FORT BEND COUNTY, Texas (KTRK) -- Fort Bend Independent School District's superintendent has only been on the job for about two months, but she's already facing big challenges. COVID-19, staffing shortages, and a super-charged political climate have forced her to hit the ground running.
"In all this time I've been in this work, never have I seen it this hard on educators," Dr. Christie Whitbeck said.
Whitbeck called public education her life's work but said the issues facing educators right now have brought on challenges she's never experienced before.
"We're dealing with structure and students who have literally have not been in school. They need to be reminded of what structure looks like, which can sometimes lead to discipline, which can be stressful for teachers," she said.
COVID has impacted education on every front. As the omicron variant is surging, the district is ending the virtual learning option. That's a decision Whitbeck said is supported by low infection rates across campuses and parents.
"We surveyed the families, and most of them want to return. It was not cost-effective for us to maintain it, nor was it academically effective," she said.
To help close the learning gap, Whitbeck said she plans to continue using tutoring and after-school programs. She will need more teachers to make that plan work. Right now, there are about 120 vacancies in a district that employs over 12,000. Whitbeck said higher salaries and more support could help fill those roles.
"We need to look at what we are doing in each school to support our teachers and see how we can wrap ourselves around that in support. That's what I am discovering, and I'm working on that each day that I'm here," she said.
Since day one, Whitbeck said she's been leading by listening, and there are a lot of polarizing opinions about what and how students should learn right now. Whitbeck said it's part of her job to address the culture and climate and facilitate compromise.
"I do hate to see dissension. I want to see the board work together, the community work together, and all I can do is control me and know that that is how I will lead," Whitbeck said.
She's navigating the first two months as a team builder and solution seeker while also looking ahead. A goal for the future is to create more connections with local colleges to better prepare students for success after high school.