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Decade after district office fire, Joel reflects on navigating LPS through even greater challenge: a pandemic
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LPS FIRE | 10 YEARS LATER

Decade after district office fire, Joel reflects on navigating LPS through even greater challenge: a pandemic

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As the extraordinary school year comes to a close, education leaders say reopening was the right decision.

A photo of brick-laden rubble taken on a late-spring morning 10 years ago sits on Steve Joel's bookshelf.

It's one of the only visible reminders the superintendent keeps around in his third-floor office at Lincoln Public Schools headquarters of May 30, 2011, when a fire razed the district's office building.

At the time, the fire was perhaps the greatest challenge LPS and its superintendent ever had to face. Joel had been hired just a year before.

Steve Joel

Lincoln Public Schools Superintendent Steve Joel

But the district quickly rebuilt. It's sleek new headquarters opened in 2013, commanding the same plot of land at 59th and O streets as the old building. And LPS brought its new, $1.1 million data center housed in the office's basement online just last summer — one of the last remaining hurdles to clear after the fire.

Now, a decade later, Joel and district officials are just beginning to emerge from an even more novel and challenging time: guiding a public school system through a global pandemic.

"I do feel like this pandemic was probably the most challenging thing I've ever endured in my life," the superintendent said from his office earlier this month. "It's been an ongoing, every-single-day thing."

The questions he and others have had to answer are innumerable: Should LPS have closed schools in March 2020 before the coronavirus had even reached Lincoln and as the world shut down? What about reopening that fall? Should students wear masks?

And the critics — teachers and parents, alike — have not been silent. Just last week, opponents of the district's revamped mask policy for the summer converged on a Lincoln Board of Education meeting to speak for nearly two hours during a public comment session.

Opponents to masks, proposed state health standards speak for nearly two hours at Lincoln ed board meeting

But Joel feels at the end of the day, the district made the right decisions that ultimately saved lives and he's confident LPS can put the pandemic behind it this fall.

There are answers, too, contained in that photo of the fire's aftermath that helped inform Joel as he led the district in the age of COVID-19.

Lessons gleaned from the rubble.

"Never, ever underestimate the power of the human spirit," Joel said. "It's that power of the human spirit that when the chips are down, you figure out a way to respond because the alternative is not accepted."

'What can I do to help?'

Joel can still recount that night 10 years ago when he got the call: The district office was burning.

"A bad, bad night," he recalled. "The wind was blowing like crazy. There were tornado warnings and thunderstorms."

He drove north on 84th Street, gathering his thoughts, wondering what he would say, how he would look. The superintendent, known for his careful sartorial eye and dress codes, was wearing sweatpants — it's the small things you remember in these moments, he'll tell you.

Kirk Langer, the district's chief technology officer, had been working late when he discovered the fire hours earlier and called 911. A disgruntled employee, it was later learned, had started it in her superior's cubicle, not intending to cause $20 million in damage in one of the costliest fires in Lincoln's history.

Kirk Langer

Kirk Langer

Langer watched from a parking lot across the street as the building, which contained the district's data infrastructure, collapsed. He remembers what the superintendent asked him in that moment.

"What are you going to need from me?"

"That's typical Dr. Joel," Langer said. "He's thinking about the people that work with him — 'What can I do to help?'"

In the days that followed, Joel and other district officials worked to find temporary homes for the 250 displaced employees and to bring the computer system that contained vital records back online — thousands of physical records, keepsakes and other items didn't survive the blaze.

"I lost a year's worth of work, but there were people who lost 30 years of work," Joel said.

Today, the residual effects are minimal — completing the data center seemed to close the book on that night — but the disaster helped Joel prepare for the turn-on-a-dime decisions he and others were forced to make during the coronavirus pandemic, to face the critics who inevitably appeared.

There were also lessons learned as superintendent in Grand Island, where he helped the district protect students following federal immigration raids there. And after a tornado in 1996 struck a middle school in Beatrice, he led that school district through a bond election that faced steep opposition.

"It's really about those times in your life that you get challenged to the core," said Joel, a New York native. "We deal with the loss of loved ones, we deal with illnesses ... all of those things, we know they're going to happen in our lives. We're never fully prepared. But we have to respond."

'A ghost town'

As the virus began to spread, the district's headquarters, a physical symbol of a school system overcoming adversity, was empty.

