Dr. Michael Funk
Albert Lea Area Schools
2022 Minnesota Superintendent of the Year

In Albert Lea, we are all about continuous improvement. One of our slogans is Always Learning. This school year (2021-22) is my seventeenth year as a superintendent, and I learned a lot. Like many other leaders in education, I was looking forward to a year with COVID-19 in the rearview mirror. Instead, it was a year of valuable leadership lessons brought upon by the continued impact of the virus.

In July 21, things were looking very good for our upcoming school year. We had a summer school program in which our COVID-19 numbers had plummeted. In Albert Lea, we start school around August 20 every year, so we were busy the first few weeks of August with new teacher orientation and staff return. Our board passed a resolution that made masking strongly recommended, and students were excited to return to school and return to “normal.” Life without masks and without quarantine. Albert Lea hosted the Freeborn County Fair for the first time in two years. We were excited to start.

Then the Delta virus hit- and the wheels came off during our first week of school.

Since Albert Lea starts school earlier than 95% of the districts in the state, we were the first large district to be impacted by Delta, and boy were we ever. After three days of school, we had quarantined over 300 students at Albert Lea High School, as many of our students chose not to mask. As a result, I immediately put us into a mask mandate- as the board had authorized me to do so in their August resolution.

Packed board meetings became the norm for several months, with individuals filming my every move and folks protesting the rights of students at our school board meetings and Albert Lea High School. As any school leader can imagine, this immediately brought me front and center for negative attention. It also drew many actors from around the state to our board meetings to protest the civil liberties that we were infringing upon.

Our open forum procedures were reviewed and adjusted, and a no-trespass order was given to a community member at a board meeting for the first time in my tenure in Albert Lea. We were able to maintain some semblance of decorum at our meetings.

We maintained our mask mandate in the district until early February, and our board meetings have returned to normal for the most part.

Some key lessons that I learned as a school leader during these challenging times:

Parents want to be heard. The parent voice has grown significantly with the onset of COVID-19. Parents are much more aware of their student’s education and want a say in what is occurring. I have always believed that education is a three-legged stool between the student, the school, and the family. Districts would be wise to embrace parents and improve on stabilizing that third leg of the stool. We do not need legislation to do so.

Trust in government institutions is very low. Whether it is a result of COVID-19, the 2020 election, or a combination of factors, our trust in our school is in question. Critical Race Theory has become a talking point throughout districts in the state, as schools are accused of indoctrination of our students. Mask and vaccine discussions do not go away. As school leaders, it is incumbent upon us to examine our systems and emphasize the why of what we do.

Strategic communications remain vital. There are many groups with their own agenda that are not aligned with the education of our students. School systems need to have a communication plan for long-term messaging and a plan to respond to short-term issues. Leaders should control the narrative about education in their community.

Relationships matter now more than ever. It is essential to reach out to people with different perspectives and share points of view. If we can focus our efforts on meeting the individual child’s needs, much of the negative energy can be dissipated.

There is no going back to Normal. COVID-19 has stressed systems and forced us to adapt. We have learned many efficiencies on how to operate as school districts. We should embrace these changes and work to ensure that state laws allow us the flexibility to innovate so we may best meet the needs of our students.

Finally, I will close with one of my favorite quotes from Steven Pinker: We need leaders who are bold enough to lead us into significant change and savvy enough to bring people along. This is more true now than ever.

It has been an honor to serve as Superintendent of The Year during this most unique of school years.

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