COVID-19: Preparing for a New School Year (with Mike McCormick)

In this episode, students from the UC Riverside School of Public Policy talk with Superintendent Mike McCormick about the challenges school districts face as the academic school year begins and distanced learning continues. 

AUGUST 28, 2020

In this episode, students from the UC Riverside School of Public Policy talk with Superintendent Mike McCormick about the challenges school districts face as the academic school year begins and distanced learning continues.

About Mike McCormick: Superintendent McCormick carries over 20 years of experience in the field of education. Beginning as a teacher at Home Gardens Elementary School, he became an Assistant Principal and Principal at both Vista Verde Middle School and Rancho Verde High School. Since 2015, he has served as Superintendent of Val Verde Unified School District. 

Learn more about Mike McCormick and Val Verde Unified School District here.

Podcast Highlights:

“I see on our State Superintendent Advisory Council with Tony Thurmond, and was able to be one of the first school districts in the state to apply to receive hot spots from Google and T-Mobile."

-       Mike McCormick on the topic of preparing to meet this moment, when students are dependent on technology, for nearly ten years. 

“At the highest policy level, I was asked by our State Superintendent Tony Thurmond to be on his Schools Reopening Advisory Task Force... I was fortunate to have conversations as a result of that task force with the Governor's office, legislators, and so kind of the policy discussion at that level was how do we have some practices and procedures in place that are going to hold districts harmless, hold students harmless..."

-       Mike McCormick on the topic of the statewide discussion on how to move forward with the school year, while keeping children and employees healthy and safe.

"The research is telling us that three to four times is the rate that our Latinx and Black community members, students, and families are likely to contract COVID-19. And that was one of the guiding documents that helped really shine the light for us, and our Board ultimately made the decision that we're going to continue in full distanced learning...”

-       Mike McCormick on the topic of how the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected minority communities in the United States, including his own district.


Mike McCormick (Superintendent of Val Verde Unified School District)


Maddie Bunting (UCR Public Policy Major, Dean’s Chief Ambassador)

Music by:

Samuel Roberts (UCR Public Policy ‘20)

This is a production of the UCR School of Public Policy:

Subscribe to this podcast so you don’t miss an episode.

Learn more about the series and other episodes via


  • COVID-19: Preparing for a New School Year (with Mike McCormick)

    Introduction: Welcome to the official podcast of the University of California Riverside School of Public Policy. And I'm your host, Maddie Bunting. For this podcast series, I will be talking with various voices in the public policy world about today's pressing societal issues. Join me to learn about potential solutions and Interventions for today's biggest policy challenges. Be they about how the economy, the environment, or other societal problems impacting families in your community or the international community. Joining me today is superintendent Mike McCormick to discuss the new academic school year as distance to learning continues. Mike McCormick began his career as a teacher at Home Gardens Elementary School in the Corona-Norco Unified School District. With more than 20 years at the Valverde Unified School District, Mr. McCormick has served as superintendent since 2015. 

    Maddie Bunting: Students, parents, teachers, and administrators acclimated very quickly back in March as a pandemic worsened. How did your district shift from in-person education to distance learning? What obstacles did you encounter and how did you adapt? 

    Mike McCormick: Yeah, that's a great question and thanks so much for the invitation to join you today on the podcast. You know, I think that I could probably trace some of our success in easing the transition to distance learning back as much as ten years ago. We really started building our district infrastructure, made some significant investments. And I would say it was back in 2012 when we first bought, like four ChromeBooks, which is kind of a low cost laptops for students that Google had come out with. And by probably 2015, we were 100% one to one student to device ratio in the school district. And so we had made this investment and thanks to the foresight of the Board of Education and a willingness amongst different district staff and particularly teachers to really try and utilize these devices to kind of as a tool, but also to think about shifts in their pedagogy or their instructional strategies. And so all that being said, I think we were very well positioned to make the transition to distance learning. All of our students already had devices. I sit on our State Superintendent's Advisory Council, Tony Thurmond, and was able to be one of the first school districts in the State to apply to receive hotspots from Google and T-Mobile. And so we applied for 900 hotspots. And through this arrangement with our State Superintendent, the Governor of the State of California, Google and T-Mobile, we got the devices in pretty short order. And through the generosity of Google, they have offered to pay for the first three months of service. And so while this is not, I would say, a sustainable long-term solution, it certainly helps in the short run. And so when we first kind of transitioned into emergency distanced learning, we ran some analytics on software that we use in District. And we discovered that roughly 95 to 96% of our students were engaging on a daily basis. And we kind of dissected those analytics by race, ethnicity, gender, students with disabilities, students of poverty, students learning English as a second language. And what we found was a tremendous consistency among all of those student groups, all engaging at very high levels. So I think it was, you know, something that we're proud of, but I also feel like it's a good reminder that it's important to continue to innovate and stay current with what's what's available. I think I'll just make one final note on this. And it's like I saw on social media, you know, COVID-19 didn't kill retail. What killed retail was a lack of planning to move to an online platform. And so kind of in the same way we see those retail outlets that transition services more to an online platform are the ones that have done very well, while your traditional retailers are filing for bankruptcy. 

