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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

School & District Management Opinion

The Pandemic May Have Eased, But There’s No Going Back for Districts

By Larry Ferlazzo — December 01, 2022 20 min read
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(This is final post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.)

The new question of the week is:

What are the most important lessons do you think school district leaders should learn from the COVID pandemic? Do you believe most will actually learn them?

In Part One, Chandra Shaw, Mary Rice-Boothe, Ed.D., Paul Forbes, and Andrea Honigsfeld shared their commentaries.

In Part Two, PJ Caposey, Michelle Makus Shory, Ed.S., Stepan Mekhitarian, Ph.D., Holly Skadsem, and Lana Peterson answered the question.

Today, Diana Laufenberg, Sally J. Zepeda, Ph.D., Philip D. Lanoue, Ph.D., July Hill-Wilkinson, T.J. Vari, Connie Hamilton, Joseph Jones, and Rhonda J. Roos, Ph.D. wrap up this series.

‘Rigid Systems Cannot Thrive With Dynamic Conditions’

Diana Laufenberg is a former teacher who currently serves as the executive director of Inquiry Schools, a nonprofit organization focused on supporting schools to become more inquiry-driven and project-based. She currently lives near the family farm where she grew up in rural Wisconsin:

The word “should” is one that I try to avoid for a number of reasons that far smarter folks than I have spent time explaining (example). So indulge me as I tweak the language of this question a bit by responding to “What are the most important lessons do you think school district leaders *could* learn from the COVID pandemic? Do you believe most will actually learn them?”

Important lessons, there are so very many. I will highlight a few that continue to ping around in my brain years later. The fascinating thing is that many of them are also things that I was trying to get attention for pre-COVID.

  1. Care structures
  2. Flexibility/resiliency
  3. Student agency

My entry into COVID school was a unique one to be sure. At the start of the 2019-20 school year, I was asked by a local history teacher to sub for her from February through April. I was thrilled for the opportunity as I believe that returning to the classroom periodically is important when doing school-based consultancy work. This was the second time I was afforded this gift since 2012. I readjusted my travel schedule to open up flexibility for the long-term sub job and very much looked forward to a less travel-filled start to 2020. (That turned out to be one heck of an understatement.)

I was both teaching and consulting during the first months of the pandemic. This proved to be an interesting vantage point from which to observe all the different approaches and machinations being attempted to deliver school in new and unknown ways. One simple yet powerful concept that popped up consistently was that schools with established care structures (homeroom, advisory, family, etc.) were able to meet the immediate needs of students and families much more easily and effectively. Every student was already in a small group that was connected to a staff member.

This attention to the importance of having an in-school advocate and connection yielded incredible results when trying to find all the students and make meaningful contact with them in the initial days of the pandemic. I do see evidence that this feature is being incorporated more into school environments and given time to strengthen as school communities still struggle to bring back all the students successfully to the classroom. These kinds of classes for the students, including advisories or SEL-based homerooms, are highly recommended to support, connect, and advocate for each learner in your schools.

The second major learning point was the idea of flexibility and resiliency. Throughout the past decade, I’ve been asked what the future of education will look like. My answer consistently was … I have no idea. The only thing I was sure of is that the future will demand greater flexibility and resiliency in the systems and the people. Rigid systems cannot thrive with dynamic conditions. This is a fact. I think the most notable example is the state testing schemes that were undone by COVID.

The lesson I hoped would be learned in this moment is that a rigid system like state testing is not compatible with the dynamic conditions of a world still grappling with a pandemic years later. As we start the fourth school year affected by the pandemic, I have observed some moves that are encouraging on this front (summer learning that is much more experiential and inquiry-based) and others that trouble me (hyperfocus on “learning loss”). If you are in a position to lead a school or district forward through this, continue to ask how these decisions will make your institution more flexible, responsive, and resilient.

That leaves student agency. Students know that gig is up for school as it was. It’s time to truly invest educational time in the idea that student ideas, interests, dreams can have an integral and powerful place in their formal educational journey. What students think, their experiences need to play a prominent role in their educational path. Getting the students “back” means actually attending to the humans who present themselves to school on a daily basis. They are not a number, a stanine, a seat, a desk. … These are humans. Humans need systems and experiences built for humans. Increasing opportunities for student agency help solve the impersonal or overly institutional experience that many students endure.

