In February 2020, we were getting news reports of a mysterious virus from overseas. Little did we know that less than a month later, we would be shutting down full-day physical, in-person learning until April 2021.
On March 13, 2020, the governor of Illinois declared all public and private K-12 schools in the state be closed from March 17 through the end of the month; our district had already decided on March 12 to close through April 14.
This unprecedented action was just the first of many to turn our entire school and the world upside down.
In these early days of the pandemic, my administrative team and I clearly articulated the four priorities for our work during the crisis:
- Feed our families and children.
- Account for the extended safety, health, and welfare of our 4,500 students and staff.
- Communicate clearly.
- Coordinate remote learning.
Without consciously planning it, we’d adopted Maslow’s famous hierarchy as our guide.
These priorities guided our decisionmaking. First and foremost were nutrition and food security. In our district, one-quarter of the student body—roughly 1,000 young people—depend on us for their daily lunch and breakfast. We immediately worked with our food-services team to make sure we would feed these children with breakfasts and lunches available to grab-and-go. This schedule continued every day even through the summer. We also partnered with the local food bank and other local charitable groups. Our priorities were crystal clear: Food and survival needs came first.
Our focus on the general well-being of students—and staff—helped the wider community understand that we’re not just a system of schools, we are also one of the largest employers in the area. As such, it was important for us to remind our community that while our “front-facing” work is teaching and learning for our 4,000 students, we are also responsible for the well-being of 500 adults.
We learned many lessons during our area’s worst crisis period of March through August 2020. We learned that humanity is the first priority and far more important than any other. We learned that “Maslow before Bloom”—a call to put Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs before Bloom’s taxonomy of learning objectives—is always right and just. We learned that great leadership built on strong relationships and healthy communication will always get us through the toughest situations, even in the darkest of days. We learned that communication in clear, concise, short, straightforward bursts makes the greatest impact.
In the most unpredictable situations, it is wise to call upon others. We need to lead from a position of unity, not isolation. The day before our state’s governor shuttered our schools, my senior staff and I met with the union president, vice president, and regional union leader. We continued to meet each and every week to lead, plan, discuss, debate, and solve problems.
We were determined to get through this situation collaboratively. Safety, learning, and communication were our guiding principles as education leaders through every step of this journey.
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