    Maddie Bunting: Wow, that's so impressive that you and your district were so ahead of the times, not necessarily seeing a pandemic causing this huge shift, but, seeing this same technology integrated and school early on and I think so incredible and must have such great outcomes for your students right now. Talking about how you have years in the making of preparing for this time. Now, you went into that emergency, the past few months of school. And you've had this summer to now prepare for a new academic school year that has an indefinite amount of time of being distanced learning. You know, it is controversial when to go back, returning to school while also ensuring the safety of children. What type of conversations were you having with peers, teachers, parents, and students these past few months? And how did you collaborate with your school board when envisioning this upcoming school year? 

    Mike McCormick: Yes. So I was kind of the highest policy level. I was asked by our State Superintendent Tony Thurmond to be on his School's Reopening Advisory Task Force. And so I was fortunate to have conversations as a result of that task force with governor's office legislators. And so kinda the policy discussion at that level was, how do we have some practices and procedures in place that are going to hold districts harmless, holds students harmless. And so kind of at the highest level, we were looking for some hold harmless language on budgeting, length of school year time students were in the seat and so a lot of those things actually showed up in the governor's trailer bill for the state budget in what was later named SB 98. So Senate Bill 98. And I think on the local level, the Board of Education in Val Verde really led the way with a board resolution which said, you know, we're going to really study this issue. We want to create a task force and the task force is going to meet weekly at the beginning and then transition to every two weeks. So this was a 50 member Task Force that included two board members who were co-chairing the Task Force. Teachers, our associations were represented by the Val Verde Teachers Association, also the California School Employees Association. We had parents, community members, and students. And one of the things that we figured out how to do, which I think was so helpful, is we're using Zoom for the 15 member Task Force. But then we discovered how to connect that to Facebook Live. So not only were we interacting with the 50 members on the task force, we're also live streaming all of those meetings on Facebook live, which allowed us to significantly broaden our audience. And so while we were conducting the meeting on Zoom, we're also following along the width the comments from Facebook Live and that allowed us to actually interact directly with the broader audience and allow them to provide input into the task force. And so I think this was really helpful because it was very open, very transparent. And it, it allowed us to give our audience members a kind of a window into our thinking. Because we had so many different guidance documents we were dealing with. We had guidance from the California Department of Public Health. We had guidance from the California Department of Education. We had guidance from CDC, we had guidance from our Riverside County Public Health Department, we had guidance from the Riverside County Office of Education. And so all of us were trying feverishly to ingest all of this guidance by not only working with a taskforce, but also reaching out to job-a-wik. So I was interacting with other superintendents. Our board members were interacting with other board members from other districts and it was really kind of the race to understand the best way to proceed. But I absolutely credit the school board with developing the Board resolution that directed me to get this task force off the ground because I think it made a world of difference for us. 

    Maddie Bunting: Definitely does, is such a wonderful idea and it sounds like it's being implemented so well. You want that community engagement. I understand. I've spoken with officials at city and county and state level and they've said what you just said. There are so many guidances and they change. And every county it's different and it's just coming together and trying to do the best for the students and for the general public. 

    Commercial (Ana Yeli Ruiz): My name is Ana Yeli Ruiz and I'm a Master of Public Policy student here at the UCR School of Public policy. I chose the UCR MPP because of UCR’s commitment to first-generation students like myself, apply now at to join the next cohort of MPP students starting classes and fall 2020. Again, that's

    Maddie Bunting: Data has proven that minority communities are more likely to contract COVID-19 for a various amount of reasons. What is the demographic and socioeconomic status and those living in your school district? And in what ways have you met the needs of those in your unique community? 

