Firm Thinking - Episode 2

Dr. Michael Mahon - 9/11/20

We're very excited for our first guest, Dr Michael Mahon. He is the superintendent at Abington Heights School District.

We asked Dr. Mahon some questions in terms of how coronavirus is impacting the school year there and obviously sports, how it's affecting their sports program. And joining us will be one of our partners, Lars Anderson. Lars practices in municipal and employment law and he's been consulting over the course of the past few months by employers, by school districts, kind of trying to give them somewhat of a roadmap as to how to deal with coronavirus. So he'll be weighing in with his thoughts as well. It should be interesting.

Nicole Santo: [00:00:10] Hi, everyone, welcome to Episode two of Hourigan, Kluger and Quinn's podcast, I'm thinking my name's Nicole Santo.

Michael Lombardo: [00:00:16] I'm Mike Lombardo. You know, when we first came up with the idea of having a podcast, the idea of a global pandemic obviously was nowhere on our minds. But it's something that's really pervasive in all of our lives now, no more so than in our educational system and of course, with local sports, which is something that's very important to me. So tell everybody who we have with us today.

Nicole Santo: [00:00:36] We're very excited for our first guest, Dr Michael Mahon. He is the superintendent at Abington Heights School District.

Michael Lombardo: [00:00:43] So we're going to ask him some questions in terms of how coronavirus is impacting the school year there and obviously sports, how it's affecting their sports program. And joining us will be one of our partners, Lars Anderson. Lars practices in municipal and employment law and he's been consulted over the course of the past few months by employers, by school districts, kind of trying to give them somewhat of a roadmap as to how to deal with coronavirus. So he'll be weighing in with his thoughts as well. It should be interesting.

Nicole Santo: [00:01:10] We're very much looking forward to this. And we are going to start our Zoome conference with Dr. Mahon right now.

Nicole Santo: [00:01:18] Thank you for joining us, Doctor Mahon, we are so excited for you to be our first live guest, so bear with us. Hopefully we can get through this without too many flubs. But first, before we get started, we just want you to please briefly introduce yourself to our listeners and viewers.

Dr. Mahon: [00:01:34] Sure. Nicole, thank you for having me today. My name is Mike Mahon. It's my privilege to be superintendent of the high school district where I've been for this is my 17th year now. And before that I had been superintendent by area school district and school administrator and a teacher and a number of different places. So that's a nutshell. I'm a resident of South Abington Township here in the district, and you can very much forward to our conversation today.

Michael Lombardo: [00:02:05] Dr Mahon, Mike Lombardo, let me just to give everybody some kind of a window into your in your background a little bit. The podcast is a little bit of a different medium that we're kind of experimenting. So we kind of want to go off the beaten path a little bit. Let's give our listeners a little bit more insight into your background. Now, what part of the state are you originally from?

Dr. Mahon: [00:02:24] I was born and raised in Scranton, Pa. That's where my mom and dad and my grandparents. I'm a Scranton person from way back, so that's what I was earning.

Michael Lombardo: [00:02:33] So as far as the Abington district goes, you're an outsider, but not really an outsider. You're from the area.

Dr. Mahon: [00:02:39] That's right. Outsider as in. I grew up on the other side of the notch. All right. So but no, I'm very comfortable with Lackawanna County.

Michael Lombardo: [00:02:49] And where did you go to school?

Dr. Mahon: [00:02:50] I went to school at Nativity of our Lord Grade School in South Side. I'm a graduate of Scranton Prep. I, I started my career as a science teacher, having gone to the University of Scranton. I followed it up with some time as a principal and assistant principal at a number of places where I also received my certification there at the University of Scranton. I worked hard at Marywood for a Ph.D. and I recently completed an MBA from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. And I very much enjoy the work I do in a great district right now where I'm privileged to work.

Michael Lombardo: [00:03:32] That's a great, great background now let me let me ask you, this is something that I'm interested in, and in addition to being a lawyer, I also served on city council in Kingston. And a lot of times when I'm out and about, obviously, you're running your constituents and they want to ask you questions and and different issues that might come up. How do you handle how does that happening when you're out and about being superintendent of the school district? That's a pretty prominent position in the community. How does that happen? And if so, how do you handle it?

