(This is the first post in a two-part series.)
The new question-of-the-week is:
What should schools do, if anything, to prepare for another pandemic in the future? What lessons have been learned so that schools can do a better job next time—if there is a next time?
I think it’s safe to say that most school districts, along with the entire country, got caught flatfooted by the pandemic and scrambled to respond.
This two-part series will explore what schools might be able to do now to be better prepared if it happens again.
Today, Robert S. Harvey, Shaamar Samuel, Hilary Kreisberg, and Helen Vassiliou provide their reflections. Robert, Hilary, and Helen were also guests on my 10-minute BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.
Connecting to Community
Robert S. Harvey is the superintendent of East Harlem Scholars Academies, a community-based network of public charter schools in New York City, and chief academic officer of the East Harlem Tutorial Program, where he manages an out-of-school-time program and teaching residency. He is the author of Abolitionist Leadership in Schools: Undoing Systemic Injustice through Communally Conscious Education and is visiting professor in public leadership at the Memphis Theological Seminary:
To prepare for another pandemic in the future, schools—and therefore, school leaders—must deepen their investment in community-centered knowledge, multi-stakeholder planning, family engagement [as a matter of trust-building], and pedagogical innovation.
Of all the American adages we have likely espoused at some point in our personal or professional lives, there are seven words that reverberate more than any other: “Failing to plan is planning to fail.” At its zenith, all of our planning is less about answers and more about questions. Asking the right questions with the right group at the right time is core to our preparation for another pandemic, whether it be epidemiological, political, racial, or an aggregate of all the aforementioned. Therefore, schools and school leaders who fail to ask questions are leaders who are planning to fail students, families, teachers, staff, and communities. Those questions must surpass the realm of the tactical and enter into the realm of the political, cultural, economic, and environmental, all of which must center on the community in which the school is situated and, therefore, positioned to most proximately serve.
As a school, do you know the condition of housing options and medical care within a couple of miles radius of your school? How about the extent of the food ecosystem accessible to your students and families? What ratio of your teachers are local to the community as residents, thus experiencing mirrored lived realities of students and families in terms of accessing high-quality housing, food, and medical options? Where do your families work, what kinds of industries, hourly wage or salaried, virtual or in person? What is the broadband access within your geography?
The lessons learned during this pandemic are endless, from the frailty of schools as social-safety nets for working families to our systematic ability for advancing technological equity, when compelled, to frontline-worker status of teachers, while underpaid and undervalued, to the direct correlation between classroom sizes and culture effectiveness, and we learned a louder lesson. That lesson is that schools are often only knowledgeable about students and families within the context of classrooms and not within the context of the communities in which schools are located.
If we are going to do a better job the next time our nation and world are paused-to-pivot in response to crisis, we must situate ourselves as learners of place. Every community has its own distinctive footprint, which often forms and informs how the residents within that community navigate and make meaning of what it means to be a resident, to be a citizen, and to be a human. To learn and become a part of that footprint, each school should create and sustain an advisory board of families, organization heads, and community leaders who offer knowledge, critical thought, and probing questions ensuring the school’s ability to plan.
Recruiting Educators of Color
Shaamar Samuel is an associate dean of students at Excel Academy Charter High School and a Ph.D. student in education & human development:
As district leaders, school heads, administrators, and teachers focus on reopening schools now, it is important for us to stop and ask:
How can our schools use learning from the current pandemic to inform us as we prepare to serve students now and in the future?
While the rollout of vaccines made by giants like Pfizer and Moderna are indeed promising, it is important that we take time to critically reflect and get real about a problem that predates the COVID-19 outbreak and one that poses the risk of causing greater damage in the future if we do not address it now.
The problem: Our school systems lack the diverse staff needed to adequately serve our students, especially during times of crisis.
During the darkest moments of the coronavirus pandemic as record numbers of deaths were reported on an hourly basis, students saw the world around them come undone. It was low-income students of color who felt this the most and suffered disproportionately from the pandemic’s very unequal wrath.
Whether it was being made witness to the death of multiple family members or neighbors, experiencing the families’ financial situation go from bad to worse, attempting to learn in the confines of a toxic household, waiting hours in line at the community shelter for the night’s meal, or falling behind in academics—a result of being away from in-person instruction with no access to the internet; we cannot ignore one HUGE problem.
That is, Black and brown children and low-income students of color are experiencing the worst of this most unforgiving global health crisis. As a result, our school system began to gradually unravel as it is severely underresourced and lacks the diverse set of individuals needed to serve many students. While this comes as no surprise, it should in no way be accepted as a norm.
This continuum of trauma that our students are experiencing means that we as educators must lean into the very visible problem of educator diversity that the pandemic brought further to light. It’s time to invest in the effective recruitment of those who are best equipped to handle the needs of our most fragile students.
Recruiting educators of color and taking a few other proactive measures can now more adequately prepare us for a future pandemic.
1. School districts should invest in recruiting and developing BIPOC superintendents, heads of schools, and administrators.
At this level, it will be important to have diverse folks in positions of authority whose experiences are more closely aligned with the students they are serving. Having robust groups of leaders who have the capacity to strategize from multicultural perspectives is a must, as these are the folks who influence high-level systems and building-specific policy most immediately.
It is without a doubt that another pandemic will occur. Having diverse, equity-minded, genuine, and committed leaders in key decision-making seats should be prioritized now rather than later. It is these individuals who will best be equipped to address challenges such as funding gaps and creating more equitable financial models for schools. Both are paramount to student success and organizational sustainability as we begin to think ahead.
