Gary Johnson is much more than Director of Security for the Pojoaque Valley School District in New Mexico. He’s in charge of safety and security, transportation and more, but his most important role is supporter. And though he’s been a supporter to students, families and staff for the 11 years he’s been with the school district, this role has become even more prominent in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Pojoaque Valley School District (PVSD) is situated just north of Santa Fe between the backdrops of the Jemez Mountains and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The public schools serve approximately 2,000 students from various ethnic backgrounds in the Pojoaque Valley and the communities of Nambé, Jaconita, Tesuque, El Rancho, Arroyo Seco and San Ildefonso. The district has one high school, one middle school, one intermediate school, one sixth grade academy and one elementary.
“The isolation piece has been tough on a lot of people,” Johnson says. “And our district and community as a whole have been deeply affected by this pandemic.”
Over the past year and a half, PVSD and the surrounding community has lost teachers, former teachers, coaches and community members to the coronavirus.
To deal with the losses and provide support, the district has delivered more than 93,000 meals out of its cafeterias through deliveries and grab-and-go locations to families in need. In the beginning weeks of the pandemic, Johnson oversaw retrofitting of the district’s buses with coolers and outfitting the space for meal delivery instead of student transport.
Johnson has taken ownership over checking on staff, students and community members through phone and home visits, all with a smile under his masked face. He’s also coordinated efforts with local law enforcement, social services and other community partners to help and check in on students when needed.
“When there is a concern, that becomes priority number one until we know that student or staff member is safe,” Johnson says.
“Gary is the lifeline for many of our students and staff. He calls students and staff daily to make sure they are OK, not only from COVID, but also in mental health, food security and education,” Superintendent of PVSD Sondra Adams wrote in her nomination form of Johnson. “He goes to homes when there is a concern with a student or staff member, taking groceries, medicine, educational materials or just to be a friendly face. He manages our food delivery, campus COVID screening, building sanitization. He helps with surveillance testing and managing staff that have become ill. We could not have made it through this pandemic without him.”
There are days when Johnson’s phone rings from 5 am to 9 pm as he reassures parents of reopening procedures and safety protocols, answers questions and acts as a support system for families and staff isolated during the pandemic. (In the brief time that Security spoke with Johnson for this article, he received multiple calls.)
“Being safety and security director, I believe that answering and getting back to people puts people at ease. So I value that and I try to return all my phone calls. My role is keeping staff and students safe and reassured. It’s important for me to be accessible,” he says.
A few times, Johnson himself has had to quarantine because of close contacts with other infected community members. But the calls and support he provides have continued. “I worked from home. ZOOM and me are very good friends. It’s a role that I take seriously,” he says.
Johnson also has taken a leading role in distributing PPE and implementing COVID-19 related screening procedures, safety and security plans, and reopening protocols. When supplies were scarce, Johnson, along with the PVSD’s warehouse manager, went out buying sanitization products, masks and gloves wherever they could find them, stockpiling necessary supplies where they could.
Johnson’s previous life as a police officer and member of the SWAT team, along with his training in emergency management, has really come to the forefront during the past year and a half. “There were a lot of protocols and procedures we put in place right away even before there was much information out from our own health department and the CDC with what we were facing,” he says.
The security staff has been front and center in the district’s safety and security response plans, managing daily temperature checks, gate security and mask wearing at all facilities. At one point, members of Johnson’s security guard team got infected with COVID-19. Johnson, along with other staff members worked together to continue running temperature checks and gate security while the affected guards quarantined and recovered.
He describes himself as a “Radar” O’Reilly from the 1970s and early 80s TV series M*A*S*H. In other words, he has a sense of what needs to be done and he knows who to talk to or where to look to get it done, but he credits the rest of the administration, departments and colleagues — including nursing, food services, facilities and maintenance that he works with — as “the real heroes.”
He may be humble, but the truth is, Johnson knows a lot of people and it’s his background in law enforcement and particularly in emergency management planning, along with the relationships he has built over the decade, that have come through as a benefit during these times.
But, he continues, “I am really just a small cog in the whole wheel. If you could see how our entire team has worked together to get through this, it’s really amazing. Together, as a team, we have strengthened the district.”