Dr. Mahon: [00:04:02] Well, it happens all the time. And it's great, you know, because having lived in this community for about 20 years and having worked in this job, you're right. A lot of people know you. And first, I would say that people are just very kind. And, you know, I think I've seen people have always been good to me. People have never been more kind than they have been in recent times as we're working through this this crisis. And how are you doing? Hey, you know, so you're on the board meeting the other night. How are things? But it's very much part of the job and being available not only during the school day or business hours, but if you're picking up something at Garrity's and someone has a question, they come up and ask you, well, that's part of it. It's very much part of it. And, you know, I very much accept that part of the job. And I'm very grateful to be engaged in discussions with members of our community about something that's very important to them, something that they're very proud of them tonight, school district.

Michael Lombardo: [00:05:04] Let me ask what kind of along the same lines, one other background question before you get into the nitty gritty, we're primarily going to be talking about coronavirus and the effect that that's had on your district. And part and parcel of that is exports and obviously high school sports and NEPA. That's something that people are very passionate about. Have you had any negative experiences? Have people people get passionate about that issue? Have you had any negative experiences since decisions have been made with regard to sports?

Dr. Mahon: [00:05:32] Well, you know, I wouldn't categorize them as negative, but I totally understand that, you know, students and parents who have worked all their life to to get to a point where they want to participate in their and their soccer or their football, field hockey, whatever it happens to be, and to have that rug pulled out from under them. That's an emotional experience. And that is not is maybe not alone, but we are among a small number of school districts that are not participating and they see it going on in other areas. That's upsetting to them. I totally get it. I very much respect the fact that they feel strongly about it and they voice those strong feelings to me and I do nothing but respect it. I, I told them that if I were a senior in high school and this is my senior football season, I'd be holding the sign to wanting to wanting to participate. So again, I don't do those as negative, but very definitely people have expressed some very strong opinions about the issue of sports.

Michael Lombardo: [00:06:40] Your spirits seem up. You seem like you're keeping a really good attitude about it.

Dr. Mahon: [00:06:44] I'm good. I'm good. I'm great. You know, I tell you, it's a hard job because our teachers and our parents, our students. Right? I mean, I'm in an office. I could kind of manage one thing at a time. But, you know, they're out really hammering away. The teachers are dealing with some new technology parents in our our home or they're they're dealing with conflicts between their job and trying to take care of their kids. So I'm really great. And it's just the worry I have for the challenges this is presenting to our parents, to our students, to our teachers and just to our broader community.

Michael Lombardo: [00:07:23] As the saying goes, heavy is the head that wears the crown. Not really. I'm good. Thank you for saying it. And a lot of people say, Mike, how are you doing?

Dr. Mahon: [00:07:32] I'm doing great. It's just a matter working, really putting a lot hours, as all school administrators are at this time. But we're doing it for good reasons and we're being inspired by our parents and our students and our teachers who are in plug in it, doing the do a thing where the rubber hits the road. And yet I'm very upbeat about what I've been seeing as far as what what's happening in our schools and in our communities.

[00:07:55] So we don't have a lot of time here. So let me kick it over to the call to get into some nitty gritty in terms of how you're dealing with coronavirus.

Nicole Santo: [00:08:04] Sure. So, Dr. Mahon, obviously, Abbington has chosen to go virtual, at least for the first month or so of school. We wanted to ask you how you got to that decision, how you were able to make a that decision. And now I think you're two days in. We also want to see how it's going.

Dr. Mahon: [00:08:21] All right. Well, first, it's a very hard decision and it's going to come down and say, all right, this is the right move to make. You know, there's a lot of different views of it. And and in in in looking at this, our school board looked at all the information. We provided them with a lot and they researched on their own. And and the view that we took was that we have to get our doors open, no doubt. But we also know that during the course of this year, it's very likely or at least possible that we'll have to shift from one mode of instruction to the other, depending upon how things go. And the idea is that we would begin with a virtual beginning where all of our students are home, all of our classes are virtual, and then in a short period of time, we would hopefully master that that approach and all the equipment. I'll get through the bugs and then get everyone back in the hybrid model on October 5th. And then this way, if some point during the year we had to go back to virtual, we would have had a good experience getting a good solid start and then being able to transition seamlessly back to virtual, which we would hope that would happen. But we know that's a very real possibility.

