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What executives have learned from COVID-19’s ‘Stress Test’




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When schools and districts suddenly closed in the spring, principals jumped into action.

They knocked on doors to find students, packed meals for families, tried to create distance learning programs, and, in some cases, even secured money for families struggling to make a living.

Their experiences in those early chaotic days as the coronavirus pandemic swept across the country and their preparation for the new school year have been captured in a series of five recently published summaries from the Education Policy Research Consortium at the University of Pennsylvania.

The cuts, based on interviews with 120 directors in 19 states, show crude reactions from directors as they and their districts struggled to make plans between a fog of uncertainty and the challenges they faced. Analyzes also include departures for schools and districts to prepare for the upcoming emergency.

The research instantly revealed apparent inequalities and varied approaches to the circle. Some gave principals broad autonomy to make decisions about the pandemic response, while others took a centralized top-down approach that limited school principals. Others balanced both approaches.


The first priority for principals during the crisis was to ensure that students, staff, their families were well before going to academia.

Schools with the least amount of resources were the ones that were most sophisticated to meet the needs of those communities – the food center, by going to the apartment complex and making sure the internet centers were there, said Bradley Carpenter, a associate professor of leadership education at Baylor University and one of 20 researchers interviewing directors for the study. They were schools that worked longer hours than wealthy schools.

The cuts also highlighted another incompatible feature of the education system: that the measures often used to judge schools – mainly test results – capture only a fragment of what school leaders and teachers do.

Principals are doing all of these amazing things that serve the urgent needs of children and families, said Jonathan Supovitz, chair of the education policy department at the University of Pennsylvania School of Graduate Education. This is not taken into account in what we think is a good school. There is an imbalance between our metrics for assessing the quality and current role of schools in society.

Overall, Supovitz said the coronavirus pandemic was like a stress test for school systems, just like in 2009 when there was a financial crisis and banks were going through a stress test to make sure they could respond to future crises.

Lessons for those ahead

The cuts examine how executives managed the crisis; key challenges for families and teachers; how districts provided support for principals and students during the closure; work; and how principals supported their staff and students social-emotional well-being as well as their own.

Circle responses ranged from highly responsive to well-intentioned, but essentially counterproductive. Districts that had planned for emergencies usually had a better response to closure, the researchers found. And a lack of willingness burdened teachers and principals with what they had or found creative solutions.

Among the recommendations:

  • Districts need to create opportunities for principals to network something that principals told researchers helped a lot during the crisis.
  • Districts need to provide more training for teachers, as well as take into account that teachers and principals are managing multiple roles as educators, parents and carers – while setting up distance learning programs.
  • Plan for future emergencies and school breaks.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a dry road to future disruptions in education, researchers write. This expectation should motivate all districts to do a post-action review to see what they can learn about their response (for better or for worse) to prepare for the next turn life will take. throw us.

Given that principal tasks were multiplied and increased during pandemic responses, the authors recommend that school principals receive additional support to address some of the technical challenges of the job so that they can focus on instruction, especially after a number of students are expected to lose academic ground due to personal closures.

The researchers found from subgroups of interviews that although states suspended liability measures, they did not affect teachers’ intent to provide students with rigorous instruction or addressing the needs of families. Instead, school staff relied on existing relationships and the level of the classroom and community of the subject area vocational training to hold themselves accountable.

New ways to reunite with families

Principals said the pandemic forced them to find new ways to interact and communicate with parents. Where a weekly newspaper may have cheated in the past, executives found that rapidly changing information required faster responses. They also had much more to share, including student schedules, assignments and grade changes, and regular conversations with teachers. Some started making videos on YouTube. A Connecticut director asked permission from local bodega owners to post messages and updates to the store.

Supovitz and Carpenter said there are also lessons for higher education on preparing and supporting principals for mid-crisis leadership.

