The Context of Disruption
Schools and their systems are not immune to larger social issues (e.g., Black Lives Matter and police actions) or climate changes and natural disasters (Hurricane Sally, the loss of the ice shelf in Greenland, and rampant fires in California). Political entanglements divided the country with a highly contested presidential race between Republican incumbent Donald J. Trump and Vice-President Michael R. Pence and Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden and running mate, U.S. Senator Kamala Harris. The United States was on high-alert when President Trump was hospitalized for COVID-19 following the first presidential debate.
Highlighting a long history of social injustice and adding to the disruption of the pandemic were past and recent racial unrest that unfolded as cities experienced protests over police actions and the recent deaths of
Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky (March, 2020) and George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota (May, 2020), and the shooting of Jacob Blake, who was left paralyzed in Kenosha, Wisconsin (August, 2020). The American public was polarized even further when President Trump at the presidential debate in October 2020 refused to denounce white supremacists, telling the public to "stand back and standby." These tragedies coupled with others have plummeted our country into periods of anguish and rage that continued as courts weighed their verdicts on police actions.
While public education has always been influenced after a presidential election, the changes foreseen with President Biden and a new educational cabinet may well create a breath of fresh air as education has endured without national direction or support in educating all students in this country. Under President Biden, federal funding more than likely will not be siphoned off to private and religious schools, and public schools will see a greater national role in adequately supporting and recognizing the importance of their work. Among many systems dismantled under the Trump administration, a movement to restore national influences on college affordability, sexual assault policies, and a return to protective rights of teachers and students are examples that have substantive impact on the future of our education system.
A new lexicon emerged to capture the work around the pandemic. The Oxford Dictionary added COVID-19 in the online format; the dub, Covidiot—a non-practicing person using safety and health protocols— as well as infodemic surfaced. Words such as "pivot" and "grace" and phrases including "a new normal" and "scenario planning" were uttered as teachers, leaders, parents, and students tried to make sense of their new and foreign conception of schools.
Leaders had to decipher a great deal of scientific data and findings from medical reports from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) amid a distorted view offered in a political context that caused many to question the validity of data. Who do schools trust in the political realities of what is safe or not became the question as decisions were made to open schools or not.
Dr. Steve Joel, superintendent of Lincoln Public Schools (LPS) located in Lincoln Nebraska, elaborated how key pivot points defined his work. The second largest public-school district in Nebraska, LPS serves 42,034 students supported by 3,300 teachers, 4,400 non-certified staff, and 300 school and system leaders. Dr. Joel has received numerous local, state, and national awards including the Nebraska Superintendent of the Year and Leadership Excellence by the Educational Resource Development Institute. LPS is a district that receives many acknowledgments over the course of a year and is regarded as a top urban district in the state and region.
Dr. Joel speaks to the inner tensions for school leaders as their leadership was tested by a crisis never experienced before in their tenure nor likely in the history of education. The complexities of decisions were driven by an unknown with changing information and a growing political division on how to keep schools open.
Stephen Joel, Ed.D.
Superintendent Lincoln Public Schools
When You Least Expect It...
If 27 years as a Superintendent has taught me one thing, it is to always expect the unexpected. Having had a number of experiences that tested my leadership resolve and plunged districts and communities I worked for into turmoil, I learned that to be effective and impactful I had to stick closely to my values as an educational leader. These "pivot" points have defined my work and I am proud of how we confronted and overcame challenges that had many with strong opinions.
But, the COVID-19 pandemic has been something else. In fact, I would argue that we have never experienced a crisis like this in the past nor will we ever again in most of our lives. More than just a virus to contend with, we are also faced with an economic recession, social unrest centered on Black Lives Matter, and, for an added stressor, a national election that could bring out the worst in some people. I had to become much more patient with people who held deeply different beliefs than I. For instance, at the beginning of our decision-making, I struggled with the "hoaxers" and "anti-maskers."
From the day I made the decision to call off school in March 2020, contrary to the strong recommendation of the Governor and Health Department to remain open, to one month before we are bringing students and staff back to an unknown school experience, this has been a summer
I nor any other school leader will ever forget. The most difficult lesson to remember is that any decision made will draw scrutiny and argument from others. But, these decisions are what we are paid to do.