Nicole Santo: [00:09:38] And how is it gone so your two days than now, right?

Dr. Mahon: [00:09:42] Right. How's it going? Where we are two days in and we have not been without our challenges.

Dr. Mahon: [00:09:49] But as I walk down the halls and we've asked our teachers and the vast majority of them are actually in their classrooms now delivering the instruction from their classrooms. And as you walk the halls, you hear student voices and you hear kids voices. There's some amazing resources that our teachers are using. So it is so good for us to be back and we're not back to where we want to be. But those connections are being rebuilt and reestablished. Good things are happening. And so I am I'm just really pleased that with our with our with our staff and I'm telling everybody that each day is going to be better than the day before. And the first few days were really good. And so we're going to have a very solid run leading up to October 1st, get our kids back. And I'm very, very hopeful with the start we've had over the last two days.

Michael Lombardo: [00:10:44] Doctor, let me ask you, we're obviously we as lawyers when we're approaching a problem, we have to look at precedent, we look at what are the laws, what are the regulations that guide a particular topic. So I wanted to ask you what what are the source materials that you're using to to sort of guide your decisions in terms of opening, in terms of what approach to use? What are you relying on?

Dr. Mahon: [00:11:06] You know, back in March and April, we were looking for guidance. What direction to take right now? There is has been a landslide of guidance that has come down our way. The CDC has put out some very valuable documents as far as general safety practices for us and and the Pennsylvania Department of Education and intensively the Department of Health, especially as of late, have been putting out some very useful documents that guide our decision making regarding what happens if we have some cases in the school. At what point should we close down? At what point can we have everyone back all the time? So there's some some very good, straightforward guidance that we've been getting from our partners in Harrisburg and at the CDC.

Michael Lombardo: [00:11:55] So you don't you're not twisting in the way and you haven't had to sort of make this up as you go on. You're getting the material that you need to make these decisions.

Dr. Mahon: [00:12:03] Well, we are making it up as we go because there's a lot of fine detail in taking the guidance and making it work. But in broad strokes, we have a sense of what is social distancing, what is acceptable, what is and when do we open the doors, when do we not? How do we clean up? How many kids can we have on a bus? All that kind of thing. So we are getting some some very good guidance. But the challenges interpreting that guidance into a workable operational plan, which is, again, something that we're doing every day.

Michael Lombardo: [00:12:40] Let's see, I'm sorry, Michael, so sports is obviously a big issue for folks, and we talked about that and the passion that people have. As I understand it, the board your your board essentially left that decision to you, correct?

Dr. Mahon: [00:12:58] No, no. Quite the contrary, that we gathered as much information as we possibly could and we did presentations to the board. The board asked questions that gathered information. And on two occasions, I certainly recommended and spent completely behind the cancellation of all contact sports. But the board was presented with that information and on two occasions in public meetings in front of thousands of people. And so for nine zero that they were in support of that. So the thought that that might be handed did this is really not not the case. But Mike is very supportive of where we are right now, albeit a terrible thing for for our athletes and their families.

Nicole Santo: [00:13:48] How do you foresee this affecting those students who may want to further their athletic careers in college but haven't yet found a program where they want to go and do that? How, if at all, are you helping to get them the assistance or the support that they need so they can they can do that?

Dr. Mahon: [00:14:07] Well, it is. I mean, there's no question and it would be disingenuous for me to say, oh, everybody will be fine, because that that's just not reflective of the situation we're facing. In fact, one of our board members in a public meeting said, you know, I was able to play Division One Double AA football, and in large part because I had a good senior year. And and the idea that our our students are not going to have that opportunity is just terrible. But when we look at the issue in its totality and the importance of maintaining safety and our our our true effort to be laser focused on opening our doors and keeping our doors open, the prospect of contact sports is just inconsistent with that, with that vision. And so our coaches have developed over the years strong relationships with coaches at the collegiate level. Those will continue. I'm aware that a number of our athletes are working out and doing some films and things like that to keep themselves in the eyes of the college coaches. So we will work, our staff will work to do everything we possibly can to allow those opportunities to remain open. But no doubt, no fall sports contact sports is a setback for everybody.