Wes Kanawyer, a principal at Woodgate Intermediate School in Waco, Texas, where nearly three-quarters of the 700 students are in school five days a week while the rest engage in virtual learning, praised his district for including principals in the discussion from the beginning spring closure. This made it easier for principals to communicate messages with their staff, students and parents and to create academic and supportive programs for students.

District directors and staff met once a week and ensured every clear communication, ongoing dialogue, feedback and refinement, Kanawyer said. This was very important.

Weve tried to be as proactive as we can, he said. Many structural aspects of district operations [were] favorable to be accountable.

Still, constantly changing information from state and federal officials made planning difficult. But the district had already built infrastructure that allowed it to take a distance learning program and operate relatively quickly, he said. The school board had already funded a 1: 1 computer access program, teachers were already familiar with Schoology, the learning management system, and students were used to using the programs, he said.

Changes were still needed. While all students had an iPad, the devices were left at school at the end of the day. So Kanawyer and staff still had to distribute the equipment to students during closure and find ways to connect students online.

The school developed a list of priority levels, he said. The first was to make sure the students were accounted for and that their basic needs were being met: that they had food, clothing, and shelter.

After that, it became more of an academic focus, he said. Our focus was not being underestimated. It was making sure they were engaged with the content. So if we had them engaged, it would still be academically stimulating.

Principals prioritize teacher and student well-being

Kanawyer said while his circle had a good starting point, not all of his colleagues were in the same position.

And he recognized the emotional strain that had locked the teachers. When he heard teachers were holding community meetings to teach professionally over dinner, he told them not to burn themselves out and prioritize detachment to spend time with family. He devotes a portion of each staff meeting to recognizing the achievements and recognizing the work of the teachers.

Getting into technology was one of the biggest setbacks for James Stewart, director of Waco High School, because the school did not have a 1: 1 program in operation. And when one was settled, the school was only able to provide one device per family.

Since then, things have changed. If the system were to shut down completely again for on-site instruction, each student would have his or her own device.

Like many principals, his greatest priority was to make sure that he and the school staff were communicating clearly with the parents and taking care of the well-being of their students.

Some of those parents were working multiple jobs to make a living in an effort to make sure they were taking care of their families, he said. One of those things – we need to make sure they are aware of the socio-emotional side as well as the content. Do you have a roof over your head? Did you eat last night? Did you turn on the lights? Those kinds of questions we were asking.

Directors of Education During COVID-19

My teachers are working 14 hours, they are not turning off. Among the small group instructions, answering parents’ emails, being on magnifying calls, office hours and then also planning a week before lessons, this has been a lot for them to manage time. So, I have a completely exhausted staff. —Colorado Chief Executive Officer for meeting the social-emotional needs of staff

My teachers need as much support as our children sometimes, just to talk to them from the doorstep saying: It will be okay. —The Director of Tennessee

The demographics of this community are upper middle class, a fairly well-done community, and so we have a lot of generosity programs, with our parental donations. … So every single student has an iPad, every teacher has a MacBook and an iPad. … So our transition was, I mean, not perfect, but it was very … It was very manageable. —San Diego area director for willingness to stay in distance learning

[Students are] getting really great guidance from their teachers, but they are missing out on those key components of learning like twists and turns, collaborative experiences, critical analysis of each other’s responses and I really think the socio-emotional part is key. –Colorado Director on the biggest challenge for students during distance learning

As a director, you are adamant about caring. I think [in a crisis situation] it is hard to worry about anything other than the people in charge. You have to look at the urgency and assess what people need and then react.Texas Director for Family Support during the Pandemic

We connected families with soup kitchens and food ambulances, and also raised money to give money sharing we gave to families. We have worked with community-based organizations to raise money to be able to give families money to live on and eat.New York City directors to support families during the pandemic

I stayed in touch with other directors and did weekly checks with other directors by phone or texting – just to relax or get advice. –Ohio Director in Stress Management

SOURCE: Education Policy Research Consortium

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