School & District Management

‘Know and Trust Your Judgment': Being the Superintendent in the Coronavirus Crisis

By Stephen Sawchuk — March 24, 2020 11 min read
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Nearly all the nation’s schools may be closed, but it has not stopped tens of thousands of superintendents from working round the clock to arrange social services and meals for students and stand up some kind of distance learning program.

Just as with principals, superintendents are being pushed to become rapid innovators, problem-solvers, and troubleshooters as they try to adapt to the realities of the coronavirus pandemic. They have always been, in some sense, the public face of their school system. But now the pressure is on them to an even greater extent.

It’s not so much that the job duties themselves have changed: Superintendents are still the key executives and decisionmakers. It’s more that, like a filter put on a snapshot, their work has intensified and become more focused, and it’s certainly being closely scrutinized. The pandemic is requiring them to exercise their most important leadership muscles—the ones that separate the very best superintendents from the just-sort-of-OK ones.

“You have to rely heavily on your leadership skills, and you have to know and trust your judgment, and I want to say your informed judgment,” said Samantha Fuhrey, the superintendent of the Newton County, Ga. district, who was one of four finalists for the national Superintendent of the Year. “You do that anyway, but because this is such a huge issue for communities, you have to be even more judicious about the things you say, how you say them, and the level of transparency you provide to your community.”

EdWeek interviewed several superintendents for their insights on how the role is changing. They represent districts of different sizes, geographic diversity, located in different states that closed schools on different time-frames. But one thing they share is a commitment to adapting to difficult new times for public schools.

‘I don’t think we can overcommunicate': Samantha Fuhrey, Newton County Schools, Ga.

Here’s a little bit how superintendent the job looks these days for Superintendent Fuhrey.

Early one morning last week, she was frantically working with her division heads, because a second staffer in the district had tested positive for COVID-19, and the district needed to figure out how to communicate that news without frightening students or parents—or violating the staffer’s privacy.

And by the afternoon? She was heading out for another public appearance, after a pastor at a local megachurch had asked experts to do a community forum about the coronavirus. (Fuhrey was scheduled to appear alongside an official from the local health department, followed by a live-streamed Q and A.)

And while she knew she wouldn’t have all the answers—Georgia, like other states, is wrestling with complex policy questions about the length of the school year and student credit hours—she knew her very presence sent a signal.

“Communication. I don’t think we can overcommunicate in a situation like this,” she said.

It has not all been smooth sailing. On Twitter, some urged the district to post pictures of the ill employees; others said the district was keeping information hidden, a rumor the district had to tamp down. She had a tricky balancing act between two different constituencies with different understandings about privacy.

“That was a definite challenge for us, and I think working with the medical community was interesting—they’re accustomed to HIPPA [the health-privacy law] and we are with FERPA [which protects student privacy]. They couldn’t understand the magnitude of the response we would receive if we were to say nothing at all,” Fuhrey said. " ... I kept thinking, ‘If someone’s child is sick, they will have my head on a stake somewhere.’”

As for instruction, broadband access isn’t universal in the county, so instead the system has moved to a hybrid model, with those who have access using online learning materials and others using printed materials. “We’ve made calls to every child in our school system to say, do you have internet? A laptop? What can we do to help you?” Fuhrey said.

For those who still can’t connect, Newton County has put resource bins out in front of each of its schools, each separated out by grade or topic area, where parents and children can pick up materials, from early learning up through physical science. The district has already had to replenish several of them.

And importantly, Fuhrey has made efforts to connect with students, too. She wants them to know that despite these extraordinary times, they’re going to be OK.

At the board meeting last week, Furhey took a few minutes to address the district’s high school seniors and recognize their fears about missing rites of passage like graduation or prom—and to reassure them that, regardless of how long schools are closed, she’ll make sure they get a graduation ceremony of sorts.

Here’s how she’s thinking about an online event for now, if it comes to that: “You bring in your validictorian, your salutatorian, your class president, and record their speeches. You get all the pictures taken, and if one of the kids is missing a picture, have them send one,” she explained. “Then we’ll call out each name, and as we put kids’ pictures up there and we focus on their pictures, I’ll confer diplomas. We can do that at least to give them some semblance of an experience.

“And if I were a parent at this time and my child were a senior, I would have them dress up in their cap and gown.”

Dealing with the pandemic is an ongoing challenge, but one thing Furhey she takes to heart is that is that her own staff have expressed gratitude for her can-do approach.

“One of the things they said is, ‘It helps us so much, in the moment of crisis when we all feel like the world is falling apart, we hear your voice and you are so calm,’” Furhey recounted an email she’s recently received. “I think people always respected the work I’ve done but to hear them say that in the storm, you’re the lighthouse, and we’re looking to you, is a powerful thing to hear from a staff member.”

‘Trying to do right by other kids': A. Katrise Perera, Gresham-Barlow School District, Ore.

Superintendent Perera’s grandmother worked in her Catholic school’s cafeteria when Perera was a child. Her grandmother’s wages helped cover the tuition costs so Perera could attend the school. That’s what Perera thinks about as she navigtes the coronavirus crisis as the superintendent of the Gresham-Barlow district, in Gresham, Ore., east of Portland.

“I owe her whatever breath I have left in me. I certainly honor her legacy by trying to do right by other kids,” she said.

Her district of about 11,000 students has some unique challenges, including as a large population—perhaps 25 percent—who are transient. They’re not necessarily homeless but move frequently for housing and economic reasons. So her biggest challenge right now is knowing how to maintain some of the supports those students received when school was in session, particularly social-emotional learning.