Michael Lombardo: [00:15:28] Has there been any discussion beyond the fall or I guess it's just a wait and see approach?

Dr. Mahon: [00:15:32] It is a wait and see approach. I mean, the governor, the Pennsylvania Department of that and Department of Health have put out a blanket statement saying they strongly recommend against having any sports until January 1st. In our case, we set kind of a standard to say that we will allow any sport to continue that can match the social distancing protocols that we would expect in our classrooms. And so we were able to sponsor or continue with varsity golf, varsity tennis and with some modifications cross-country, because, again, we could we could meet the social justice standards there that we have in the classroom. But as we look at the winter approaching and basketball and winter sports, that really is not a conversation we've been able to have or engage in and hopefully vaccines and things coming out that will make those things easier. But it's it's an unexamined issue at this point. The short answer to your question.

Michael Lombardo: [00:16:35] Let me bring Lars into into the discussion, Lars has been used as a resource for a number of different schools and municipalities because, again, there's no playbook that we have that we can go to to navigate this. So so, Lars, what are some of the issues that you've been saying that some of our clients have been coming to you with? And we'll see if if Dr. Mahon has been having some of those similar issues and how he's been handling them.

Lars Anderson: [00:16:59] But as Dr Mahon said, the state in the beginning was a little slow giving guidance out, but has gotten now some very good guidance recently. But when you look at a lot of that guidance, it has to do with there's no one size fits all approach. Everyone has to adjust it to how it's going to work for them. And that leads to a lot of questions. Know the six feet social distancing is a spacing issue. And so for school districts, you how does that fit with their classroom? And when they were doing, you know, 20 some students now, you know, they can't fit that many kids in that same sized classroom.

Lars Anderson: [00:17:37] So you're using that in the schools. You're seeing that also in workspaces where offices had cubicles and the removal of cubicles to be able to have the safe business practices that the governor put out or the guidance that the order put out by the governor back in June.

Lars Anderson: [00:17:54] So spacing becomes a big issue and then technology and the access to Internet also is issues that everybody is dealing with. Right. Not everyone has Internet at home, while for many of us it is second nature and something that we just think everybody has, but not everyone has decided to have that cost in their lives.

Michael Lombardo: [00:18:18] Yeah, Doctor Mahon, I've dealt with that issue. And you have you have kids, I'm sure, that don't have access to the technology. Is that an issue for you?

Dr. Mahon: [00:18:27] Very definitely has been. We have we've ordered huge numbers of books from back in March. And and unfortunately, because of some supply chain issues across books are not flowing to school districts. We were hoping to have another seven or eight hundred of them in by the start of school. We're still waiting on that order. And so right now in Abington Heights, we have a Chromebook in the household of every student, as I understand it. But we're not able to get chrome books into households where there are siblings. And as soon as the order comes in, we'll have enough. But it is really hard for a parent in the household to have one computer and two kids in different grade levels and expect that to to work. And so hopefully that will be resolved in the near future once the orders come in. And with respect to Internet access, we have been able to purchase some hot spots. We've helped people out. I will say Comcast has been really good about getting low cost or free Internet to students and families who need it. But in our school district, there are some regions that no matter what you do, you cannot get Internet. So it's just it's a rural area. There's some mountain terrain. And and so we've been reaching out to those families with printed handouts and computer computer sticks to put in memory sticks, to put in the machines. And but that's a real issue. And it does speak to, you know, the inequalities that come when we're dealing with virtual instruction. And we really do need to get our kids back under our roof where really we do our best work.

Nicole Santo: [00:20:19] How are you handling? I have a daughter, she's nearly two, and I can't imagine her having the attention span to sit on Zoom. She's not only younger than school age, but what about the young kids pre-K, kindergarten? How are they handling this, this this virtual plan?

