Opinion Blog

Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Superintendents and the Coronavirus: Advice From a Prize-Winning Leader

By Rick Hess — April 13, 2020 6 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.

Duncan Klussmann was the popular superintendent of Spring Branch Independent School District in Texas for 11 years, and currently spends his time at the University of Huston mentoring system leaders. Klussmann has long been heralded for his creative problem solving, including the launch of the wildly influential SKY Partnership with KIPP and YES Prep. Having learned long ago that Duncan is always a fount of clear-eyed analysis, I reached out to get his take on the challenges coronavirus has presented for system leaders. Here’s what he has to say.

Rick: What’s the biggest challenge supes are dealing with right now?

Duncan: One of the biggest challenges is shifting from disaster recovery and shutting down schools to business continuity in a whole new environment. Schools are making decisions about grading, GPA, graduation expectations, grade-level promotion, and every other aspect of running a school in a completely unanticipated—and, from a school leader’s perspective, I would say unimaginable—way. An entirely new system of schooling is being designed overnight.

Along with this shift, equity is a major concern. Educational leaders are concerned the outbreak will only deepen the divide between students of poverty and those not in poverty. Many leaders have fought their whole career to even the playing field, and this situation just makes that challenge more difficult.

Rick: OK, and what are some of the practical challenges in getting distance learning and course-management software up and running?

Duncan: Access is clearly a challenge of distance learning. Access really depends on where you are located. A Pew Research study in 2019 found that roughly 10 percent, or 33 million, Americans do not have internet service. In rural areas, this climbs to 15 percent compared with urban areas at 9 percent and suburban areas at 6 percent. I believe this crisis has clearly indicated the need to view the internet as a utility.

Another challenge is the way we have implemented technology in our schools. In many cases, we have allowed implementation by choice, and in this situation, choice is not an option. This is particularly true in terms of course-management software. Many districts have purchased some level of course-management software, but in many cases, have not implemented it across the board. For example, many of our seniors leave high school never exposed to platforms such as Blackboard, even though the district has a license to use it. They enter higher education where it is utilized to a much greater degree, and it is a major adjustment. The coronavirus crisis has exposed this deficiency in the system. Instead of being prepared to jump right in and ramp up their utilization of these platforms, many teachers are starting from scratch, having to learn a system that is entirely new to them.

Rick: OK, and how are leaders dealing with these?

Duncan: Districts I have talked to are using a dual approach by offering online learning and at the same time providing the work in hard-copy packets to students without access. Many districts are distributing the packets at their feeding sites. One principal I talked with used a personal touch. She asked all the advisory teachers at the campus to reach out and connect with each student to see who had access and who did not. This allowed the campus to develop plans for the students without access. I’m also seeing systems moving to pass/fail grading to take into the account the extenuating circumstances their students are experiencing.

They are also redefining the roles and responsibilities within a system. It is important to determine who can remain working remotely and who needs to be on site during this transition. A significant issue has been how to train teachers who had not adapted to a virtual environment at a time when it might be unsafe to have small groups come together to be trained. Systems moving effectively through this phase have simplified and clearly communicated their process to offer online education to everyone in the organization.

Rick: As you look ahead to the time when a governor determines it’s safe to reopen schools, what’s involved, and how much lead time does a district need to actually make that happen?

Duncan: From an educational and physical standpoint, schools will be ready to go in a very short timeframe. The emotional aspect will be the most difficult to confront. Parents will be concerned about the safety of their children; teachers and staff will be concerned about their own safety and the safety of their students. I experienced this during the Ebola outbreak in 2014. A teacher had traveled to Africa for her wedding hundreds of miles away from the outbreak. Once she returned to the U.S., the parents did not want to send their pre-K students back to her classroom out of fear and concern for their children.

Rick: Are states or the federal government doing anything that’s unhelpful?

Duncan: Superintendents view the shifting sand of Washington’s approach to the coronavirus outbreak as a major challenge. A lack of a national strategy makes the decisionmaking very difficult at the state and local levels. One day, we are going to reopen the economy by Easter and then a few days later, we will stay closed til April 30th. The federal responses seem very reactive. As Washington’s inconsistent approach continues to evolve, superintendents are concerned that the mixed message between the president and many governors will just confuse the public and make their job of transitioning to a new system even more difficult. I think the key question that should be on everyone’s mind is, “Can our economy open up if our schools do not?”

Rick: On the other hand, what should Washington or the states be doing to help right now?

Duncan: Providing maximum flexibility is critical. We need to trust our school district leaders. They have the student’s best interest in mind. Washington needs to move fast and be very clear on what statues they are freeing up. They cannot just talk about the flexibility they are giving; they need to follow-through with the guidance on how to implement the flexibility. And importantly, it cannot include massive amounts of paperwork by requiring a waiver for each action. Since education is a state function, governors and state chiefs need to also trust their district leaders and provide maximum flexibility. The best day-to-day decisions are made at the local level.

Rick: OK, last question. What kind of long-term impacts will this shutdown have on schools?

Duncan: To a large extent, technology in education and particularly virtual education has been delivered by choice. In the future, choice will no longer be an option. The calendar is another area I see possibly changing. We have been on an agrarian calendar since education was organized as a governmental responsibility. For years, educators have discussed the need to move to a year-round schedule. The discussion has centered on reducing the long summer break and summer learning loss. As our educational leaders consider all the options in front of them to address this outbreak, I believe they should consider calling it summer at this point and adjust to a new year-round calendar. This would require bold decisionmaking at the state level by governors and state superintendents. They will make the best decision when all the options are on the table.

This post 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.

Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Evaluating Equity to Drive District-Wide Action this School Year
Educational leaders are charged with ensuring all students receive equitable access to a high-quality education. Yet equity is more than an action. It is a lens through which we continuously review instructional practices and student
Content provided by BetterLesson
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Well-Being Webinar
Attendance Awareness Month: The Research Behind Effective Interventions
More than a year has passed since American schools were abruptly closed to halt the spread of COVID-19. Many children have been out of regular school for most, or even all, of that time. Some
Content provided by AllHere

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Schools Get the Brunt of Latest COVID Wave in South Carolina
In the past few weeks, South Carolina has set records for COVID-19 hospitalizations and new cases have approached peak levels of last winter.
4 min read
Two Camden Elementary School students in masks listen as South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster talks about steps the school is taking to fight COVID-19, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, in Camden, S.C. McMaster has adamantly and repeatedly come out against requiring masks in schools even as the average number of daily COVID-19 cases in the state has risen since early June. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
Education More States Are Requiring Schools to Teach Native American History and Culture
Advocates say their efforts have gained some momentum with the nation’s reckoning over racial injustice since the killing of George Floyd.
3 min read
A dancer participates in an intertribal dance at Schemitzun on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation in Mashantucket, Conn., Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Connecticut and a handful of other states have recently decided to mandate students be taught about Native American culture and history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Education Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Education Hurricane Ida Deals New Blow to Louisiana Schools Struggling to Reopen
The opening of the school year offered teachers a chance to fully assess the pandemic's effects, only to have students forced out again.
8 min read
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021. Louisiana students, who were back in class after a year and a half of COVID-19 disruptions kept many of them at home, are now missing school again after Hurricane Ida. A quarter-million public school students statewide have no school to report to, though top educators are promising a return is, at most, weeks away, not months.
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021.
John Locher/AP