Maya Angelou knocks around my head frequently as I work alongside schools to adjust, adapt, grow: “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” Let’s do better, folks.


‘Now Is the Time to Reinvent’

Sally J. Zepeda, Ph.D., is a professor in educational administration and policy at the University of Georgia. Philip D. Lanoue, Ph.D., is a former superintendent and high school principal, and he is the 2015 American Association of School Administrators (AASA) National Superintendent of the Year. Philip co-authored (with Sally), A Leadership Guide to Navigating the Unknown in Education: New Narratives Amid COVID-19 (Routledge) and The Emerging Work of Today’s Superintendent: Leading Schools and Communities to Educate All Children:

When schools reopened, leaders faced issues ranging from addressing student learning loss to supporting new social-emotional needs of students and staff. There was little time to plan with any certainty. COVID-19 brought forward questions.

Should schools and their systems go back to pre-COVID days? While the turbulence created in response to COVID-19 thrust leaders and teachers into a dizzying whirl of continuous change, the more important question now for leaders is, “Will schools change as a result of what was learned from the experiences with the pandemic?” If districts return to the way they have operated in the past, then we have learned very little, missing significant opportunities to improve in ways to be successful in the ever-changing world that lies ahead. Now is the time to reinvent.

The journey ahead will be embedded as much in process as it is in program decisions. For systems to reinvent themselves post-COVID-19, leaders must understand the dynamics of internal change if they are to be successful in navigating constantly changing external forces.

Through our conversations and work with districts, we have walked away with some insights to help leaders anchor their work in adapting and responding to the ever-changing internal dynamics and turbulence. We believe that:

Systems now must be agile and adaptable and ready to pivot quickly in making changes through a lens of the often unknown. Returning to the rigid structures that framed how districts and schools operated will only create the same conditions before the pandemic where some children were successful and others were not, with the impacted majority being the groups that need schools to be successful.

Systems now must listen to the voices of teachers who learned how to make midcourse adjustments, redesigning different instructional models compared with “in front of the room” instruction. Agility and adaptability require teachers to have a new sense of freedom in stark contrast from structured curricular guides, unified instructional practices, and strict content timelines.

Teachers and leaders have new insights into the strengths and deficiencies in instructional designs based on student needs. Critical conversations must emerge from these insights to create new pathways for teaching and learning never scaled at this level.

Systems now must be attentive to the social-emotional needs of their teachers and leaders. Substantial social-emotional needs have emerged for students, teachers, and leaders. Students struggled with the loss of in-person interactions critical to the formative years. Similarly, teachers’ social-emotional needs surfaced and weighed heavily on them. Systems are experiencing a significant depletion of the teaching force by those leaving the profession that is exacerbated by those no longer entering teaching as a career.

Similarly, school leaders have felt tremendous pressure as they struggle with daunting challenges to keep students and teachers safe while maintaining effective learning experiences. Moving forward, systems will undoubtedly grapple with looming building-level leadership shortages affecting succession efforts for every school to have a highly qualified and effective principal.

Prior to COVID-19, the work of teachers was mostly misunderstood and often distilled to test scores of the students on their rosters. Throughout the pandemic, the true work of teachers could be seen, and they were responsible for showing the world hope, giving students much-needed support.

Systems now must prioritize the needs of students given the turmoil for them over the last two years, which has taken a toll at every level. While younger students are experiencing remarkable rebounds as they return, others are experiencing significant learning gaps in combination with much confusion about their learning trajectory and emotional stability. There exists an immediate need to address the magnified learning gaps and inequities as well as the social stress students face today which will leave the traditional approaches to addressing these concerns woefully inadequate.

We believe there are new opportunities post-COVID-19 that can reshape the educational space, but only if leaders and teachers examine what was learned about the educational and social-emotional needs of students and the teachers who have answered the call to work with them. In the end, the future of education and its success lies not in going back but solely on how we move forward in this journey.



July Hill-Wilkinson is a veteran classroom teacher, adjunct professor, and former administrator. She currently works as an instructional coach and curriculum leader in Southern California high schools:

Less. Is. More. The motto for too long has been “more is more.” More testing gives more results and more students in classrooms makes more room in the budget. Some have touted COVID as the reset button, even the needed wake-up call for an education.