Dr. Mahon: [00:20:35] You know, I, I was visiting Waverly Elementary School, one of our schools that I went to, our kindergarten teacher, and I asked her that exact question. Right. Because how do you do I don't know how they do it when the kids are in the classroom with a little six year olds running around doing the thing. And and and she just said, what? We're going to do it right. We're going to learn to sit. We're allowed to hit the space bar. We're learning to log in. We're going to wave to each other. We're going to read stories. And and so, you know, the we have to rely on the extraordinary talents and professionals we have, you know, who to teach kindergarten. And that's just an amazing thing in and of itself. But the point is one that, you know. Kids in kindergarten need their parents to be there to help. There's no six year old is going to be able to independently navigate getting on to Google meet or whatever the case is with their computers. And so that hurts with respect to their jobs and child care. There's all kinds of issues that are our community is struggling with. And, you know, that's why we need to get we need to get our kids back.

Michael Lombardo: [00:21:49] Dr. do you do social media at all?

Dr. Mahon: [00:21:52] We do, I use social media in my role at as a superintendent, but you will you'll be hard pressed to find me on Facebook.

Michael Lombardo: [00:22:04] The reason I ask you that question is just to kind of see what have you been getting feedback. And that's how everybody goes, right? That's like the town square now is is Facebook, Instagram, etc. That's where people go to express their opinions. Are you kind of getting the pulse of the district from that forum or how's that work for you?

Dr. Mahon: [00:22:21] You know, I have I have a very good contact with 17 year old lives under my roof. And she is very quick to monitor social media and even quicker tell me what I'm trending down. So we do have we do have some connection to social media. Our administrators are out talking to people and they get the pulse of the place. So while I'm not really on directly, we kind of get a sense of what's what's bubbling. And I will tell you that while people are genuinely concerned about this this issue or that, my sense is that people are happy with their schools and are they are pleased with their teachers and are supportive of what's trying to go on. And it really is a community that has always, in my time here, been very supportive of education, which is not to say we don't have our struggles and our challenges, but we live. We're blessed to be in a great community that supports our schools.

Michael Lombardo: [00:23:19] Is anything we missed? We don't want to take up too much more of the doctor's time in the middle of the school day, so anything we missed, do you think?

Lars Anderson: [00:23:25] I just just wondering what the virtual method that you're using. Is there a resource or resources for parents to help with the at home park that they're playing? I mean, as you know, the six year old can't be left alone and can't navigate, as you said, on their own. So, you know what's there for the parents to help with that process or for the parents to help with teacher process?

Dr. Mahon: [00:23:54] Right. And there's I mean, we have really tried to limit our approach to something called the Google Suite, where Google has a lot of applications for education with respect to meetings and documents and all kinds of online resources. And by doing that, we don't have a number of different platforms for a kid in third grade. We don't have a different platform than his older brother or sister in ninth grade. So we've tried to be consistent in the digital platforms that we're using. We have put our resources. And one of the things we've asked our teachers to do and they've been great about it, is that even though we are teaching life lessons all day, those lessons are recorded and then within their Google classroom are available to access on demand. So if a parent is having a hard time or needs to be away from third grade math lesson later on that night, they'll be able to sit down and access that math lesson, albeit not live, but they'll have access to it to kind of work through it at a time that might be more convenient for the family.

Nicole Santo: [00:25:01] Good stuff. I know we are wrapping up soon, but I do want to ask one question I very much look forward to when I was in school, homecoming, homecoming dances and so forth.

Nicole Santo: [00:25:11] What do you foresee four events like that as well as alternatives and play?

Dr. Mahon: [00:25:17] Let me let me answer a different question than us that I'll get back to not to dodge.

Dr. Mahon: [00:25:23] But, you know, while we have not had sports, we have all kinds of extracurricular activities that are going on right now, like our yearbook, our Pennsylvania Junior Academy of Science are all of our clubs are engaged and that's happening right now. So we're trying to make it as normal as possible by our team, by trial.

Dr. Mahon: [00:25:43] Yeah, I think they're going. Are you an advisor last night for Abington?

