I am writing this blog post as COVID is ripping through the school districts and communities in Pennsylvania. It is safe to say that we are at least at the beginning of the dreaded “second wave” of COVID infections. What schools are facing in the second wave is significantly different than the challenges of the first wave. In a lot of ways, the new challenges are more difficult.
School Closing Last Spring
On Friday, March 13th, 2020 schools were closed in Pennsylvania for two weeks. Of course, two weeks turned into more than two months. Educators across the Commonwealth rose to the occasion to provide the best education possible for learners.
Looking back, in some ways those were simpler days for school leaders. The problems they faced were large but were clear. Feed kids. Train teachers how to teach online. Get technology in student’s hands. The challenges stayed relatively static. Of course, there were complexities involved in implementing solutions to these problems, but you knew what you were facing.
What Has Changed Since Schools Closed Last Spring
Today school leaders are faced with a more volitile, complex situation.
- Life and Death Decisions: First and foremost, the health of the students and staff is everyone’s number one priority. Dealing with positive COVID cases is quickly overwhelming school leaders. Case contact tracing takes an incredible amount of time. Making decisions about whom to quarantine and for how long are complex and time-consuming. A wrong decision has significant health consequences.
- Multiple Ways to Learn: Choosing how to facilitate learning is infinitely more complicated now than it was last Spring. Most school districts have at least three distinct instructional models they are using: face to face, totally online, and a hybrid approach that is somewhere in between. The hybrid approach has different options. For example, live streaming classes to students who are staying home seems like an easy option. After all, a teacher just has to turn a camera on in their classroom and students online can participate. Of course, it is not that easy. Livestreaming requires a different set of skills and knowledge for both the teacher and the student. School leaders are now faced with training teachers on one new method of teaching last Spring to two or three different methods.
- Sports…need I say more? When schools were closed, sports and other extra-curricular activities were suspended. There were no big decisions to make. Now, that has changed. Telling a team (and a community) that a sports team has to suspend their season because athletes are quarantined is not an easy discussion.
- Face Coverings: Simple things we all can do to help stop the spread of the disease has become needlessly politicized. Who would have thought that wearing a mask to help stop the spread of a deadly virus would become politicized? To me, it’s mind-blowing. School leaders are now faced with Board members and community leaders who simply refuse to wear a mask because their definition of freedom is so narrow that they can’t see beyond their own noses. Navigating the politicization of mask-wearing is a huge drain on the school leaders I know and it is a problem that is totally unnecessary.
Reason for Hope
Despite all of the problems listed above, I am incredibly hopeful.
- Grass-Roots Innovation: Educators at every level are figuring out how to provide the best education for kids. Know schools where the leadership of the district believes that this COVID crisis will help them make learning better for students.
- High-Level Engagement: I see our State Department of Education is deeply engaged with helping school districts solve problems. The engagement of PDE with school districts is the highest that I have experienced in my 28 years in education.
- The Future is Here: I see paradigms of education being questioned…and that’s a good thing. I wonder if 4 day weeks for students are here to stay? Will online options for students become just a normal option for kids? Will education conferences ever go back to being 100% face to face? (I hope not)
This is an incredibly challenging time for schools…more challenging than last Spring. We just need to remember that we are doing the important work of keeping our society vibrant.
Well said, Tom. These are difficult times but, I agree, a time for hope to truly customize for each learner.
Many challenges during this time in education but also a time for innovation. Great article!
Thank you for the reflection. In the midst of a raging pandemic, District leaders are forced to take it one day at a time. This pace gives us permission to be present and purposeful in each moment of every day with students and staff. When the next instructional day is not promised the one you are holding in your hand becomes all the more valued.
John Maxwell says, “Leading is about influencing!” The leader’s thoughts, words, and actions continue to model the way for others. Be strong, be courageous, be optimistic, be realistic, and be kind!
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