Offices had been abandoned soon after LPS decided to close school for the rest of the year in March 2020 as the COVID threat crept closer.

"This ultimately became a ghost town," Joel said.

The superintendent and his top executives were granted emergency powers — the only other time that's happened under Joel's tenure was after the fire — as they started working from home.

"Six, eight, sometimes 10 Zoom meetings a day," Joel said. "I need in-person meetings. I don't like webinars."

'She was in my corner' — Mrs. Robinson, namesake of Lincoln's newest elementary, helped student overcome his past

When people started to trickle back to their offices in May, administrators and board members were already at work drafting a 600-page pandemic playbook they would release later in the summer.

Those early decisions, he says, were tough ones to justify. The data simply wasn't there yet — Lincoln didn't report its first coronavirus case until March 20, three days after LPS announced it would close indefinitely.

"I've had medical people telling me, we saved a lot of lives by doing that. Because when the virus came here, if kids were in schools, regardless of whatever the protections were ... we would have been a vector for transmission in ways that would have led to a lot more casualties."

But the science changed. It wasn't long before many experts determined that students — especially those below the poverty line — could be safer at school.

And by the time school opened in the fall, the educational landscape was markedly different. Masks became as ubiquitous as backpacks. Teachers, many of whom spoke out critically against the district at board meetings, were tasked with juggling both in-person and virtual classrooms.

"It was hard, it was uncomfortable, it was stressful, exhausting," Joel said. "But (the teachers) did it."

Many criticized the district in November when it decided to continue in-person learning at a time when the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department's dashboard moved into the red category, which under prior plans would have meant shuttering schools.

"We had very active protests. We had threats," he said. "It challenged us to the core again."

And when LPS announced last week that only fully vaccinated high schoolers and teachers could start shedding their masks this summer, the critics showed up again.

He said the reaction during the pandemic was similar to the backlash to what became known as the "purple penguin" controversy in 2015, when training materials at LPS concerning gender identity came under scrutiny.

But Joel prefers to stick to his guns, standing by hard decisions — like the ones he had to make after the fire.

"The major lesson for me (is) unless we have clear information that makes decisions cut-and-dry, we have to go into decisions with the best information we have at that moment and make the best decision we can," he said. "And if we have to rethink that decision, we have to rethink that decision."

In an evaluation this past year, Don Mayhew, who was board president when Joel was hired, said the superintendent rose to the challenges of the pandemic.

"Dr. Joel was exactly the right leader at the right time to bring us through this situation successfully."

'What a great opportunity'

Joel, who is 66, takes his job one year at a time.

He has no immediate plans to retire, he says. And while summers are fairly busy, he and his wife are looking forward to spending time with their five grandchildren, something they weren't always able to do during the pandemic.

Joel never expected to be at LPS for more than a decade, he said, but is now likely to wrap up his more than 30-year career as a superintendent in a district he calls "the best in the country."

He never expected to have a pandemic possibly bookend a tenure in Lincoln that started with another disaster 10 years ago, a fire that brought a school district to its knees.

LPS will make masks optional for fully vaccinated high school students over the summer

"Coming to Lincoln is a place that I think people would say, 'What a great opportunity to end your career here,'" he said. "Because there's no better education system or supportive community in America than in Lincoln."

Joel credits the work of the ed board, his executive team and teachers, of course. The future, he says, will be challenging for them as well. LPS is just starting to take stock of the social, academic and emotional toll COVID has left in its wake.

Budget stress because of decreasing state aid is also becoming an annual concern.

When the 2021-22 school year begins, the district will have to grapple again with the question of masks, although Joel hopes that many of the pandemic restrictions won't be needed this fall.

And when fall does come around, the superintendent plans to continue guiding the district through those obstacles, knowing it could be the final ones he'll have to conquer before he leaves.

"Ultimately, the day comes," Joel said. "You always want to leave your assignment better than when you got it. And I kind of feel like we've done that."

Contact the writer at zhammack@journalstar.com or 402-473-7225. On Twitter @zach_hammack

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Education reporter/Night content coordinator

Zach Hammack, a 2018 UNL graduate, has always called Lincoln home. He previously worked as a copy editor at the Journal Star and was a reporting intern in 2017. Now, he covers students, teachers and schools as the newspaper’s K-12 reporter.

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