Lars Anderson: [00:25:49] But I've said and judge that I've seen Abington and Prep have their their battles up in the courthouses in Scranton.

Dr. Mahon: [00:25:55] And who is out of the school? Never mind. All right. But anyway, have your foot in both of those girls I had. Yes. I'm clearly in Abington Heights right now.

Dr. Mahon: [00:26:04] I have before and from one thousand, I only got one. Anyway, as far as dances are concerned, you know, we want to get them back now. It's very hard to envision right now a prom, you know, which is a mass of dancers around around the band or around the speakers. So but but we will work to provide the very best opportunities for kids that we can. I mean, with graduation last year, our seniors didn't have their formal graduation, but we had a virtual graduation that's driving. We were able to get socially dist. graduation at PNC Park. And so our kids, our creative, our administrators are creative. And even if we're not able to do what was always traditionally the prom, the dance, we're going to work together and really hard to get the best possible opportunities out of for our kids.

Michael Lombardo: [00:26:57] Doctor, we learned a lot about how your school district is navigating these times, but. When we think about this podcast of who might be listening to it, I imagine a lot of people from Abbington are going to be tuning in. I hope they will tune in. And as a way to kind of close this out, let's have a little fun and maybe learn a little bit about you. Let me ask you a couple of quick questions.

Dr. Mahon: [00:27:16] All right. OK.

Michael Lombardo: [00:27:18] How do you spend your Saturday that you're going to get some sense for your hobbies? How do you spend a Saturday, Saturday?

Dr. Mahon: [00:27:24] Well, you know what, I, I still pretend that I that I'm a runner. So I'll get up usually every Saturday morning and I have a running partner. We will run five or six miles. And then really I spent I value the time with my family. My daughter is 17 years old and her days under our rules and willing to hang out with her with her dad. I know our limited so will we'll hike will spend some time just around the house. So my interest now or I used to golf, I used to be big into sports and right now I'm very big into just kind of hanging out with my family when I can.

Michael Lombardo: [00:28:04] One of the other big effects for coronaviruses on restaurants. Right. Restaurants are also struggling like this. Let's let's ask you, what's your favorite restaurant? NIPA my favorite restaurant bar.

Dr. Mahon: [00:28:18] No, I, I very much enjoy.

Dr. Mahon: [00:28:23] Heading over to Cara Mia's in Dunmore for a sandwich and pasta as well. I know going out of a fancy place, maybe we'll stop at pregnancy's sometime and done more. We've been heading downtown in Scranton and we have some great restaurants here in Clarks Summit, State Street Grill. They do some great things there. And I've been pita bread here on Main Street, great sandwiches, homemade bread. So, you know, and ultimately my favorite restaurant is wherever I've taken. And so I'm not too picky on that.

Michael Lombardo: [00:29:05] We're good stuff, doctor. We don't want to take up too much of your time on a on a Friday afternoon here, so we thank you for joining us. And we had a lot of fun talking to you. And we can have you back some time once we're back in a normal business operations.

Dr. Mahon: [00:29:19] And I'm going to start thinking about how I take you to dinner from history, because that was you answered all the coronavirus questions like nothing.

Michael Lombardo: [00:29:25] That was that was like the hardest part of the day I left on that one.

Dr. Mahon: [00:29:28] So I have to think about that. So, listen, I very much appreciate the opportunity and I hope you all take care. Thank you for the opportunity.

Michael Lombardo: [00:29:35] Very good. Thank you so much.

Dr. Mahon: [00:29:38] See you later. Bye bye. We want to thank everyone for tuning in and especially a thank you to Dr. Mike Mahon for being our first guest and having a very interesting discussion.

Michael Lombardo: [00:29:47] And we'd also like to take a moment to remind you that we have an email here for our podcast. It's appearing on the screen. It's FirmThinking@HKQLaw.com. We'd really like to hear from you, see what you think about our discussion today. Was there anything that you'd like to hear about that we didn't talk about? We'd also like to hear your ideas on future guests and maybe you want to appear. If so, give us a shout. Let us know what you think and we'll give you our feedback on the next podcast. See you soon. Thank you. Bye bye.

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