Story by Kathy McPherson
When the winds of COVID-19 touched down in North Carolina, the pandemic was met by Becki Feinglos Planchard, a 2007 Durham Academy graduate who has helped navigate the waters of how to safely reopen the state’s public schools.
Since 2018, Planchard has served as senior early childhood policy advisor to Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, but that role has now taken a back seat as she coordinates the work of Health and Human Services and the N.C. Department of Public Instruction in writing guidelines for operating 2,692 public schools that serve 1,553,334 students.
“What has been so challenging is that there are no right answers and there are so many unknowns. We know more now than we knew when we started and when I came on to the K–12 work … but even today, there's so much unknown,” Planchard said.
Equipped with a B.A. magna cum laude in Spanish, history and political science from Duke University; experience with Teach for America in Texas; a master’s degree in public policy from the University of Chicago; and work in the Chicago mayor’s office, Planchard is up to the challenge brought by COVID-19.
“This is the hardest-thinking work that I've ever had to do because no one has done this before,” she said. “It's like the perfect storm of skill sets that I'm grateful I have in this exact moment in time. Because I was a teacher, I can understand the education landscape. Because I was an instructional coach, I can understand the training that teachers need to understand this public health crisis. Because I speak Spanish, I can think about what our non-English-speaking families might need in particular. Because I taught in a Title I school, I can think really specifically about our most vulnerable kids. And because I've been working in policy at the state level in early childhood, I have relationships across all different divisions and and other state agencies across North Carolina.”
Planchard describes her work as a bit like herding cats. In establishing guidelines for schools during the pandemic, she talks with epidemiologists, considers research (“which is constantly shifting”), looks through the lens of what could actually be implemented in a public school, and “then we kind of synthesize all of that and write down what we think is our best bet.
“We're at a point now where we are redoing and revising guidance that we issued earlier on [some public schools reopened for on-campus instruction on Aug. 17] because we're hearing from the field — what's confusing, what does not work, what are we getting so many questions about — that we are now able to make it even stronger,” Planchard said. “We had a webinar with almost 600 people on it — school principals and local health departments and charter school leaders and superintendents all on a call together. … Writing this guidance and thinking through all this interconnectedness of education and public health, it's hard, it's really taxing.”
Planchard said her favorite days are when she gets to “present to teachers or local health departments or answer questions and be of support to our educators and our public health staff across the state who are hustling every single day. … When nothing feels right, when it feels like there is no right answer on anything, coming to a conclusion or a recommended set of next steps for a principal who's really struggling on how to handle implementing their screening procedures for COVID symptoms, that's incredibly rewarding.”
She is also gratified by the work she has done to benefit non-English-speaking families in North Carolina, noting that one of every five children under the age of 8 is Hispanic, and many of them do not speak English at home. “Any frequently-asked-question document we put out, we translate that into Spanish. Every family-facing document, anything that a parent might pick up and want to know, we are translating that into Spanish. … The fact that we didn't have a consistent infrastructure to regularly communicate with Spanish-speaking families is a problem, and that really came to light during the pandemic.”
Planchard is grateful for her background as a bilingual teacher in Texas and her focus on Latinx studies in college. “I feel like my role as a white woman in spaces where we are making deeply impactful decisions every single day is to speak up for who's not in the room, and do everything that I can to get people with lived experience in the room. I'm proud that we've been able to do that, at least a little bit, in these past few months.” COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on Hispanic North Carolinians, and the Department of Health and Human Services is hiring for two new staff positions specifically with Spanish-speaking families in mind.
With work days that begin at 8 a.m. and often continue until 11 p.m., Planchard has been tempted to strap a GoPro on her head and post a day-in-the-life video experience on her Instagram account. She’s generally working from home in Durham unless Gov. Roy Cooper issues an executive order, which brings her into the State Emergency Operations Center.
At the time of this interview in October, Planchard’s work day involved: leading a webinar for 600 education and public health leaders; working on a webinar to help college students make smarter choices about preventing the spread of COVID-19; helping to prepare the weekly education data report; working on an upcoming speaking engagement; planning a session for a leadership program; meeting with Health and Human Services leaders to update school guidelines; participating in a daily COVID call with Secretary Cohen and others; and joining in a separate call about messaging for young adult populations.
“That's a pretty typical day,” Planchard said. “It's just kind of nonstop. But it has to be, there's so much at stake right now. So many schools are opening up, and our [community transmission] rates are increasing.
“I feel more on the hook than I've ever felt to give everything that I have. In the long term, it's not sustainable for any of us in our office. I've never, ever seen or worked with such hardworking people in my entire life, who are so dedicated to the health and well-being of folks in our state. We've got the right leaders at the right time.”