In his first six months as head of the Anacortes School District, Justin Irish has watched teachers lead via Zoom, he’s seen projects completed by students in their homes and he’s seen drive-thru activities that help young people connect with school.
What he hasn’t seen is in-person instruction, and he can’t wait. Though schools opened for a few weeks in November, Irish didn’t get in to see the teachers in action in the classrooms before doors closed again.
“This has been the biggest challenge of my career,” said Irish, who came to Anacortes from the Edmonds School District, to fill the role vacated by Superintendent Mark Wenzel.
Leading during a pandemic
Irish started officially July 1 but had been working with Wenzel for months before as the district navigated the state-ordered school closures and moved to remote learning for the first time.
Now, several months into his tenure, Irish said he is continuing to learn and work with his team to navigate the pandemic. Every step of the way is taken alongside the Skagit County Health Department, Irish said.
He’s also trying to focus on listening to parents and community members who have many concerns regarding their children and the other young people here.
Irish said recent months have been difficult for everyone, including himself.
“It’s been really emotional,” he said. “Every day, I want kids to be in school, but I always want them to stay safe.”
Bringing a team together, like he did when he created his administrative cabinet, has helped. It means more people are bringing ideas and possible solutions to the table, he said.
The last time the schools opened, they stayed open for only three weeks, but the transition back to in-person learning at the time went very smoothly. Irish stood outside Mount Erie Elementary School on the first day back in October, greeting families, waving at students on school buses and meeting members of the district. His smile, though hidden by a mask, was evident.
To help with staffing issues that shut down schools last time, Irish and his team are making sure the substitute pool is full and that all administrators can step into a classroom or take on another role as needed. Irish is learning to drive a school bus, just in case.
No one has shown any hesitation about learning different roles and preparing to help where they can.
“That’s something I’m really proud of, the people that I work with are powerful, amazing people,” Irish said.
Living in Anacortes
Irish moved to Anacortes last May with his husband Ken Sturtz. Despite distancing regulations, unprecedented challenges in educating children remotely and the stress of starting a big new job in the middle of a pandemic, they said they are getting to know Anacortes, meeting people and enjoying the outdoors.
“So far, it’s been incredible,” Sturtz said.
They moved here from the Seattle area, but both have backgrounds in smaller towns. Sturtz is from Lynden; Irish is from Maple Valley.
Anacortes had everything they were looking for, and it all just clicked, Sturtz said.
“It just made sense,” he said.
Sturtz is a psychotherapist. So far, the move has been smooth because he was able to switch his practice from the Seattle area to Bellingham while also meeting with most of his patients virtually.
The couple loves to take multiday hikes and be out in nature. Moving to a town like Anacortes means more opportunities to connect with nature, especially during the pandemic.
“We are just surrounded by this beauty,” Irish said.
In their spare time, the couple enjoys snowshoeing, hiking and overnight backpacking.
In normal times, travel is also very important to them, both in and outside the country.
“I have a lifelong goal of visiting every continent and experiencing as many cultures as possible,” Irish said.
Sturtz said it’s been a little difficult to meet new people during the pandemic, but he’s still already met more of his neighbors than he did in the Seattle area because Anacortes is full of great people, he said.
“We’re just loving it here,” he said. “The moments we have been able to connect with people, they have been kind, sweet and caring.”