“SEL has been a big focus for us this year, knowing the challenges they have outside of our facilities, and the SEL support and the continuation of that has been a challenge. Kids who were making good progress—how do we ensure they don’t fall back into that state of lull?” she said.

The district had put a rich SEL curriculum, expanding the AVID college-readiness program to elementary school, and using professional development for teachers and administrators from the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning and the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. And it’s seen some benefits, like lowered discipline rates and fewer outbursts in classrooms and more attention to positive behavior incentives, and doesn’t want to lose ground.

So far, the district’s teachers have used those structures to check in with individual students that may need some extra help at home via phone calls.

“There isn’t an easy answer here,” Perera said. “We know some of our students, the only structure they have is at school and the safest place they have is school.”

The district is not neglecting students’ other needs. As the district entered its spring break this week, it will continue to offer bagged lunches to students. It’s arranged child care in partnership with a local provider. The district, like many in Oregon, doesn’t yet have the capacity for fully online instruction, so Perera said the goal is to keep students from slipping back while out of school. It’s supplied activities for parents both in print and online. Over this spring break, it’s fielding a survey of its families’ technology needs, from which it plans to develop more extensive online learning plans now that schools are closed through at least April 28.

Overall, Perera said, she’s proud of how her district has responded, and how the community has stepped up to help her, too, even as she’s also aware of the toll these times are taking on the community.

“There is always that strong sense of how can we help our students. That has been consistent, and probably even more pronounced,” she said. But, she noted, “this is stressful. I’m trying to maintain myself, and keep a level head, and be an example to my employees by staying calm and collected, even though inside, I may feel like I’m falling apart.

“Leading in a pandemic or a crisis is new for me, but I’m making sure I have the capacity and I’m trying to take of myself to take care of others.”

“Our obligation is to serve students": Jason Glass, Jefferson County Schools, Colo.

The Jefferson County, Colo., district, like many others, has by now adapted to a new routine of sorts. It provides grab-and-go lunches rather than regular school meals. It’s conducting most of its administrative business through online conference calls, with all the annoyances that entails.

Unlike many of its brethren, though, the 85,000-student district has fully pivoted to online learning—and has put its e-learning program into place in record speed. It’s still taking student attendance, and it plans to use the results of online learning to inform grades and credits.

Before COVID-19 changed the equation, the district had taken some steps towards an online learning program, but did not have a full one set up. Only two grades had a “one-to-one” device program; other grades had a “computer cart” with a bunch of other devices teachers used as needed.

But as it became clear that schools were likely to be closed, the district sprang into action. Schools made inventories of which students had a device at home that could work for online learning; those that didn’t were assigned one. By Friday, March 13, it made sure every student had an account with a password. Over that weekend and the following Monday, the district quickly put together some professional development on online learning, while also relying on teachers’ ingenuity and professional expertise.

So far, it estimates nearly 95 percent of its students are participating.

To be sure, teachers are generally using asynchronous learning, which does not require all students to be online or responding at the same time. They assign reading, research, videos to watch or to react to, instruction, and then assignments for students to complete. Attendance is taken by looking to see whether a student engaged at some point during the day and did the assignments.

“So I think that’s been an extraordinary breakthrough, a whole district that is having a big experiment with asynchronous learning and competency-based learning, not that I would ever have wished we’d be doing it under these circumstances,” Glass said.

There are plenty of things that haven’t quite worked out yet, he freely acknowledges.

“We are in this cycle of implement, reflect, adapt, and repeat ... It’s a learning cycle because there’s a lot of stuff happening we didn’t expect and didn’t know how it would work.”

For example, “What is the appropriate volume of assignments or tasks you should give to students? You have some students who are saying, ‘We’re doing this 10, 15 hours a day,’ and some that are done in an hour. So that’s one of the calculations our staff has to make—what’s the reasonable amount to expect of students?”

Jefferson County pushed forward even as other districts paused remote-learning programs, some out of fear of running afoul of federal rules guaranteeing access for students with disabilities. (The U.S. Department of Education clarified last weekend that, while schools must still help students with disabilities access resources and materials provided online, concerns about those students should not prevent them from attempting to offer online instructional programs.)

Glass said that just wasn’t an option for his team.

“We just felt like that’s not what our moral obligation is,” Glass said. “Our obligation is to serve students, and we don’t do that if we throw up our hands and give up. It is not perfect, and we may end up having to do compensatory services [additional help under federal law for students with disabilities] for things we missed out on, and that’s OK.”

Not all parents are happy; some think the district made the wrong call. But the teachers’ union has been a key partner, and educators have really stepped up to the plate, Glass said.

“I just have to say how extraordinary our professional educators and staff have been in running with this. People have demonstrated incredible adaptability and agility in meeting this new challenge. I got a few emails form people who think we’re doing the wrong thing, but overwhelmingly I hear from people who are appreciative that we’re trying.

“I’ve asked our teachers and the community to extend their grace to us because, of course we’re making mistakes, but we’re getting better.”

Is he ever afraid given that many expect schools to be out for the rest of the year?

“I have those moments of fear, too, but we really don’t have time for them. You can’t be paralyzed,” he said. “Yes, we’re all afraid, but we’ve got to have grace, and poise, and keep going in spite of the fear. I’m asking it of my people, so I have to ask it of myself as well.”

Image: Empty classrooms at the Forest Hills Elementary School in Lake Oswego, Oregon, one of the first to close this month due to the coronvirus. —Ken Hawkins/ZUMA Wire

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.