21 for ’21: Jennifer Buesing, director of school safety, tries to ‘create order out of chaos’ during pandemic

Jennifer Buesing
Jennifer Buesing, the director of school safety for the Santa Cruz County Office of Education, undergoes routine testing for COVID-19, Dec. 22, 2020.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

In a turbulent year for schools everywhere, Jennifer Buesing, a Santa Cruz native and the director of school safety for the County Office of Education, has tried to “create order out of chaos” and helped guide schools through the pandemic.

During a time of uncertainty, angst and ever-changing health and safety guidelines, Jennifer Buesing is often the first call for many school leaders across Santa Cruz County.

What to do if a teacher tested positive? How about a family member? Who needs to quarantine and who doesn’t?

In a turbulent year for schools everywhere, Buesing, a Santa Cruz native and the director of school safety for the County Office of Education, has tried to “create order out of chaos,” provided much-needed answers to educators and administrators and crafted health guidelines for schools.

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And, so far, her long nights and countless Zoom calls have paid dividends.

“We’ve been able to successfully prevent outbreaks from happening at schools so it shows that it really can happen,” said Buesing, 46. “We can provide in-person services at schools, and it can be done safely.”

Buesing, who spent 24 years working for the Santa Cruz County Probation Department, came into her new role as director of school safety in December 2019. At the time, the thinking was that the priority would be making sure that staff and schools were prepared for handling and responding to threats. That they would put on active shooter trainings.

But soon the coronavirus would become the near-singular focus for schools across the country.

Jennifer Buesing, the director of school safety for the Santa Cruz County Office of Education, writes on a piece of paper.
Jennifer Buesing, the director of school safety for the Santa Cruz County Office of Education, undergoes routine testing for COVID-19, Dec. 22, 2020.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

Buesing took it in stride. As the liaison to the county’s public health department, she trained all of the county’s schools on how to implement the guidance and review it. The guidelines cover anything from health screenings at school to visitors on campus.

Buesing quickly became the point-person for schools, both public and private. And as the pandemic dragged on, forcing schools to shut down in-person services in the spring, the virus’ ripple effects became more clear.

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One of the big priorities early on, Buesing and her team realized, was to make sure students would still have access to food.

They created a map, housed on the county office of education’s website, to direct families to food distribution sites — schools, churches and nonprofits. Buesing worked with law enforcement agencies to help deliver food to families who didn’t have the ability to pick it up themselves.

“That was really important to me that our students still had access to food,” she said.

Buesing has also been focusing on the wellbeing of her students, their social and emotional needs.

“So many of our kids are suffering, just like adults, but, you know, suffering from isolation and depression,” she said. “So that was a focus early on, and it continues as well.”

If there are concerns about students and schools aren’t able to get in contact with them, they can refer them to Buesing. Then her team tries to figure out how to creatively reach out. Maybe it’s a welfare check. Perhaps a counselor or someone else the child has a connection with.

Those relationships, Buesing said, can help students even beyond the pandemic. If they find themselves in a difficult place in life, they might remember that there is someone who really understands them and cares for them.

“When they’re building relationships with school staff, that’s a bond that they’re going to have forever,” she said.

Jennifer Buesing, the director of school safety for the Santa Cruz County Office of Education, undergoes COVID-19 testing.
Jennifer Buesing, the director of school safety for the Santa Cruz County Office of Education, undergoes routine testing for COVID-19, Dec. 22, 2020.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

That could prove important. Then when Buesing looks ahead to 2021, there is hope thanks to the arrival of vaccines, but there is also worry about what the after-effects of the pandemic-induced trauma will be.

“What type of behaviors will be manifested from all these feelings that our kids have right now and the isolation,” she said. “All the struggles that so many of our families and our children are going through right now.”

Buesing has heard reports of students feeling isolated and depressed and not wanting to get out of bed or eat. Some, she said, have been participating in self-harm behavior, like cutting themselves. She worries about increased drug and alcohol abuse by students, and about threatening and violent behavior.

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“I’m concerned about what we might see in terms of the psychological, social, emotional damage this has caused,” Buesing said. “And we’ll be focused on how to respond to everyone’s needs.”

But as schools eventually get the go-ahead to expand in-person services next year, there is also an opportunity for students to heal.

“They’re doing so much on their own right now,” Buesing said. “So I think it’s going to be extremely healing for them to come back together with each other, students, but then also with staff.”