are I want students to know that they’re safe, that they’re cared about and I want them to learn as much as possible,” Whitwam said. “In this environment, safety is going to be a priority. We want kids back but we want them safe and we need to figure out how to get them back safely.”
When he’s not focusing on planning for the fall, Whitwam said he is still trying to make connections and meet people in the community, jokingly saying it’s more awkward at first now “because your first instinct is to shake hands.” He’s also overseeing the $1.3 million new artificial turf installation on the high school football field.
Whitwam also has the recently created, and very detailed, district strategic plan to guide him. One of the goals for the 2020-21 school year set by the plan is to define and evolve the Hermantown brand.
“What I need to do is get community members, parents and teachers altogether and ask them if we were to describe Hermantown in three words, what would they be?” Whitwam said. “Once we get those and we feel they strongly represent us, then we can start the branding and messaging.”
Whitwam came to Hermantown from the Centennial School District, in Anoka County, Minnesota, where he served eight years as an elementary principal. He has also worked as an elementary and high school counselor, a high school principal, assistant principal and a curriculum director.
Whitwam said he’s happy to finally be in Hermantown.
“I love the community feel,” he said. “Everyone is so friendly and outgoing.”