BROOKFIELD – As Toby Gibson walked through Brookfield High School’s cafeteria on a recent Tuesday, a visitor noted how it was eerily quiet.
“It’s been like this since March 17,’’ Gibson said.
At 47, Gibson is ending his first full year as a superintendent after he was tapped last June to be Brookfield Local School District’s top administrator. The first year at a job can be challenging in finding how to steer through the waters. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, Gibson experienced a challenge that was off the charts.
“It’s been an interesting year,’’ he said with a laugh.
Born and raised in the community, Gibson graduated from Brookfield High in 1991. At first he wasn’t sure about a career path and eventually decided on education.
After graduating from Youngstown State University, he taught a year at Warren City School District then was hired at Brookfield in 2000. He taught a variety of courses in the elementary and middle school grades with a concentration in social studies. In 2011 he became the district’s elementary principal, where he learned the ropes of being an administrator.
When Valina Jo Taylor, the district’s superintendent, announced last spring she was leaving to become the superintendent for Lakeview Local Schools in Cortland, Ohio, Gibson applied to become Brookfield’s superintendent.
At first things didn’t go well with his application. He got an interview but didn’t make it to the second round. Strong community support got the school board to take another look at Gibson, which resulted in him being awarded the post.
He would soon find his first year was a trial by fire.
Even veteran superintendents found this past school year brutal.
For Ohio schools, the severity of the pandemic hit when Gov. Mike DeWine ordered all K-12 schools closed effective March 17. Ohio became the first state to close all schools due to COVID-19.
Along with other superintendents, Gibson watched DeWine make the announcement on TV at the Trumbull County Educational Service Center in Niles.
“It was surreal,’’ Gibson said of the experience.
Yet, there was a true sense of bonding among the group.
“From that moment on there was comradery and collaboration among us,’’ he said. “We tried to figure things out. We still communicate with each other every week, sometimes multiple times a day.’’
It didn’t take long for events to change dramatically. Initially, the school shutdowns were only suppose to last three weeks. But as the pandemic worsened, DeWine made the call to close all school buildings for the remainder of the academic year.
Like many school districts, Brookfield already used online teaching for special cases – such as snow days. When the pandemic hit, school systems often found online courses were the only way to reach students.
It also proved to be a learning experience for teachers and administrators as they had to create schoolwork designed solely for online classes.
“We had students in homes that didn’t have access to a computer, so we gave out Chromebooks to those who didn’t have devices,’’ he said.
Gibson is among the thousands of school administrators nationwide who are now tasked with trying to teach students in the upcoming year while still dealing with the pandemic.
“But we’ve learned a lot these past several months,’’ he said.
Nothing has been decided yet on how schools will run this fall. Among the possibilities: Having students come to school two or three times a week with online classes filling out the rest of the time.
There’ve been ideas thrown around that sound great but are impractical to implement, Gibson said. Most agree students should wear masks while inside school buildings.
But, “you can’t expect to have a 5-year-old kid in kindergarten to wear a mask all day,’’ he said.
And requiring a kindergartener to observe six-foot social distancing from other kids in the same room isn’t realistic.
“If they are like me when I was in kindergarten, they will be running all over the place,’’ Gibson said.
A survey is being mailed to parents in the district to get their thoughts on the upcoming year. Questions include whether parents have the resources to drop off their child at school in the morning then pick them up at the end of the school day.
Gibson has found interacting with students and teachers in school is his favorite part of the day.
“I can’t make myself stay in my office for eight and nine hours a day,’’ he said “I’m in the hallway – I want to be visible.’’