- In the 2011–12 school year, a majority of public school principals were white (80 percent), while 10 percent were black, and 7 percent were Hispanic.
- According to the (2015) Triennial Study of the Superintendency in New York State: 95 percent of all respondents reported that they were white. African Americans accounted for 2 percent of respondents.
2. Heads of schools should focus heavily on recruiting and retaining BIPOC faculty.
It is necessary for building leaders to get serious about whom it is they are hiring and how they are keeping them. When the pandemic first hit and teachers had less than a day to switch to remote learning, school faculty were placed on the front line as they struggled to lead classrooms in the virtual world. Faced with the needs of students like never before, faculty of color became some of the most essential in the field, as students of color first turned to them for help in the wake of the crisis.
In light of the ongoing pandemic, the need to have front-line faculty who have the agency to create safe spaces and the cultural experience necessary to best serve high-need students becomes a matter we can no longer debate. If drastic action is not taken to address broken teacher recruitment and retention pipelines that allow for such a dearth of teacher diversity to exist, our students will undoubtedly fall victim. There is no better time than now for building leaders to strategically invest in Black and brown educators who will go on to lead the ever more diversifying student population and their multifaceted array of needs.
- Black male teachers only make up only 2 percent of the teaching population.
- 82 percent of public school teachers identify as white.
3. Let’s talk about our student support staff while we’re at it.
Counselors, case managers, learning and behavior specialists have always been and will now become ever more critical in addressing the multitude of student challenges that the pandemic has only exacerbated. From providing crucial mental-health supports, modified learning accommodations, drafting behavior plans, instructing ELLs, or implementing IEP’s/504s, having staff who can appropriately maneuver across cultures to provide for the needs of diverse students will become even more fundamental.
Due to traumas of the pandemic, wrap-around services that are already in high demand will be of heightened importance in order to fulfill the demands of students as they gradually refill once-vacant hallways. If those who are tasked with providing some of the most integral in school services do not come from diverse backgrounds and experiences, we are ultimately risking the success of our students. Now is the time to significantly invest in Black and brown social workers, school psychiatrists, and other diverse student-support staff.
- In 2015, a mere 4 percent of psychologists in the United States workforce were Black/African American.
Hilary Kreisberg is the director of the Center for Mathematics Achievement at Lesley University and the co-author of the books Partnering with Parents in Elementary Math: A Guide for Teachers and Leaders (2021) and Adding Parents to the Equation: Understanding Your Child’s Elementary School Math (2019):
Plain and simple: Partner with parents, guardians, families, and caregivers in elementary mathematics. I have been on a mission since the Common Core State Standards were released in 2010 to empower families to better support their children’s mathematics learning journeys by 1) helping them understand why we teach math differently today from how we learned it, and 2) developing ways in which we [educators] can establish better, and more proactive, communication with families around the subject.
I cannot help but wonder whether, and how, things would have been different this year had schools previously established strong communication and relationships with families around mathematics. What if families understood why their children’s math looks different from how they learned it? And what if families were already equipped with resources for how to support their youngster(s) at home? Would parents, guardians, families, and caregivers have reacted differently when the pandemic struck? Would more students have had access and support in their mathematics learning this past year?
When the pandemic initially shut down schools across the nation (and world), families also went into panic mode for many reasons, one of which was centered around the anxiety of having to teach their kids the “new math.” Many parents and caregivers resorted to the only way they knew how to do math: the way they learned it. This ultimately set everyone back many steps.
For parents, it gave them permission to propagate the ever-popular hatred for “new math.” It also exacerbated the math anxieties many families had already and made it more visible for their children. For teachers, this created stressors for how to properly advance in their scope and sequences and follow their curricular resources, many of which now prioritize teaching conceptual development prior to shortcuts and algorithm procedures. For students, this generated confusion about who to listen to (do I do what my parents are telling me or do I follow what the teacher says?) and why their parents and teachers weren’t working together.
I contend that had schools previously established very clear communication and relationships with families around the sensitive subject that is mathematics, perhaps families would have been better equipped to support the math their children were learning, and educators wouldn’t feel that much learning was lost. Regardless of the possibilities of future school shutdowns, it is time school leaders and teachers partner with parents in elementary mathematics. Currently, many students have been inadvertently placed as responsible for their families’ education about math instruction. This is wrong. Schools should be chiefly responsible for educating families about today’s math, not the children. If our goal is to see every child succeed mathematically, then we must position families to be able to support their child’s mathematics learning journey.
Helen Vassiliou has been working with ELs for the Lakota Local school district in West Chester, Ohio:
We have endured the most extraordinary school years in the history of education. Remote teaching and learning have been implemented in incredibly short time frames of a few days to months and, even most likely, entire school years.
Administrators, teachers, curriculum developers, instructional designers, and faculty themselves stepped up to make the best of the very difficult situation caused by the pandemic. We learned how to work together, mobilize, and trust each other. It is testament to our commitment to our students that we have responded in this fashion. We have learned to value creativity, problem solving, thinking like there is no box, and listening to our students and their families.
We are thinking about what equity means and we are giving students opportunities to submit work and participate in learning by meeting them where they are instead of meeting them where we want them to be. We have learned that using technology daily helps students become collaborators, innovators, and not just consumers of information.
We need to remember all of these lessons going forward if—and when—the next pandemic hits.
Thanks to Robert, Shaamar, Hilary, and Helen for contributing their thoughts.
Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at firstname.lastname@example.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.
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