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How School Boards Should Respond to Coronavirus

By Rick Hess — April 23, 2020 10 min read
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As families, educators, and community leaders wrestle with COVID-19, we’ll be trying to bring conversations to readers that will be helpful in confronting the challenge.

AJ Crabill, 2019 recipient of the prestigious James Bryant Conant Award, is a national school board guru and director of governance at the Council of the Great City Schools. Prior to this, AJ served as deputy commissioner in Texas. I recently had the chance to talk to AJ about the role of school boards during the coronavirus. Here’s what he had to say.

Rick: How should school boards be thinking about the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic for schools?

AJ: Strange as it may sound, the pandemic by itself doesn’t create a governance emergency. It certainly creates an emergency for management, but that’s the superintendent’s job.

As hard as this can be for school board members—we tend to be overachieving do-gooder types—right now, it is critical to step back and let the educational first responders (superintendents, principals, and teachers) manage the pandemic. For the same reason you don’t want to see members of the hospital board running around the ER with defibrillators looking for cardiac patients to light up, it does more harm than good for members of a school board to rush in and try to manage a crisis.

Rick: OK, so besides staying out of the way, how can school board members be helpful?

AJ: There remains plenty of governance work to be done, it’s just not first-responder type work. I place this work into three buckets: near-term student learning, budgetary impacts, long-term student learning.

Regarding near-term student learning, school boards should be asking their superintendent to identify which instructional model the school system will aim for during temporary school closures. Once the superintendent has defined the instructional model, school boards should request routine monitoring reports from the superintendent describing progress toward implementation. I wrote a more detailed thought piece on this if you’d like to know more.

Regarding budgetary impacts, most of the school systems I’m talking to are seeing their expenses going up as they take on the near-term additional costs of teaching at a distance—things like devices, hotspots, and new teacher training. At the same time, projected state and local tax revenues are likely to decline. Next fiscal year, school board members will likely be asked to cover the gap out of existing fund balances. Hiring freezes are likely, which could result in class-size variances, another matter that often requires school board action. Increasingly, school systems are encountering families whose mobile phones are turned off—and along with them, the primary (or only) means of contacting families going away.

Regarding long-term student learning, planning should begin immediately. Instead of assuming that everything will go back to the exact way it was before COVID-19, let this be the occasion for school systems to address longstanding instructional and organizational inequities. This is the right time for the board and superintendent to review the school system’s goals for student outcomes and theory of action. Supporting difficult operational and political recommendations from the superintendent today—more equitable distributions of teacher and principal talent, more conservative budgets, building utilization conversations, hiring freezes, and more—can help prevent even more difficult decisions tomorrow.

Rick: OK, and what advice would you give school boards trying to look ahead right now?

AJ: School boards will need to revisit their three- to five-year goals since the conditions have changed sufficiently that adjustments and wholesale changes may be needed. They’ll also want to consider more conservative assumptions in their budgeting since sales- and property-tax collections in many areas will likely decline. In addition, I’ve been coaching boards to postpone major decisions—goal setting, leadership changes, bond packages, facility utilization, etc.—until after state governments lift the declarations of emergency. These are the types of decisions that are better made when boards have the benefit of knowing when in-school instruction is likely to return and what the calendar and financial picture will be. The Philadelphia school board is setting a good example by delaying rollout of new goals in order to get more stakeholder input and have the opportunity to analyze the impacts COVID-19 is having on its students and staff before proceeding.

Rick: School boards aren’t typically in the business of overseeing distance learning. How should board members who don’t know much about virtual education be thinking about their role right now?

AJ: First, the function of school boards is to represent the vision and values of their communities. They were never selected to be educational experts. In that regard, nothing has changed. School boards need to remain focused on representing the community’s vision and values by adjusting the pre-COVID-19 goals and adopting policy guardrails to guide what the administration shouldn’t do. This means answering questions like, “What do we want our children to know and be able to do?,” and “What are the circumstances that we want to protect against?”

Second, it’s key for school boards to make clear that leaving students without access to meaningful instruction for 4-6 months is unacceptable because it can do nearly irreparable harm to students’ long-term success. Before COVID-19, school boards generally took for granted that instruction was happening; such assumptions no longer hold given varying access to devices and internet service. It’s appropriate for school boards to monitor this. Our English-learners, students receiving special services, and other vulnerable populations in particular are already challenged on a normal day; that vulnerability is expanded now and is worthy of the school board’s attention. Great examples of places where school boards and superintendents are confronting these challenges head on include Miami and San Antonio, where school systems have overseen the acquisition and distribution of tens of thousands of devices and hotspots in a matter of weeks and have begun aggressively moving instructional materials online for teachers and families to use. In Cleveland, teachers are trying to do weekly virtual parent/teacher conferences to ensure students are getting the learning supports they need.

