Dr. Julie Synyard said it is hard to do a quick sizing up of the Martinez Unified School District when your first few weeks — likely to stretch into months — have been amidst an all-hands-on-deck response to a pandemic requiring students to learn at a distance.

“I can’t get the flow or the feel yet — there are no classrooms open, no sporting events,” said Synyard, who started her new job as Martinez schools chief in mid-October, in the midst of 100 percent student distance learning. “Everybody’s just dealing with COVID — working for positive outcomes, trying to keep people safe.

“Ask me again in a few months,” when district officials hope some form of live classroom teaching, likely a hybrid of classroom and distance learning, will be underway. The target date for reopening the district’s four elementary schools, one junior high school, one traditional high school, one alternative high school and its adult school is Jan. 5. Synyard said discussions are ongoing with teachers, staff members and parents about how opening will look and how often kids are in a classroom.

This back-and-forth process, Synyard said, has revealed at least one thing — the dedication of the district teachers and staff, and how they are pulling together to get kids learning to the greatest extent possible using Zoom and similar virtual meeting tools. Even with the entire staff pulling in one direction on the distance learning, Synyard conceded the process has been “an absolute struggle.”

“The people here are good people, and they’re problem solvers,” she said.

Top priorities

Her three top priorities in general, she said, are bringing students back to school safely, making sure students learn their best wherever they’re being taught, and continuing the burgeoning discussion on racial equity in the schools.

That Martinez has been on the forefront of discussions about confronting racial equity issues was one thing that drew Synyard to the Martinez district.

“I want to make sure our district’s voices are heard,” she said. “I think students often underestimate how powerful their voices are.”

Synyard came to Martinez from the Cotati-Rohnert Park Unified School District, where she had been an assistant superintendent. Before her five years in that district, Synyard spent two years as principal of Tamalpais High School in Mill Valley.

“I want to make sure our district’s voices are heard. I think students often underestimate how powerful their voices are.”

Dr. Julie Synyard, Martinez Unified School District superintendent

Being an administrator of a relatively small school district with about 5,700 students, where relationships and collaboration are essential, she said, has positioned her well for succeeding in Martinez, where slightly more than 4,000 students are enrolled.

“I really like the size of the (Martinez) district because it fits my skill set,” she said.

Jonathan Wright, president of the district’s governing board, said the July departure of former Superintendent Christopher “CJ” Cammack to head up the Fremont Unified School District would have been a blow even without the specter of COVID-19. The timing, though, was brutal, Wright said.

It helped mightily, Wright added, that Synyard had been working on distance learning and other COVID-related matters at the Cotati-Rohnert Park district when she made the move to Martinez.

“She was able to hit the ground running in that regard,” Wright said last week. “To me, so far, she has done everything exactly as I would have hoped she would.”

Praise for her predecessor

Cammack, who had been in Martinez for four years, was well-liked in the community. Synyard said Cammack, along with Assistant Superintendent Helen Rossi (who remains with the district) set her up well, not only with the initial framework for reopening of the schools, but also some brand new facilities to reopen, including John Muir Elementary School.

Wright praised both Cammack and Synyard as “tireless workers with the same basic educational goals,” but noted Synyard is a more outgoing personality. That has gotten good reviews from district staff Wright has heard from, he said.

As for the hybrid distance learning plan that will include some classroom learning, that is scheduled to be unveiled at the school board’s Nov. 30 meeting. The reopening, Synyard said, will proceed even if Contra Costa County reverts to the state’s “red tier” of COVID-19 rules and restrictions. But, a move to the even more restrictive purple tier, if current increases in regional coronavirus infections continue, would close schools again.

That bridge will be crossed, Synyard said, if or when the district gets to it. Even though it is all going as well as can be expected, there is still more than enough to do right now.

“It’s been a seamless start, given the conditions,” she said. “It has been a very whirlwind start.”