    Mike McCormick: Yeah, that's a great question and something we really pay attention to at the board level and at the administration level and I think it, makes its way through the entire system. So we are, in terms of ethnicity we’re 75% Latinx, about 13.5% African-American. About 85% of our students participate in the National School Lunch Program. And about a fifth of our students are learning English as a second language. And so when we, when we think about the community that we serve, we were looking at the same data and saying to ourselves, the research is telling us that three to four times is the rate that are latinx and black community members and students and families are likely to contract COVID-19. And that was one of the kind of guiding documents, you know, that helped really shine the light for us to board. Our Board ultimately made the decision that we're going to continue in full distance learning until October 30th. And then at that time, the Board will look at the latest local information from the public health department, see what the community spread is, and then make a determination whether the stay in full distance learning or transition to somewhat of a blended or hybrid model that would include students coming to school certain days a week and then remaining on distance learning for the other days of the week. So I think that, you know, this is, this is definitely, by my way of thinking, one of the signs of systematic or structural racism that we have to be aware of. And in some cases, it has to do with the fact that our Latinx and black families are the ones that make up a larger portion of our essential workers. They’re also the same families that may not have the same access to healthcare. And so we know that these are strong working families that are continuing to work and thereby be exposed at a greater rate of certainly than their white counterparts. 

    Maddie Bunting: Yes, the education system is just one example of racism and treatment. And COVID-19 has exacerbated people's situations. It trickles all the way down to your example of health care, education, jobs, just everything. And I just love that your district has taken that information and worked off of it. And using it to the best of your ability to help your students. 

    Commercial (Genevieve Chacon): Join us for the summer 2020 installment of the UCR School of Public Policy student spotlight series on Thursday, September 17th, at 1:30 PM on public policy student Sana Jaffrey talks about “UC Rent: Renter’s Rights.” RSVP now via a You can also find the link in our show notes. 

    Maddie Bunting: So Val Verde Unified School District has provided, as you mentioned earlier, each of your 20 thousand students with a laptop to use at school, at home and during the summer for over five years now. The digital divide has proven to be a serious problem throughout this pandemic, especially for students. Can you speak to why the availability of a laptop is a priority in your district, now more than ever? 

    Mike McCormick: Yeah, I think it's a tool and that's the way we look at it. It's a technology tool. And I would say one of the inspirations for making sure that we provide our students with access to the tools of technology is we know that of the 25 largest regions, like metropolitan regions across the United States, the Inland Empire has the lowest postsecondary graduation rates. So we’re number 25 out of 25. And that was alarming to me because, you know, I didn't I guess I wouldn't have believed it was us. You know, you always wonder how could it be us? Well, it is us. And so one of the things that we felt was important to do was to expose our students to the technology that they would be able to carry with them into their post-secondary aspirations and also into their careers. You know, we like to think of this technology as something that should flow like electricity. It should just be. And so we want our students to be proficient in, for example, Google tools. We want him to know how to communicate, collaborate, come up with creative solutions, and of course, engage in critical thinking. And well, those things are not specifically tied to technology, the tools that students can use certainly force multiply their ability to collaborate with one another, communicate both inside school and outside school. Come up with creative solutions and use those tools of technology that help them critically solve the challenges that are before them. Because I really think that some of the challenges that we're facing in current times, I'm not sure if our current generations are going to be able to solve all of these intractable challenges. But I really think that our future generation of students will be the ones that can solve some of these things that are affecting so many of our communities. And so we really want our students even realizing that college is not for everybody. But I think for the majority of careers that are out there, if they're proficient with the tools of technology, I hold the belief that it's going to be helpful for them in whatever their career that they choose. So that's kind of been our philosophy that we really want our students to be able to do what we call the four Cs that I mentioned. And we have a portrait of a graduate, which is based on those four C's. And that kinda serves as our North Star and has kind of been the direction that we're trying to take the district for about ten years now. So I think it's, you know, when I think about my own children and making the transition to college, the college that they both attended was a Google school. And I thought if my students and beginning in kindergarten could have access and opportunity to use these technology tools. Then think about how much more prepared they'll be when they move into either a career or post-secondary education choice of the path that they choose. 

    Outro: This Podcast is a production of the UC Riverside school of public policy. I'm Maddie Bunting till next time.