When COVID sent us home for a year and half, there was definitely less learning, which is devastating and will impact all for a long time to come. Students spending less time with their friends was, for many, a black hole of isolation from which they have not yet recovered. Terrible, terrible things happened as a result of the pandemic, but it forced our hand when it comes to narrowing the focus of what students really need to know at the end of the day.

Online school made it impossible to do a lot of the activities and lessons that some of us have done year after year. We could not do group work or give students opportunities to feed off each other in whole-group discussions—not well anyway. There was so much adjustment that we simply didn’t have the time, space, or capacity to do the same things we always do, so we had to really, really think about what exactly made the cut.

We had considerably less time face to face with students, too, because no one in their right mind is going to have them on screen six hours in a row. Lecture times and independent work times were in a far different balance from what has ever been possible in public schools. Online schooling created a more collegelike and worklike situation for high school students for which they had to take responsibility for their own learning and their own time. They were not supervised every single minute of every day. We could offer small-group instruction in meetings and not have to monitor the behavior of 30 other bodies in the room. We could finally use time differently for those who needed support and those who aced material easily.

These situations could be repeated, at least in part, with some creative scheduling and planning at schools post-pandemic. Districts can guide curriculum teams to pair down to fewer standards that have to be mastered as opposed to dozens which are “touched upon.” Time and online opportunities could be leveraged to create the individualized learning 21st-century students need. Those who succeeded in teaching or learning in an online environment should have the opportunity to blend that into the return to the traditional. Do I think they actually learned them? Not enough. Not nearly enough. But I have hopes for changes to come now that we see what we can do with less.

timeand onlinejuly

‘A Crisis Mindset’

T.J. Vari, Connie Hamilton, and Joseph Jones have experience as building and district school leaders. They have authored or co-authored nine books, including their most recent publication with Corwin Press, 7 Mindshifts for School Leaders. You can learn more about them at theschoolhous302.com and conniehamilton.net:

Wild change occurred during the pandemic whether school leaders were prepared to initiate it or not. So, what was the difference between leading during COVID that allowed schools to have the confidence, innovation, and dedication to commit to solutions?

We believe the lesson that surfaced during the pandemic is the way we think about problems. The mindset that emerges within effective leaders during a crisis is not one of can we or should we solve it but instead a laser focus on how we solve it. One by one, barriers to students accessing education were tackled by every school district in the country. Every one of them implemented strategies and structures that never would have been on the radar if we were not in a crisis. It made us wonder if a crisis mindset is a way of thinking that should be applied to our biggest perennial problems in education.

To some degree, many of our greatest challenges in education have been accepted as impossible to change or can only be addressed over a multiyear timeline. We now have experience that shows us that enormous problems can be tackled with massive change in lightning speed. Because the pandemic upended everything and created so much instability and uncertainty, district leaders were forced to think about problems differently and with a greater sense of urgency than ever before.

Some of these problems were new, like distance learning, but others were simply exacerbated, spotlighting the already inequitable circumstances for students. This exposure forced us to treat them like the crisis that they are and always were. These lived experiences have the potential to shift how we approach other problems in education, like teacher retention, equity, and school safety that, like a pandemic, cannot be put on a long-term plan for uncertain change.

There are other, more obvious lessons to be learned from the pandemic. Take, for example, student access to the internet at home. When everything shut down, students needed devices. Many districts had been slowly increasing their technology inventory but faced an immediate need to get devices to every single student. Suddenly, they were able to make happen what normally would have taken years. But students didn’t just need devices, they also needed internet connectivity. While this was a more complex nightmare, it was also solved, often through collaboration with community resources.

There is no denying that without a shift in thinking about these problems, many students would still not have devices or internet access at home today. It was the pandemic that triggered the shift. Again, a result of a crisis mindset.

Unfortunately, the numerous challenges that COVID-19 created also left many people craving “normal again.” We heard from educators that they couldn’t wait for a time when things got back to the way they were. There’s much to be said for the human spirit that soared during the pandemic and what we all lived through together, but our desire for normalcy shouldn’t bring us back to the same problems that we lived with prior to the pandemic. This would leave the benefits of a crisis mindset behind us and a retreat to an acceptance of issues in education that remain crises.

