School & District Management

A School Leader Who Calls Her Own Shots on Battling the Coronavirus

By Denisa R. Superville — January 14, 2021 3 min read
Nigena Livingston, founder and head of School at the URBAN ACT Academy in Indianapolis, Ind.

Nigena Livingston moved fast. As a charter school head in Indianapolis—using autonomy that traditional school principals don’t have—she responded to a mid-November spike in coronavirus cases in her community by switching URBAN ACT Academy to virtual schooling for two weeks.

Before long, Marion County, where Indianapolis is located, shut down in-person schooling throughout the rest of the region until January.

Livingston’s ability to act so quickly stands in contrast to the situation of regular school principals who are at the mercy of their school districts in reacting to the twists of the COVID-19 crisis.

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Dave Steckler, principal at Red Trail Elementary School in Mandan, North Dakota, got and recovered from COVID and has dealt with the logistical issues around staff and students who were infected.
Dave Steckler, principal at Red Trail Elementary School in Mandan, North Dakota, got and recovered from COVID and has dealt with the logistical issues around staff and students who were infected.
Tom Stromme for Education Week

“Ultimately, I decided that we probably should go 100 percent virtual,” said Livingston, founder of the 350-student URBAN ACT Academy, which is part of the Indianapolis school system. “We just weren’t sure of the impact day to day for staff members who had potentially encountered positive COVID cases.”

In some ways, her school has been lucky: Only one staff member has tested positive for the coronavirus since students and staff returned to in-person classes in the fall.

Even with that one case, however, Livingston did not take chances. The school serves a population that’s been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19: 70 percent of the students are Black, 11 percent are Latinx, and nearly 100 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

I am encouraged when I see the fight and the spirit of my staff.

The school also has a high mobility rate because it’s near six area homeless shelters, and students enter and leave the school as their families’ housing situations change.

“I was just trying to be overly cautious,” Livingston said of her remote-schooling decision. “We have a nurse practitioner, but not a lot of access to health care.”

That’s also led to a take-no-chances approach to COVID-19 on campus when in-person schooling is in effect.

“Anyone who had a symptom, I was just sending them home,” she said. “In some cases, I was sending entire classrooms home. We got to the point where if there was a small chance you could have [the coronavirus], I was sending you home.”

Some of those steps were obvious: If a student developed a fever at school, he or she was sent home.

Other measures—including aggressive temperature-taking—fly in the face of what some medical experts say are necessary or effective.

But she’s unwavering in her overly cautious approach.

“With our community’s population in mind, if a child is positive and they interact with another child, that other child’s family may have a grandmother in the house, an uncle in the house,” Livingston said. “I have experienced enough deaths from COVID to err on the side of caution. I would rather be safe than sorry.”

Principal takes no chances with COVID-19 exposure

That kind of vigilance extended to teachers whose children attend other schools and were exposed. Those teachers had to quarantine if there was an exposure at their child’s school. She closed the school for 14 days early in the semester when the administration suspected a teacher had the coronavirus. It was also at a time when tests for the new coronavirus were not widely available, and it was four days before the teacher could get tested.

“In our minds, we are not sacrificing anything,” she said. “We are making sure that your children and your families are safe.”

Livingston is frustrated by a lack of resources and support for those on the front lines of the K-12 coronavirus battle. Educators, she said, need access to rapid tests, and custodians and those cleaning buildings should get additional training in proper disinfecting and sanitizing protocols, along with additional compensation. Both groups should get hazard pay, she said.

While teachers at URBAN ACT got a small bonus last semester for handling the coronavirus challenges and juggling both in-person and hybrid learning, Livingston wished she could have offered more.

As a school leader, she’s also looking for guidance from policymakers on national best practices for leading schools like hers amid the pandemic.

In spite of all the challenges that wear on morale, her staff has a “real fighting spirit.”

“That’s what keeps me encouraged, that’s what makes this worthwhile.”

Coverage of leadership, summer learning, social and emotional learning, arts learning, and afterschool is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

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