‘The best in all of us’: How one man led a school district through the pandemic

Dr. Michael Robinson, director of secondary education at Cornwall-Lebanon School District, works in his office. JEFF FALK/OnthePULSE

LEBANON COUNTYThere are no playbooks, no owner’s manuals, no user’s guides. When it comes to a pandemic there is no precedence.

But by all accounts, the Cornwall-School school district has – and continues to – handle the ongoing COVID-19 crisis better than anyone could’ve hoped. The key to success for Lebanon County’s most affluent school district has been diligence, cooperation and coordination.

In many ways, the novel coronavirus has tested the most important aspect of local public education – flexibility – like it has never been tested before. But for educators in the Cornwall-Lebanon school district one of the unintentional outcomes from their management of COVID-19 has been that they’ve learned some things about themselves.

Dr. Michael Robinson is not some superhero operating in the shadowy background of the Cornwall-Lebanon School District. He shudders at the mere mention of the notion.

But if he were, his super powers would be leadership, delegation and humility.

A defining moment

Robinson is Cornwall-Lebanon’s pandemic coordinator, a title that he did not ask for and one which he is diligently trying to politely return.  Like any good manager, Robinson has surrounded himself with good people, both a formal and an informal pandemic team. They support him as much as he supports them.

“It’s defining moments like these that change the course of what’s to come,” said Robinson. “I don’t think it’s any different with any school system. When you’re in this business long enough you recognize moments in time. We learned to adapt. We learned to persevere. I watched the perseverance each day. Each school district had to manage it (COVID-19). It wasn’t isolated.

 “It’s not about me,” continued Robinson. “As a district, we’re capable of great things. We learned that. I felt it brought out the best in all of us. I’m very proud to be part of the organization.”

Robinson has served the Cornwall-Lebanon school district in different capacities during his 18 years of employment, the last five of which have been spent as the director of secondary education. Two years ago, when it needed a pandemic coordinator, the school district couldn’t think of a better person for the job.

 “I think we all knew that the pandemic was going to affect all of our jobs,” said Robinson. “We just felt like I was the right person to do it. It’s not like we drew straws. I volunteered to do it. There are no qualifications for a pandemic. I had direct oversight over our two largest buildings (Cedar Crest High School and Middle School) and we felt like it just made sense.

“I think COVID-19 has affected everyone’s professional and private lives,” Robinson continued. “I’m going to say everyone in our district was affected. I had a role in this pandemic just like everyone did. We all had a stake in it. My role was bringing everyone together. It changed how we operated.”

Shrouded in uncertainty

The date was March 13, 2020. No one knew exactly what COVID-19 was or what it could do. But everyone knew it was serious.

Shrouded with uncertainty, what ensued were school closings, virtual learning, mask mandates, social distancing, contact tracing, vaccinations and documentation. The fabric of education was changed forever. The purpose of schools went from simply learning to protecting and learning.

 “I think we all had to understand what was going on,” said Robinson. “But the minute we came together professionally, I was amazed by the complete unity within the school district. I think when people are challenged, things come out of them as individuals. People just stepped up. I saw people focused on the mission at hand. For me, there are visual memories of unbelievable individuals stepping up across the board.”

There was no job description that accompanied Robinson’s “pandemic coordinator” title. While it certainly added to an already heavy workload, Robinson learned about COVID-19 on the fly, winging it as he went along.

Through constant communication and an unwavering thirst for information, Robinson has become an unofficial expert on the coronavirus and its effects on society.

Included in Robinson’s personal definition of what a pandemic coordinator is and does are reporting numbers of active COVID-19 cases to the state, communicating directly with parents, working closely with building nurses, helping to mold district policies and direct meetings with other administrators.

“I was considering every bit of feedback provided to me,” said Robinson. “There were a ton of different thoughts and ideas, and I tried to formulate a process within the district. You never knew when a piece of information was coming in the door. You had to be open with information.

“I had a pandemic team from the district that was second to none,” Robinson added. “I was able to take all kinds of feedback. I was the point of contact for every parent in the district. I had to be able to work with every parent who walked through the door. Any time someone called with a question about the pandemic, I had to be readily available.”

A significant decline

Throughout the interview for this piece, Robinson used a lot of ‘we’s and past tense verbs to describe Cornwall-Lebanon’s response to the pandemic, words that provide some insight into the current state of the pandemic within the district. One of the lessons learned was that the number of active cases of COVID-19 within the school district always mirrored the number of overall cases in the Lebanon community.

While the pandemic may not yet have run its course, its severity has certainly lessened over the past couple of months.

 “We’ve seen a significant decline in numbers,” said Robinson. “During the height of it, the most difficult times were coming out of holiday seasons. That was information that was helpful in decision making. Some of it was just trying to figure out what this virus was. Through time, you learned what was best for the student population.

  “There are a lot of things in place to hold me accountable,” added Robinson. “It wasn’t just me solely making decisions. There are so many individuals who stepped up. The nurses were phenomenal, the administrators were phenomenal, the teachers were phenomenal. The maintenance folks had to clean in a different way. Food service was huge. Human resources were huge. School is not a simple process.”

The biggest takeaway from Cornwall-Lebanon’s response to the pandemic was the above-and-beyond-the-call-of-duty mentality displayed throughout the district. It was an approach that started at the top and trickled down.

“I was affected by education as a student,” said Robinson. “For me, it’s somewhat mission based. I had a traumatic event in my childhood, and I was coached up hard by an athletic director and coaches. I think it’s something that molded me. I saw the power in what educators can do.”

 A mission that not even a pandemic could halt.


Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is a seasoned writer and journalist based in Lebanon, PA.