We are inspired by how a crisis mindset allowed us to achieve what no educator would have thought possible before the pandemic. What we’re most hopeful about, in terms of lessons learned during the pandemic, is the breaking of the mold for the way that we think about problems, both old and new.

Whether getting food to families whose kids weren’t in school or providing mental health services, communities came together to solve real problems. A new way of thinking emerged in those pandemic years. We hope that leaders, both within education and the community, will continue to look at old problems with a crisis mindset and not just treat them as perpetual issues that are never likely to change. Things can and will change, change doesn’t need to be slow, and we don’t need to snap back to a “normal” that includes suffering with problems that could be solved with the right mindset.


‘That’s Outside Our Boat’

Rhonda J. Roos, Ph.D., is an educational consultant coaching principals, district leaders, and administrative teams in the complex and ever-challenging work of leading schools. She is the author of The Deliberate & Courageous Principal:

One of the most important lessons that principals should have learned during the pandemic and should continue to hone in their leadership is the fundamental skill of bringing clarity to the work of their staff.

Effective leaders know their most significant responsibility is to provide clarity for the work ahead. Teachers have had to deal with so much, and the gift of clarity from their leaders should be given to each of them. Marcus Buckingham, a British author and business consultant, writes that clarity is “the antidote to anxiety, and that clarity is the preoccupation of the effective leader. If you do nothing else as a leader, be clear.”

During the height of the pandemic and now that it has eased, principals must take the time to fine-tune the learning objectives with teachers, let go of unnecessary work, and focus in on the essentials. Effective principals don’t sit and wait for answers from the district office; they don’t sit and blame the state for requirements and mandates; and they don’t make excuses for why they can’t get initiatives going at their school.

It’s easy for school leaders to spend entirely too much time thinking about the problems “out there” instead of the ones right inside their own school. Don’t waste time on things out of your control. Focus on the critical, essential, and difficult work for which every principal should be held accountable—the work of answering the ultimate question, “How are students learning and achieving in my school?”

In a book entitled That’s Outside My Boat (2001), veteran television announcer Charlie Jones tells the story of when he was getting ready to report on the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. He was incredibly disappointed when he was assigned to broadcast the rowing, canoeing, and kayaking events. In previous years, he had been assigned to the excitement of track and field, swimming, and diving. He had witnessed and reported on the amazing feats of Flo Jo in Seoul and Pablo Morales in Barcelona.

When he arrived in Atlanta a week before the Games, he began interviewing Olympic rowers from all over the world. He asked the basic question of, “What if it’s raining?” The answer was always, “That’s outside my boat.” Then he would ask, “What if the wind blows you off course?” The reply would be, “That’s outside my boat.” What if one of your oars breaks?” “That’s outside my boat.”

By the end of those Atlanta Games, he reported that they were by far the best of his life. Why? Because he learned so much. He learned invaluable lessons. He came to understand for those Olympic rowers that they were only interested in and focused on what they could control. They let the outside circumstances go. The rowers knew they had to dismiss the extraneous factors and concentrate all of their focus and talent on what was inside their boat. Other reporters questioned the teams about the rain, the heavy winds, the possibility of broken oars, and other negative aspects, too. But each team member consistently responded, “That’s outside our boat.” It’s another way of saying that the team was only concentrating on what was inside their circle of influence. They were determined not to waste any mental energy on things that could distract them from the real work they had to do.

Jones (2001) wrote, “It slowly began to dawn on me that my assignment was ‘outside my boat’ . . . the president of NBC Sports hadn’t called and asked me what I would like to cover; he had simply given me this venue. What I did with it was up to me.” Principals have been given a precious venue of their school. Effective leaders clarify the work—each and every semester—that needs to get done.They focus on specific areas until those are embedded and strong before moving to the next areas of work. These principals are building a solid base for continued achievement. As author Brene Brown writes, “Clear is kind; unclear is unkind.”


Thanks to Diana, Sally, Philip, July, T.J., Connie, Joseph, and Rhonda for contributing their thoughts!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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