There is no playbook for a pandemic so we had to develop one. This virus has been difficult to understand and the manner in which it has been portrayed in the media has made it hard to develop a "return to school" plan that people will accept. Fortunately for me, the Board of Education immediately granted me Emergency Powers to proceed without needing board approval. With this, my team and I were able to learn and act in a timely fashion. The work of the summer of 2020 yielded a 500+-page document that answers every question raised from staff, parents, and the community.
But, these efforts will clearly not be enough to satisfy the different sides of the debate. On one side we had been directed by the Governor and Commissioner of Education (May 2020) to develop plans to reopen and, on the other, we have been dealing with a formal staff protest that cites our inability to provide a safe environment in which there is no transmission of this insidious virus. The fear of some parents and staff has led to a remote learning option that will be synchronous and much more robust than what students experienced at the beginning of the pandemic.
The majority of my time this summer has been to make key decisions based on the best data we had at the time and to strengthen and support the resolve of our leaders and board members. It has been important that those in my office take the "heat" from the various emotional pleas so that our principals can focus on opening their schools. While we know this too shall pass, the concerns and anger that are directed at us today make the work more challenging but it remains the most important work we are committed to do.
As I look back at the last six months, I am again reminded about the importance of education and the necessity for leaders to step up and perform amazing tasks under difficult challenges. As in the past, I have witnessed people accomplish superhuman tasks in short timeframes because they knew they had to. Many of these leaders sacrificed personal and family time, and they can never be thanked enough. But that will be my ongoing focus and at the appropriate time when we can celebrate the end of the pandemic. This is a primary reason why we can never be correlated to a business—as we are a human enterprise. I stand proud of our work in the most trying of times.
I believe that most of our leadership lives are filled with joyous moments and accomplishments. It is inevitable, however, that there will be incredibly challenging and dark times that require each of us to lead through. These are lonely times that only colleagues understand, but these times will ultimately be replaced by relative normalcy.
Dr. Joel made clear that the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been like no other challenge amid numerous uncertainties and mounting distractions. The burden for leaders created lonely times, but he sees hope and opportunity ahead.
Distractions ensued from tweets from President Trump pressuring schools to open by downplaying imminent health risks. There were political threats to withhold funding and/or change funding criteria for school systems that would not open face-to-face for fall 2020 broke system efforts. Turbulence continued as city and state leaders clashed over policies about shuttering in place, opening of business establishments, implementing social distancing protocols, and wearing facial masks in public.
In spite of political actors at the state and federal levels, systems and leaders held resolve to do what was best for the safety and health of students and teachers. Backlash ensued from the public regardless of the configuration of school plans—ranging from face-to-face, fully remote, or a hybrid model. Teacher unions sued state governments (e.g., Florida), while parents and teachers voiced loudly concerns for a safe beginning of the year. Pockets of parents protested demanding a face-to-face return while other parents protested demanding only virtual learning options.
In August 2020, the voices of teachers were muted and became alienated from their professional expertise when the White House dubbed them as essential workers. This declaration made teachers obligated to return to school—regardless of their own health and safety issues. Vice-President Pence shared with state governors that "the administration has designated teachers as essential workers, but said it was not a mandate" (Westwood, 2020, para. 4). A concerned parent spoke to the quandary of the essential worker:
Are teachers essential workers? Schools cannot open if too many teachers have COVID-19 or are quarantining because of exposure to it. For some political and district leaders, this means teachers should be designated essential workers, who could be required to work if they have the virus or have been exposed to it.
Teachers are essential—any parent will attest to that. It is less clear what the effects of issuing this designation might be. Some teachers are comfortable with this label, but many others are not, particularly those with a high-risk medical condition. They worry that it will increase transmission of the virus.
Imposing this label may erode trust between district leaders and teachers, creating or adding to a perception of "us vs. them," which could undermine teachers' commitment to the profession. However, district leaders move forward amidst the hard challenges of opening schools in a pandemic, creating meaningful dialogue and consistent transparency with teachers should not be an after-thought or an add-on. It should be embedded in their work.
Whereas Governor Ron DeSantis (Florida) ordered schools to reopen (later this decision was rescinded by court order), others begrudgingly provided systems latitude, as in the case of New York City Schools, only after the United Federation of Teachers threatened to strike. Governor Coumo referred to the opening of K-12 schools as the "canary in a coal mine" (Hallum, 2020, para. 2).
From the onset of the pandemic, the public watched as front-line spectators and actors, as social media in real-time fashion fueled involvement and engagement.