In Coronavirus Era, Worst-Job Honors Go to District Heads
A superintendent’s job is a tough one on a good day. But as a new report makes clear, the pandemic has required them to make some impossible choices balancing school health, quality teaching, and constituencies like parents and teachers whose priorities frequently conflict.
The report, issued this month by the American Enterprise Institute’s Nat Malkus, its deputy director of education policy studies, summarizes a series of in-depth conversations with 12 public and Roman Catholic school superintendents.
Its main insight is that, for all the airy pundit talk about “innovating” and making the best of a crisis, most superintendents view school reopening as no less than an unwinnable situation. There are awful tradeoffs: A decision that pleases one constituency, like working parents who can’t afford to keep their kids at home, can be the same thing that frustrates another one—like teachers who, not without good reason, are fearful of being exposed to the virus in a classroom setting.
Although all the superintendents acknowledged that the responsibility for decision-making ultimately rested on their shoulders, many said they didn’t necessarily feel in total control.
“The virus,” replied Matthew Veerecke, the Dallas diocesan superintendent, when asked who was in charge.
It’s safe to say that nothing in the report hasn’t been reported before. But it is worth reiterating some of the unique ways that the U.S. response to COVID-19 has made the superintendent’s job a lot harder:
The federal government’s confusing, sometimes contradictory messages about school reopening have politicized the process unnecessarily.
State health guidance has been vague or lacking, forcing superintendents to become mini-epidemiologists on a dime.
Disagreements among district constituencies about reopening options have cleaved along lines of privilege.
At least the public school superintendents don’t have one pressure their Catholic peers have for resuming in-person classes. “If I don’t open face-to-face five days a week, people aren’t going to pay to come to a Catholic school,” said Scott Conway, the superintendent of the St. Augustine, Fla., diocese schools.
What the Nation Thinks About COVID-19 And Schools May Not Match Local Action
It seems like everywhere you look, there’s a new poll about the coronavirus and schools. But do they influence action? Some of the many national polls about the topic in recent weeks include those from ABC News and Ipsos, the Associated Press and NORC Center for Public Affairs, Gallup, and the Pew Research Center.
So what are the limits of those kinds of national surveys? And why do they sometimes seem so out of sync with what’s happening in your local school district?
Daniel Domenech, the executive director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association, said superintendents are “not going to be looking at the national trends or the state trends” in making decisions about reopening. Instead, he said, school leaders in the country’s roughly 13,600 districts are looking at local infection rates, what district parents and teachers are saying publicly, and similar factors.
“They’re less concerned about those polls and more concerned about what’s happening in their community,” he said.
What such nationwide polls cannot capture is that “U.S. schools are highly fragmented, complex systems that are very parochial,” said David DeSchryver, a vice president at the research and consulting firm Whiteboard Advisors who oversees polling of school officials. It’s not like asking voters or the general public who they plan to vote for in the presidential election.
That’s not to say national polling isn’t useful for local education leaders in a broader context. It has affected how lawmakers and lobbyists talk about how much aid Congress should provide to schools, how it should be allocated, and different aspects of schools.
Stephanie Marken, the executive director of educational research for Gallup, stressed that she doesn’t “think a national poll should ever presume to tell a district what it should be doing.” But she also notes that nationwide polls can highlight issues that aren’t strictly local and make addressing them more urgent: “There’s going to be a lot of learning lost over the summer. I don’t think that’s going to change from district to district.”
Education Groups Pushing More Nuanced Debate Over Police in Schools
Protest movements are not known for subtlety. But that’s what a group of education organizations are preaching in the national debate over ridding schools of police.
Those organizations—the National Association of Secondary School Principals, the National Association of School Psychologists, the American School Counselor Association, and the National PTA, among them, along with the National Association of School Resource Officers, of course—want to make sure the debate distinguishes between police officers and school resource officers.
They, too, want to ditch the former but keep the latter, even though they acknowledge that Black students and students with disabilities are disproportionately affected when untrained SROs are deployed in schools.
It is “wholly inappropriate and dangerous” to have police officers working in schools who have not undergone additional training, the groups said. And SROs should operate within a narrowly defined scope, like working with safe-school teams, educating students about the law, working on school-violence prevention, and mentoring students.
“Just dropping an untrained guard or police officer into a school as if it were any other beat is a recipe for disaster, and we, unfortunately, see that disaster play out too often in schools,” said JoAnn Bartoletti, the chief executive of the NASSP.
“Recent events related to our country’s history with police brutality and systemic racism have led to calls for the removal of all law enforcement, including SROs, from schools,” the groups write.
But they say there is an appropriate role for school resource officers, including helping to promote a safe campus, and that rigorous selection, training, and evaluation can help mitigate against unequitable outcomes.
Federal Judge Blocks Law Restricting Athletic Play For Transgender Females
For now, at least, a federal judge is saying that transgender student athletes are the ones getting kicked to the side in the growing debate over gender and sports.
U.S. District Judge David C. Nye last week issued an injunction blocking an Idaho law that bars transgender females from participating on girls’ or women’s school athletic teams, ruling that the law likely violates the U.S. Constitution’s equal-protection clause.
Nye said the Idaho statute discriminates on the basis of transgender status. He said the case must go to trial on the challengers’ claims that the law violates equal protection as well as Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which bars sex-based discrimination in federally funded educational programs.
“Ultimately, the court must hear testimony from the experts at trial and weigh both their credibility and the extent of the scientific evidence,” Nye said. “However, the incredibly small percentage of transgender women athletes in general, coupled with the significant dispute regarding whether such athletes actually have physiological advantages over cisgender women when they have undergone hormone suppression in particular, suggest the act’s categorical exclusion of transgender women athletes has no relationship to ensuring equality and opportunities for female athletes in Idaho.”
The law is being defended by state officials with the support of President Donald Trump’s administration, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the Idaho case in June.
Briefly Stated Contributors: Alyson Klein, Stephen Sawchuk, Denisa R. Superville, Andrew Ujifusa, and Mark Walsh. Edited by Karen Diegmueller.
A version of this article appeared in the August 26, 2020 edition of Education Week