When Moving Too Quickly Fails: On Supporting Schools in the Pandemic
What one New Orleans leader learned from his Katrina experience
In New Orleans, we know both crisis and resilience. And we also know this: In moments of disaster, people want to help. First responders go right to the source of the challenge and work to ensure public safety. Communities spring into action, too, which is a beautiful instinct. It is admirable and important.
After Hurricane Katrina, though, I learned a crucial lesson. When we take action in disasters, we cannot rush, no matter how tempting it is. We must make decisions with a clear mind.
In September 2005, I was the state official responsible for coordinating the donations coming into Louisiana. The American people were immensely generous; they were seeing images of New Orleans on the news and wanting desperately to help.
Unfortunately, sometimes that generosity did not match what we needed. People sent old desks and computers that we could not use in schools. We had winter coats in the summer heat. We had so many clothes and supplies, but we did not yet have the infrastructure to distribute them. Eighteen-wheelers arrived in Baton Rouge with donations, but managing such a high volume actually slowed our capacity to connect people to the resources.
What we needed was funding. People had a strong emotional reaction to seeing waterlogged textbooks on TV, but sending us old textbooks did not help us; we needed money to buy the up-to-date supplies our children deserved.
If I could go back in time, I would tell people to wait. I would tell them to listen to what communities say they need and what they decide is the most effective way to help. Now, facing the crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic, we must do just that. The virus is wreaking havoc and taking lives; according to data from The New York Times as of April 23, Orleans Parish, where New Orleans is located, is in the top 20 counties nationwide for number of reported cases per capita, and at the start of April we were in the top five. As communities nationwide work to provide the most meaningful help they can in their own regions, I think three lessons I learned after Hurricane Katrina will be useful:
• Communicate clearly and carefully: Be accurate and efficient with what you say. Right now, we are getting lots of information about the spread of and responses to COVID-19. Some of it is valuable. Some of it is less valuable. Some of it is outright false. If we are in a position to share our thoughts with others, we must do so carefully.
• Listen before acting: Our schools will tell us what they need; we do not need to decide for them. Every school’s priority is their students, but they will have different ways they want to support them, and different tasks they choose to take on first.
• Do not rush: We need not compound disaster with human error. Our instinct is, of course, to act quickly, because we are fueled by emotions. We must pause and work from a place of thoughtful, strategic consideration. Rushing wastes our time in the long term; moving with purpose ends up saving it.
Today, I lead the nonprofit New Schools for New Orleans, which strives to deliver on the promise of excellent public schools for every child in New Orleans. We do this by helping expand and improve high-quality school options, facilitating schools’ use of standards-aligned curriculum and instruction, coordinating solutions to our city’s teacher recruitment and retention challenges, and supporting schools through work in education policy and communications. And since the COVID-19 crisis began, we have used the lessons I outline above. We have been listening to schools. We have been strategizing, not simply jumping into action. As a result, we have been able to directly respond to the schools’ needs.
Given that 83 percent of New Orleans public school students—all of whom attend public charter schools—come from economically disadvantaged households, we knew many of our students and families would face great challenges as a result of the pandemic: from food and housing insecurity to a lack of the internet access needed for distance learning. But we did not launch into a fundraising campaign or supply drive right away. We coordinated with school and district leaders to determine where we could be most useful.
Based on those conversations, we launched the New Orleans Technology Access Fund to help offset the cost of the NOLA public schools' purchase of Wi-Fi hotspots. We also began providing clear, accurate communications amplifying local efforts and supports, like free meals and health care. We reached out to educators with resources on distance learning, and since we knew this crisis could impact schools’ finances, we made sure school leaders were aware of and understood federal loan opportunities through the CARES Act.
Our next step is to plan for a better New Orleans tomorrow. COVID-19 deepens our nation’s profound inequities in all respects, including those linked to race and income. In Louisiana, while just over 30 percent of our residents are black, as of April 20, 56 percent of those who have died from COVID-19 were black. Our response to this pandemic can either continue to exacerbate such inequities, or it can help reduce them. We must consider the immediate, intermediate, and long-term view, thinking of the impact of our actions in this moment and in years to come.
In New Orleans, we can consider that through talent, trauma, and technology in particular. New Orleans, like many urban districts, has been struggling to recruit and retain more great teachers, and even when interviewing candidates in person is not possible, we can’t let up on this effort. Many of our students have experienced trauma, and now they are facing new traumas and having old ones triggered. We need both immediate and longer-term responses. The same can be said for technology. Not all children in New Orleans have the access to technology they need to learn while schools are closed and to get a 21st-century education when schools reopen. I am motivated to make sure that, if another crisis occurs, there is less inequity in its impact. I continue to push myself to look further ahead. It’s what I wished I had done 15 years ago.
There is still a long way to go, but we will make it through this. Across our city, I see examples of thoughtful, productive responses, and this gives me great hope.
If we stick together (while physically apart), listen to each other, resist the desire to rush into action, and think ahead, we will be able to support our students in ways that keep them safe, help them learn, and provide some stability in these unstable times.
A version of this essay was previously published on the website of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.
Vol. 39, Issue 32, Page 18Published in Print: May 13, 2020, as What We Can Still Learn From Hurricane Katrina