Rick: What are the potential challenges that might arise from the coronavirus disruption even after schools are able to eventually reopen?

AJ: One major change that the fall might bring is modifications to school calendars. Already, school systems like Houston are openly contemplating significant changes in this area such as lengthening the school year or beginning the school year early. And more school systems are doing so quietly with likely announcements coming in the next two weeks. Many districts are being advised that any summer programming intended to combat “corona slide” will need to remain virtual.

Rick: You preach a relentless focus on what works for kids. How does that translate to the new educational environment we’re dealing with?

AJ: Sadly, I’m having to adjust my sermons. Improving student outcomes is still the focus, but the logistics of serving students just got a lot more complicated. Before we can educate children, we have to ensure that they are not completely distracted by unmet needs—physiological, psychological, and sociological. Meeting all of these fundamental needs is the starting point—then come the technical challenges around devices and internet access and effective support for frontline teachers. A great example of a board tackling this hierarchy of needs is the work of the Tulsa, Okla., school board regarding the district’s deployment of wellness care and family assistance. The board is getting it right—supporting resource allocation and monitoring impact—while leaving the logistics to the experts.

That said, it’s vital for school boards to remember that school systems only exist to improve student outcomes. Feeding students is not why school systems exist—doing so is just a means to an end. There are many things school systems need to do: balance budgets, maintain appropriate facilities, provide wraparound services, feed students, attend to employee morale, and so forth. But school boards can’t be seduced into thinking that any of these important and necessary things are why school systems exist. They are necessary and important, but they must be contextualized as the means, not the ends. School systems only exist to improve student outcomes.

Rick: What have you seen boards doing that is worrisome?

AJ: Again, this is not a governance emergency, so I generally coach boards toward moderation in their reactions. So I’m worried by the school board that provides no special flexibility to their superintendent to meet the unique emergent needs of students during the pandemic. And I am worried by the school board that hands the keys entirely to the superintendent and heads home until this all blows over. Both approaches fail to adequately accomplish the school board’s core function: to represent the community’s vision and values.

Rick: On the flip side of that, what have you seen them doing that’s reassuring?

AJ: On the positive side, I see school boards that are using this time to rethink not only what public education should be providing for students today but also using this as the occasion for sparking a larger conversation about reimagining public education. We had unresolved challenges with inequitable distribution of educational resources before COVID-19. This period of upheaval can be an opportunity for bold choices to address those as well. I see a few school boards discussing this opportunity to address inequity, like the Des Moines, Iowa, and Jackson, Miss., school boards, and that excites me. Their consideration of goals, guardrails, and progress measures that focus on measuring disparities between student groups and the provision of social/emotional learning may become practices for other school boards to consider.

Rick: How can school boards set themselves up to perform responsible governance without in-person meetings, face-to-face briefings, or being able to sit down with community members?

AJ: Every school board I’ve visited with has already made the transition to video-based meetings. After a few hiccups, most seem to be going smoothly. Pro tips: Wear clothing and keep it on, encourage those walking behind you to wear clothing, and generally try to avoid winning at Zoom bingo. I still put on professional clothing for my video meetings with school system leaders (before slipping back into my more comfortable day pajamas like everyone else). That’s because we’re still public leaders; during public meetings, we should continue to dress like it and behave like it.

Most states have relaxed open-meetings laws to allow important business to continue while protecting the well-being of public officials. Every school system I’ve observed is honoring that enhanced responsibility to the best of their technological ability. So, is it a very different experience for community members? Certainly. But it appears that board members are generally acting in good faith. Great examples are Boston and Chicago, where the board meetings use technology to allow community members to publicly address the school board during the meeting without leaving their own homes.

Rick: All right, last question. What’s the one most heartening thing you’ve seen come out of all of this?

AJ: Teachers have always been amazing, and the more hardship our students face, the more apparent that becomes. From teachers sitting on front porches guiding instruction through a window for students without internet access, to teachers reading stories to their students via Zoom, to teachers helping make sure that school lunches find their way to students, to teachers helping seniors prepare for and apply for colleges in video conferences, and so many more examples. Teachers are a gift to our nation’s children. All of us, not just school board members, should be expressing gratitude for their commitment at every opportunity.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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