School Climate & Safety

Why the Worst Job in Education Right Now Is the Superintendent’s

By Stephen Sawchuk — August 12, 2020 3 min read
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“Why don’t we just put everyone in astronaut suits, send everyone to school, and when they get home they are allowed to take it off in the garage?” —Scott Conway, Dioscene superintendent, Diocese of St. Augustine, Fla.

..."I couldn’t make the teaching factor and the transportation work. No [districts] I’ve seen actually have the specifics on how to make hybrid learning work.” —Monica Goldson, superintendent, Prince George’s County schools, Md.

“Local [health] guidance has been excellent all the way through. From the state, it has been miserable."—Jack Smith, superintendent, Montgomery County schools, Md.

The superintendent’s job is a tough one on a good day. But as these three quotes from a new report make 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 today by the American Enterprise Institute’s Nat Malkus, its deputy director of education policy studies, summarizes a series of in-depth conversations with 12 school district or Catholic diocese 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 decisionmaking ultimately rested on their shoulders, many said they didn’t necessarily feel in total control.

“The virus,” said 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 in local and national news. But it is worth reiterating some of the unique ways that the United State’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—mixed with threats from the Trump administration to withhold funding—has politicized the process unnecessarily.
  • State health guidance has been vague or lacking, forcing superintendents to become mini-epidemiologists on a dime. Only two weeks before most Pennsylvania districts were scheduled to open, for example, state officials unveiled guidelines linking specific transmission rates in each county to school reopening—and that was partly in response to a push by the state’s school leaders. Two other states, Arizona and Wyoming unveiled more specific school health guidance only in the last week.
  • Disagreements among district constituencies about the reopening options have cleaved along lines of privilege. In New York City, one of the only large districts that has so far planned to offer a hybrid model, better-off parents are putting pressure to move to all-remote learning, even as the city’s schools serve primarily disadvantaged students whose parents can’t afford not to work. (superintendents in the AEI report also noted these schisms.)

What Leaders Think of Hybrid Plans

One of the report’s findings portends something to watch this fall as school resumes: Many of the superintendents interviewed said that they concluded after some research that a hybrid plan mixing in-person and remote learning was simply unworkable.

Two other pieces of data suggest other districts have come to the same realization. The Center on Reinventing Public Education found recently that only about 12 percent of the districts whose plans it examined were offering hybrid learning. And Education Week has found through its continually updated database of reopening plans that hybrid is the least common of the instructional options.

The interviews with Catholic superintendents point to a tension for those schools. All four Catholic school leaders were planning to resume in-person classes, or were leaning in that direction. That’s in part for pedagogical reasons, but also because of the pressure to do something for parents who are laying out cash to send their students to those schools.

“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 Conway of St. Augustine.

Indeed, as my colleague Evie Blad recently reported, some parents whose children had previously attended public schools are exploring private school because it works better for their schedules.

Photo: Students in the Avon, Indiana school district arrive for their first day back to school. —Doug McSchooler/The Indianapolis Star via AP

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