September 16, 2020

Robbyn DeSpain, Director of Strategic Communications

Education Leaders Reflect on Managing During an Unprecedented Time

Dr. Richard A Carvajal, president of VSU

vsu15571dr-cason.jpgDr. William Todd Cason, superintendent of Valdosta City Schools

vsu19373wes-taylor-lcs-super.jpgWes Taylor, superintendent of Lowndes County Schools


VALDOSTA — There is no template for leading a school district or university through a pandemic.

It is not taught in class — at least not before this semester. All the undergraduate- and graduate-level studying and research could not have prepared even the most seasoned leader.

Things are changing daily, and while the pandemic rages on, many are still trying to become familiar with the unknown.

The top education leaders in Lowndes County look that uncertainty right in the eye every day.

‘We’re plowing new ground,” says Lowndes County Schools Superintendent Wes Taylor. “This is not something that any of us have ever dealt with before.”

A few miles away, Valdosta City Schools Superintendent Dr. William Todd Cason says it has taken input from everyone to get through the past few months.

“‘We’re all in this together’ is our motto and has been since last year, and it will continue to be. We’re all in this together.”

At Valdosta State University, President Dr. Richard Carvajal reflects on graduate-level classes that nurtured his leadership skills. His professors would give students outlandish scenarios and case studies that could never really happen. Those students would then work together in groups to come up with a solution.

“They never wrote one this crazy,” he says. “As crazy as all the things they came up with it didn’t touch this. No one could envision that this was going to happen.”

All three leaders are navigating their own unchartered waters and are depending on their respective leadership teams.

“Somebody who sits in my seat is only as good as the team around him or her,” Carvajal says. “We have an exceptional team here at the university.”

Cason and Taylor also speak occasionally as part of a group of regional superintendents that exchanges ideas and tactics. Their teams and those at every educational entity across the country spent the summer prioritizing safety.

“We have to do what is best for our students, staff, parents, and our community,” Taylor says. “We’ve tried to take all of that into consideration when making decisions.”

The largest addition for both K-12 school districts this fall is a virtual learning option. While it is a great resource for those at high risk for COVID-19, Cason says it also presents some challenges for his teachers.

“We want to make sure our virtual learners are getting as much of the traditional in-person experience as possible. Our teachers are working hard to make that happen and provide students and parents with as much support as they can.”

Valdosta State University offers many classes and even degrees entirely online. But this fall students have some new options. One of those involves hybrid classes, where students may attend the same class in person on some days and online other days.

“We talked about how to use very innovative teaching techniques that would allow our faculty to share information virtually,” Carvajal explains. “At the same time, we want them to be able to really dive into that information and understand it in a face to face environment.”

The other priority for local education leaders is securing plenty of personal protective equipment. Both school districts and Valdosta State have stockpiled items like masks, hand sanitizer, sanitizing wipes, and disinfectant sprays to ensure a safer environment.

Taylor says he feels good about his district’s COVID-19 plan, but there’s one thing that occasionally keeps him up at night.

“We’re all neighbors that go to church together and work together. We care about our kids and we worry about our people. We’re in the people business.”

Cason says he enjoys hearing from parents in his district and wants to work closely with them to help all students succeed.

And on campus Carvajal says this unpredictable pandemic has taught him a little something about himself.

“We’re trying to deal with the real horrific challenges that are out there, and we want to mitigate and minimize as much as possible. The reality is there are still great things happening every day. So, what I have learned from this, frankly, is to appreciate those — maybe in a different way.”