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School & District Management Opinion

The Six Leadership Lessons I Learned From the Pandemic

The pandemic is far from over. Here’s what I’ve learned so far
By David Vroonland — July 29, 2021 3 min read
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It’s been a difficult year, and, if you are anything like me, you want to see at least slivers of a silver lining. The pandemic challenges are far from over, but here are some lessons that stand out to me as I reflect on the last school year.

1. Don’t panic. Of all people in the district, the superintendent can’t afford to panic. Despite endless and ever-changing discussions and decisions about school openings and closures from national, state, and county officials, superintendents tried to remain calm. We found that as the evolving pandemic forced us to change our procedures for athletics, theater, virtual spaces, and campus mitigation needs, we found opportunities for creative solutions that we never expected.

2. Err on the side of overcommunicating. Texts. News stories. Social-media posts. Using every communication medium at our fingertips, we constantly communicated with our stakeholders. We leaned heavily on others to share our sometimes minute-by-minute updates. In my district, our school principals and district communications department were key forces in our dialogue and correspondence with staff, students, and families. Everyone appreciated staying abreast of district decisions. We also shared the good news of creative ways our teachers connected with their students virtually. And we scrambled to convert traditional, treasured senior milestones into meaningful virtual events.

About This Series

Over the coming weeks, we will be rolling out 17 lessons from experienced district leaders who spent the last year leading from home. Learn more and see the full collection of lessons.

3. Do not overreact. We were not trying to win a popularity contest, but we drew on questions, concerns, and criticism we received to identify holes in our messaging to students, families, and staff. We listened. And because we did, we learned and improved our communications.

4. Don’t forget equity. Almost 80 percent of the students in my district qualify for free or reduced-price meals. COVID-19 exposed inequities to the larger public that we always knew were there. The pandemic forced us to make virtual learning available to every student immediately. We quickly distributed hot spots and Chromebooks to give every student access to technology.

5. Remain confident but flexible. The life-and-death stakes involved lent themselves to significant disagreement on every decision. As long as you continue to make decisions based on what’s best for everyone—students, staff, and community—you should not waiver. At the same time, you can’t be rigid. The pandemic in my home state of Texas—and everywhere else—evolved like a roller coaster. We had to be flexible and willing to rethink our plans, processes, and approaches as the landscape around us changed. We stayed firm in our initial decision to open our schools for virtual learning only.

Under the Texas Education Agency’s public-health planning guidance, my district deferred in-person learning for four weeks in response to a rise in cases in Dallas County last August. And we didn’t waiver once we offered in-person learning again in September, giving our students just one of two options: either 100 percent face-to-face instruction or 100 percent virtual learning; however, at the end of grading periods, we offered students the chance to change their mode of instruction for the following grading period.

6. Celebrate your wins. A proud moment for me was discovering that we gained the confidence of our families and their children to keep our schools safe for in-person learning. By this past spring, 70 percent of our students attended face-to-face learning without COVID-19 spreading on our campuses. That was a satisfying feeling.

None of us in leadership positions who lived through this terrible experience wants to see a repeat of it. It’s been taxing. But I truly believe I have grown through it in ways that have strengthened my leadership skills for the future.

Complete Collection

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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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