Everybody is yearning for a return to normalcy, and yesterday offered hope after a major drug company announced that early data suggest its coronavirus vaccine is more than 90 percent effective.
But not everything should go back to normal, say district superintendents, particularly in communities where the pandemic has exposed deep-rooted systemic racism and inequities—and also accelerated positive changes that school leaders hope will stick long after classroom doors reopen.
Ensuring those changes are not just a stopgap measure begins with acknowledging that the problems were there all along and are not unique to COVID-19. “To really effect lasting change, we can’t position what we want to see differently as a response to the pandemic,” says Susan Enfield, superintendent of Highline Public Schools in Washington. “We need to frame it differently, as, ‘this is what we know is the right thing to do for our children.’”
Speaking at a virtual event hosted by Paper, an education technology company, Enfield was joined by two other superintendents who all expressed cautious optimism that reopening school doors will not mean entirely returning to business-as-usual. From providing remote instruction to teacher professional development, to delivering technology and meals, the experiences of the past months offer glimpses of better ways to serve their community, they say.
“Let’s not go back to the traditional way that we’ve ‘engaged’ with stakeholders in education,” says Marlon Styles, superintendent of Middletown City School District in Ohio. “That’s going to start with us as superintendents rethinking our practices and behaviors to incorporate and involve all types of individuals, regardless of position or title, at the table.”
Distance Learning Can Work — Especially for Those Marginalized
“The one thing that has to change is that learning cannot be dependent on our children physically being in school,” says Enfield. “Distance learning should not be seen as something that we’re only needing to do in a crisis. We do have children for whom this is working, and they are deserving of having that option as part of their public education menu.”
And, as it turns out, remote learning has also been welcomed by those who feel they have been marginalized by the traditional schooling system—in particular, Black and other minority students.
Enfield referenced Luvelle Brown, superintendent of Ithaca City School District in New York, who has said that many of his students of color prefer to learn at home. That sentiment was also the subject of a New York Times op-ed, which noted that Black families that preferred to keep their students learning at home “appreciated the way virtual learning allowed them to shield their children from anti-Black bias and protect them from the school-to-prison pipeline.”
“School is not a welcoming place for them,” Enfield continues, referring to students of color whose families have chosen to keep at home. “They are not known and honored for who they are and where they come from, and that has to change. And so I think that our students will be giving us a mandate to do things differently and to address the systemic inequities that have persisted in our public schools.”
“I’m hoping that when we go back post-COVID, we quit talking about the achievement gap and we start addressing the systemic inequities for those that we were under-serving, specifically our Brown and our black students in this country,” says Styles. “These inequities have been present for years,” he notes, but “it took the murder of George Floyd for them to really surface to bring some serious advocacy across this country in K-12 education to become more responsive to what the needs of our students are.”
“We’ve got to do a better job looking at our curriculum to make sure we allow students to be their authentic selves,” Styles adds. “We have to look at our practices as it relates to discipline—to have a better understanding that discipline is just a response to the fact that we culturally don’t understand our students as adults.”
Do What’s Right, Regardless of Titles or Job Description
Schools provide not only a place for kids to learn, but also food, social connections and a sense of community. And as they closed, many staff in non-teaching roles, from paraprofessionals to bus drivers, have taken “more of a hands-on, all-hands-on-deck approach” and “an extra interest in teaching students,” says Kristi Wilson, superintendent of Buckeye Elementary School District in Arizona.
Wilson, who is also president of the School Superintendents Association, says her district is exploring ways with the HR office to rearrange schedules and responsibilities to allow all staff more opportunities to be with kids.
“Our bus drivers and bus monitors are not transporting our children right now,” says Enfield. “But they are serving and supporting our children by delivering meals and by delivering technology. And more importantly, by delivering smiles and connection. And I think that our staff who are stepping out of what they traditionally do are experiencing a sense of connection to students and families, and that is something they are going to want to continue.”
Currently, each of the roughly 17,000 students at Highline Public Schools has a weekly one-on-one check-in with a district staff member, which Enfield hopes will remain in place past the pandemic.
Finding ways to support students should not be entirely defined or limited to one’s job description, she adds. “One of the things I see coming out from this pandemic… are people not being bound by title or traditional roles. This notion that, as adults in a school system, we are going to step up collectively to do whatever it takes, to educate our children and do that in partnership with our families.”
Yet at the same time, going above and beyond, day in and day out, can be tiresome for educators and staff who have already been through a lot this year.
“I have made a huge commitment to my staff to just make sure that they’re taking care of themselves,” says Wilson. “Wellness and balance is really important—for educators to not overtax themselves with trying to figure this out. We’re in this together; it’s everybody’s first year.”
Looking to New Leadership
Making some of these changes permanent will cost money—a hard ask at a time when districts are bracing to budget cuts. The education nonprofit Learning Policy Institute has estimated that state funding for education could decrease by around 20 percent.
“We need to be very, very clear that we need another stimulus package,” says Enfield. “For us to make some of the changes that need to be made, just shifting and reallocating resources isn’t going to cut it. There will be a need for an infusion of dollars into our education system for us to recover from this.” (A proposed second stimulus bill, which would have provided $182 billion for K-12 schools, has stalled in Congress.)
Despite anticipating budget reductions next year, Enfield says her district is planning to launch a permanent virtual learning option for students in the community next year.
With cuts likely unavoidable, it’s important to align fiscal and academic priorities, says Styles. “What’s the biggest priority that makes sure students have access to the resources and opportunities they need to be successful? That’s going to look different for a whole lot of students.”
And while many look to superintendents for leadership, they are also looking to federal leaders—especially with a new presidential administration on the horizon.
“My first short-term hope is that we finally get some federal guidance on how to reopen our schools in a safe and consistent manner,” says Enfield. “Leaving these decisions up to individual school districts is just unconscionable, and the abdication of leadership at the federal and the state level over the last several months has been stunning—and I don’t mean stunning in a good way.”
In the long term, Enfield adds, “what we’re really looking for is leadership … And my longer-term hope is that our children, once again, see leaders at the highest level of power who model service above self.”
President-elect Joe Biden’s nod to teachers during his victory speech offered a reassuring start. “For America’s educators, this is a great day: You’re going to have one of your own in the White House,” Biden said, referring to his wife Jill, a community-college instructor.
“It was extremely refreshing to see that the first constituent he acknowledged was educators,” says Wilson. “To me, and I’m sure I speak for thousands and thousands of people out there, that was just fantastic to have somebody mention ‘educators’ right out of the chute.”