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How to Talk About Next School Year Presents a Big Test for Education Leaders

By Andrew Ujifusa — April 12, 2021 12 min read
Woman applying "Welcome Back" sign to the school entrance

You’re a state education official. It’s August 2021. A big TV news station has given you a few minutes of air time to talk to the public about the upcoming school year after all of the stress and heartache caused by the coronavirus pandemic. What do you say?

From the federal government on down, officials have struggled time and again during COVID-19’s disruption with trying to help the public understand the circumstances determining when schools open and how changing conditions impact school operations. Now they face difficult choices in terms of discussing the next school year. Should they confidently plan for all school buildings to be open, and make this expectation clear to the public? How should they discuss what students need from schools and others?

Shifting knowledge and new evidence about how the virus can and does affect schools has made clear messaging harder. And in many if not most places, schools will still look, feel, and operate in atypical ways next year. But state and local leaders will play a big role in framing what will help students most and what the public should expect from schools, in the next year and beyond. And whether schools have held traditional classes all, some, or none of the time in the 2020-21 academic year will affect how they do it.

Addressing lost learning opportunities remains a policy as well as a rhetorical priority for many educators and public officials. Yet ignoring students’ emotional health in the name of rapid academic remediation, or failing to acknowledge families that might want to stick with virtual classes next year, could backfire.

In the end, ensuring that schools reintegrate and care for students in a variety of ways, while not proclaiming and acting as if things are “back to normal,” could be a key test of leaders’ rhetorical and strategic dexterity.

“This is probably the most complicated issue that folks have dealt with since segregation,” said Terry Holliday, Kentucky’s former education commissioner and an ex-president of the Council of Chief State School Officers. “It’s so complex because no matter what you do, people are not going to think that’s a good idea.”

Some states might also have to stress that their strategies won’t be rigid and that being responsive to circumstances might involve shutting down schools again if the virus has a resurgence. Uncertainty remains about how disruptive or dangerous coronavirus variants will be in the future. It could be hard to leave aside those and other concerns that the pandemic will continue to generate in school communities.

“In the absence of information, people make stuff up,” said Stephen Pruitt, the president of the Southern Regional Education Board, which works with 16 member states. “The public will not get too scared if it feels like their leadership has a plan. There needs to be a good solid plan, but there’s got to be a recognition that you may have to call an audible.”

Yet if adult COVID-19 vaccinations become commonplace and restrictions ease or disappear, discussions about the biggest priorities for schools could undergo a corresponding shift, especially as tens of billions of dollars in federal aid flows to schools to address students’ needs. Even talking about state standardized test scores from this year could easily prove to be uniquely challenging.

Some of the priorities leaders shared on communicating clearly in the current climate are (or at least sound) straightforward: Point to data. Find local messengers people already trust. Don’t act frantically. Don’t understate the situation, but also don’t carelessly use deficit-driven language about “loss.” And don’t promise silver bullets.

In the absence of information, people make stuff up.

But none of those strategies in isolation reduce the scope of what schools are facing.

In addition, talking to the public as if disadvantaged students and families of color haven’t been hit especially hard by the pandemic could prove to be tone-deaf or worse. A recent study estimated that 40,000 children in the U.S. have lost a parent to COVID-19, and that Black children have been disproportionately affected by these deaths.

“You acknowledge that the hardships of the pandemic have not been uniform. Where infection rates were highest, where the deaths were greatest, where the economic hardships were greatest—that’s where resources needed to be [focused],” said Pedro Noguera, the dean of the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education. “Every community’s not the same. The fears are not the same.”

State and local K-12 leaders don’t have to focus on just masks, making up lost learning time, or other things that will make daily school experiences difficult, unprecedented, or uncertain.

“Part of what will make people more likely to return is to say: It’s not going to be like it was,” Noguera stressed. “It’s going to be more supportive. It’s going to be more engaging for kids.”

In addition, school officials could emphasize how the upcoming year will provide positive experiences in familiar ways.

“It’s also important to say: We are going to do sports, we are going to have social events,” said Dr. Amber D’Souza, a professor at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health. “What are the things we are going to be able to do this fall that perhaps we didn’t do last fall?”

There’s a new constituency for school news

Ohio was the first state to shut down all its public schools in response to the pandemic on March 12, 2020. The state’s health director at the time, Amy Acton, became a hero to some and a pariah to others for the health restrictions she supported early in the pandemic. And earlier this year, Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, prioritized vaccinations for educators in exchange for schools agreeing to resume some form of in-person learning by March 1—and threatened to halt those vaccinations if schools kept their doors shut.

So what has Ohio Superintendent of Public Instruction Paolo DeMaria learned from his state’s rollercoaster of headlines and controversy? In essence, he said, he’s focused on coordinating his department’s response with other state leaders—before making that hypothetical speech on TV, for example, he said he’d want to consult with Ohio health officials—but otherwise hasn’t tried to grab the megaphone. Instead, he’s focused on being a conduit of information to district leaders.

“The most trusted communicator about what’s going on in a child’s school is a child’s teacher, then a child’s principal, then a local superintendent,” DeMaria said. “The state is pretty far down in the fourth or fifth position.”

That approach is backed up by at least some public opinion polling, which has found a relatively high degree of public trust in local school leaders to make the right decisions during the pandemic.

But COVID-19 has also shifted how leaders must think about and respond to the news cycle.

“New information will come out quickly, and we have to respond quickly in ways schools and school boards aren’t really used to,” said Ryan Stewart, New Mexico’s secretary of education.

When New Mexico announced its plan for schools to fully reopen in person the week of April 5, and gave districts a few weeks’ notice, at least a few local school officials said they were taken off guard by the news. One local school board president, for example, said the state’s decision for a full reentry into classrooms this month made proper social distancing in schools impossible.

