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New leaders rise to pandemic challenge

From left are Dunkirk schools Superintendent Michael Mansfield, Jamestown schools Superintendent Kevin Whitaker, State University of New York at Fredonia President Stephen Kolison and Chautauqua County Executive PJ Wendel. From left are Dunkirk schools Superintendent Michael Mansfield, Jamestown schools Superintendent Kevin Whitaker, State University of New York at Fredonia President Stephen Kolison and Chautauqua County Executive PJ Wendel.

Exactly 29 days before life as we knew it dramatically shifted from coming together to staying apart, Michael Mansfield attended his first Dunkirk Board of Education meeting. The lifelong Chautauqua County resident was being announced as its new superintendent.

“We want to improve attendance,” he said regarding his goals on Feb. 11. “If we get students here and we get good attendance we can do good work with them.”

Mansfield’s hiring appeared at the time to usher in a new era at the second largest school district in Chautauqua County. Optimism surrounded the highly respected educator and administrator, who was expected to bring a new attitude and accountability.

But his official arrival on April 20 was a much different picture. He was sworn into office by the city school board virtually. Attendance, one of his priorities, was then expected via remote learning — an even greater challenge for the high-poverty district.

Incredibly, his only public appearance at that meeting in the winter was his last. Most of Dunkirk’s school board meetings can be viewed online while only last month did secondary school students begin to return to classes in-person through a hybrid model.

Who would have thought?

Mansfield is one of four new leaders to this county who have assumed significant community positions this year during a never-before experienced pandemic. He, State University of New York at Fredonia President Stephen Kolison, Jamestown Public Schools Superintendent Kevin Whitaker and County Executive PJ Wendel have been under a microscope when it comes to overseeing a worldwide dilemma in our neck of the woods.

Though not all residents have agreed with major decisions made during this unprecedented crisis, one thing has been clear: each of these individuals deserve credit for guiding their communities while stressing safety during our lifetime’s greatest health challenge.

For both Mansfield and Whitaker, the paths to superintendent were very different. Whitaker came to Jamestown from Geneva — another small city school district in the Finger Lakes — over the summer and immediately set forth a plan for the district to bring students into buildings. Getting students into Dunkirk’s facilities did not occur as quickly, but it has happened.

Just as importantly, as has been noted in recent weeks by state Gov. Andrew Cuomo, schools are one of the safer places to be. Administrators and staff are enforcing facial coverings and distancing recommendations.

That definitely does not remove any anxiety, but it is a reality. Life, we hope, will not be the standstill it was during the seven weeks of spring.

Kolison arrived at SUNY Fredonia in late August right before the start of the fall semester and was meeting with Chancellor James Malatras unexpectedly within weeks. Malatras’ visit coincided with alarming numbers of positive COVID-19 cases facing students.

Following the suspension of 13 students and Malatras’ visit, the virus cases stabilized. As an example, for the first two weeks at the university, there were 87 COVID-19 infections.

For the next 12, there were 140 — or 12 new cases per week.

Not once did the campus have to go to a totally remote model. “SUNY Fredonia faculty, staff, and students, there are no words that can adequately express how proud I am of our entire campus community for what we have achieved. During an unprecedented pandemic, and despite many concerns and a spike in positive cases early in the semester, the Big Blue Family took the situation seriously, held each other accountable and supported each other,” Kolison said in a note to students before Thanksgiving. “Not only did you adhere to the new social norms of mask-wearing and physical distancing, you participated in surveillance testing that increased steadily throughout the semester.”

Wendel, a relatively unknown legislator to those outside of southern Chautauqua County before he assumed the executive position in January, has been front-and-center while being consistent in his message to residents to use caution and staying safe. In addition, he has led the charge to have a transparent county government at a time when residents are not encouraged to be attending meetings.

From the beginning of the crisis, he held weekly press conferences that were streamed on the county’s Facebook page that were highly viewed each week with Christine Schuyler, county public health director. Since then, he has continued to keep the public informed of major initiatives while praising the work of staff members and front-line employees.

“Without our health department, we’d be in a very different situation from the very beginning,” Wendel said in October. “Everyone who works in our county Health Department has been phenomenal in this instrumental role and we need to keep up the work.”

Leadership at this time is not easy. This quartet — and many others — have not wavered.

¯ ¯ ¯

Happy holidays.

John D’Agostino is the regional editor of the OBSERVER, The Post-Journal and the Times Observer in Warren, Pa. Send comments to jdagostino@observertoday.com or call 366-3000, ext. 253.

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