The most trusted communicator about what’s going on in a child’s school is a child’s teacher.

Stewart acknowledged that some districts might have felt that this heads-up gave them too little time. But he also expressed confidence in his communications strategies, which include weekly calls with district and charter school leaders and focus groups to see where local schools stand. Both Stewart and DeMaria put building a strong information pipeline to districts as a top priority.

The Ohio education department’s “Reset and Restart” website includes resources including districts’ plans for extended learning and guidance on everything from career-technical education to nutrition. That work, focused on this academic year, will inform the districts’ approaches to sharing information about next year; there’s already a section about remote learning for 2021-22 that highlights options that districts will be able to offer families that are already available under current state law.

Indeed, many state leaders are still discussing some form of remote learning as an important priority, even though they recognize that just because students are doing well in virtual classes that doesn’t mean they are getting counseling or other services they need, said Jeremy Anderson, the president of the Education Commission of the States.

Such considerations can also help leaders keep in mind that so many parents (willingly or not) have gotten a new and intimate understanding of how their children’s schools work.

In terms of who’s paying attention to public rhetoric and messages about schools, “it’s not the same constituency as it was before,” Anderson said.

Being careful with common phrases is key

That’s related to another issue: being quick to combat inaccurate or misleading claims. DeMaria said one area where his department has been proactive is spelling out the role of his department and local districts on social media.

“We learned some lessons this past year to be precise about what is being put on the table as a state mandate, versus what are recommended practices, for which there is some flexibility,” he said.

There’s not much dispute that the pandemic has broadly affected where students stand academically. Yet using phrases about this issue casually, or without much thought, can also have unintended consequences or create new divisions.

DeMaria said rattling off “learning loss” too often in the wrong environments sends “signals that kids are quick to pick up on that somehow [they’re] at fault here.” Pruitt said talking about “unfinished learning” is a strong and precise message because, “You can’t lose what you didn’t have.”

And Anderson said he stresses the phrase “opportunity to learn” when discussing students’ pandemic-driven needs, instead of language that’s defined by shortcomings.

But care with language shouldn’t bleed over into timid decisions, some say. And not all officials have the same patience for striking a balance between in-person and remote learning.

In early April, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat who’s faced a backlash to how he’s approached school reopening, said he expects schools to return to full-time, in-person learning in the fall.

Making it clear to the public that schools will be open in the fall is the right rhetorical strategy in general, said Douglas N. Harris, a professor and chair of economics at Tulane University.

“There’s a little bit of uncertainty about where things are going, but not a lot,” Harris said. “Bad headlines aside, things are going to get safer and safer, and they were in many cases already safe to begin with.”

But black-and-white approaches could generate friction among families that might still be skeptical of in-person learning. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, said in March there should be no remote-learning option for students in the fall. Harris, however, stressed that states should not abandon or scoff at students who are well-served by remote learning, and that leaders can use lessons from virtual classes to improve school experiences next year.

Finding partners, from doctor’s offices to churches

Perhaps no single government agency has been the subject of more scrutiny during debates about safely reopening schools than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As its guidance has evolved—in response to new scientific evidence, its supporters have said—detractors at different points have called CDC guidance to schools too cautious, too cavalier, and tainted by politics. And after the Biden administration released and then revised recommendations to schools about key issues like social distancing earlier this year, some might fear that further revisions to such guidance could be confusing or unhelpful.

Yet all that doesn’t necessarily mean key decision makers have decided to tune out Washington. DeMaria and Stewart, for example, said they would continue to consider new information from the CDC if any becomes available; DeMaria noted that his health department’s recommendations are “largely based on the CDC recommendations.”

Every community’s not the same. The fears are not the same.

Even with all the CDC guidance and pandemic experiences schools can draw on, there are still scenarios where there’s no established roadmap to follow. For example: Will encouraging or mandating COVID-19 vaccines for students, assuming they’re widely available for all relevant age groups later this year, trigger any significant skepticism or resistance?

D’Souza, of Johns Hopkins University, thinks not, even if the people who will help ensure widespread vaccinations work in doctor’s offices and not schools.

“We are able to achieve high rates of vaccination for standard childhood infectious immunizations,” she said. “Ultimately, when it becomes available, when there is the data for parents to be able to review with their pediatricians, I believe there will be high uptake.”

Just as doctors can be the key voice on student vaccinations, having partners in communities who have authority with different audiences can be a crucial strategy for setting expectations for what schools do next.

See Also

Education Secretary nominee Miguel Cardona testifies before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee during his confirmation hearing Feb. 3, 2021.
Now-U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona testifies before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee during his confirmation hearing in February.
Susan Walsh/AP

D’Souza highlighted the role faith leaders can play, for example, as well as people of different political persuasions: “Having a unified national message is often helpful, I find. But it is critical to have trustworthy messengers at every level.”

And leaders can also draw on preexisting education-focused coalitions and other state agencies to spread important messages. In New Mexico, Stewart said he’s worked with his state’s departments for Indian Affairs, African-American Affairs, and Early Childhood Education and Care, as well as the outside group Graduation Alliance, specifically to try to re-engage students who have dropped off the radar. That sometimes comes down to knocking on families’ doors. “That’s a major effort that will be ongoing for awhile,” Stewart said.

In the end, it’s unlikely a few minutes of TV air time before the next school year will allay all concerns and clarify everything about what to expect. But imagining himself giving that August speech on TV about the next school year, Holliday said he would address three big issues: how much ground people’s children’s have lost, children’s social-emotional state, and the things schools are doing and will do next year to address these priorities.

And he had a final warning for leaders in their messaging.

“Don’t get too complicated,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the April 28, 2021 edition of Education Week as How to Talk About Next School Year Presents A Big Test for Education Leaders

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