District superintendents’ top priorities in first weeks of COVID-19 crisis

Expert Insight

District superintendents’ top priorities in first weeks of COVID-19 crisis

In the week of March 16, EAB convened several virtual roundtables with K-12 district superintendents and assistant superintendents, providing a forum for sharing perspectives and reality-checking responses to the unfolding pandemic. Here are the takeaways from superintendents’ priorities facing COVID-19 and how they’ve approached challenges so far.

Districts following state closing guidance for the next weeks, preparing for prolonged remote learning thereafter

Many districts are extending spring breaks by 2-3 weeks, with a “watchful waiting” plan beyond that, taking cues from state governments and federal agencies in mid-April to see if reopening makes sense.

With each day’s news making it more likely that closures resulting from COVID-19 will last months rather than weeks, superintendents and cabinets are using the extended breaks to make plans for a prolonged remote learning environment.

Most districts confident in meal delivery procedures; if anything, family demand isn’t as overwhelming as anticipated 

Every superintendent EAB spoke with started their narrative of responding to the COVID-19 crisis by stressing districts’ crucial role in maintaining food security for FRPL-eligible children and their families. Our unscientific tally suggests that of the three major meal delivery strategies being deployed nationally, curbside delivery at school buildings and so-called grab-and-go from distributed community centers appear more common than home meal delivery, even in rural areas. Surprisingly, every district reported that only a fraction of eligible families or of those who had signed up online for pick-ups actually claimed meals. At one district in Michigan, 800 families signed up for curbside pick-up, but only 200 showed, raising concerns about what to do with unused food.

Superintendents who have had a couple of weeks’ head start in meal delivery share three lessons learned in the process.

Three “hacks” to maximize positive impact of meal delivery

To prevent coronavirus transmission in hand-offs, districts are setting up a text number for families to use as they drive onto school grounds, allowing staff to place meals in a pick-up spot without broaching the 6-foot social distance recommended by the CDC.

Many schools are committed to including fresh produce in student meals, which go bad if unused the same day. Learning this lesson, districts are coordinating with local homeless shelters, churches and community groups to collect or receive unused meals at the end of student pick-up hours.

Districts estimated that 4-8% of students lack reliable home Wi-Fi.  Noting the high overlap with FRPL-eligible households, some districts are using meal pick-up points as Wi-Fi hotspots. Parents are told to bring their student’s school-issued device to meal pickup, where on-site educators ensure daily and weekly assignments are correctly downloaded.

Districts ready for 2-4 weeks of remote enrichment and “maintenance” learning, doing just-in-time teacher professional development for “new learning” tech and video tools

Most districts are using extended breaks to stand up basic remote learning practices. The predominant strategy is to “stay low-tech, encouraging teachers to work with what they know” for the next 2-4 weeks, with many superintendents privately saying they are content with enrichment activities and asynchronous “maintenance” learning, as the picture becomes clearer about whether prolonged building closures will require the much more complex project of partially synchronous learning at scale. EAB found a handful of superintendents’ priorities facing COVID-19 included ambitious just-in-time online teaching technique professional development days, but a much larger number were limiting just-in-time development to refreshers in how to use unfamiliar video and collaboration platform tools, in case they are deployed at scale in mid-April.

Postcard from Seattle: Beware of teacher burnout in remote learning

In the next weeks, EAB will investigate what has happened on the frontlines of the pandemic, learning how it unfolded and how K-12 educators responded in places like Singapore, Korea, American schools in China and Japan, and Washington state. Our hope is to give you a view from a month ahead, reporting back on what worked (and what did not), and which concerns happened faster (or less seriously) than anticipated. As a first installment, some observations for district leaders in the Seattle area:

  • Every teacher is a new teacher in this environment. Even 30-year veterans are experiencing anxiety and having to work longer hours navigating an unfamiliar online teaching schedule. Teacher workload and mental health will come center stage 3-4 weeks into a remote learning setting.
  • Revise daily and weekly schedules, and set expectations for 1:1 contact with students. Many districts are scaling back “official” schedules and relaxing normal curriculum coverage pacing, recognizing that neither teachers nor students have the stamina for 6 hours of synchronous online sessions. In exchange for paring back to 3-4 hours of synchronous remote sessions, districts are setting expectations for teachers to check in individually with students. EAB will monitor what these expectations are, the communications tools used, and how chief academic officers and principals can ensure accountability.

The more concerning part of the digital homework gap—special education and IEPs in a remote learning environment

EAB expected that districts’ main equity concerns in the event of prolonged building shutdowns would be food security and IT access. To be sure, Superintendents are paying close attention here, but most seem reasonably confident in their procedures and capabilities for now. Instead, the area where superintendents and assistant superintendents most worry that remote learning will widen achievement gaps is for special education students and students with IEPs. Districts paint a confusing picture at every turn:

  • Awaiting clear guidance for Department of Education and state agencies: The Department of Education’s March 23 guidance Questions and Answers on Providing Services to Children with Disabilities During the Coronavirus Outbreak did not clarify what “virtual” contingency plans districts can use to meet IEP requirements, nor how much latitude can be provided for alternative locations and delivery methods for special services. Decisions are being given to the states. 
  • Uncertainty about curriculum and teaching professional development for online and alternate-site instruction: Many special education services relying on location, with no obvious models for tele-delivery. Districts are wondering what models exist that are high-quality and importable.
  • Will state agencies expedite accreditation of virtual delivery models? Using telemental health services as an analogy, some superintendents noted that innovation with virtual service delivery has often been held up by regulatory and accreditation red tape. They ask if the COVID-19 crisis demands expedited review or probationary launch of these new models to meet student demand.
  • Staffing special services: Districts are uncertain about their ability to staff and pay certain service providers.

EAB will convene a number of virtual roundtable discussions on these critical issues across the next weeks to explore key leadership questions. For EAB partners interested in joining, register for a session on Thursday, March 26 or Friday, March 27. Districts that are not EAB partners can learn more here.

Social-emotional learning and student mental health all the more important in the current moment

Districts are bracing for an increase in the already skyrocketing demand for SEL and mental health support, as at-risk students are put in an even more stressful learning environment. Similar to the thinking for special education and IEPs, superintendents’ priorities facing COVID-19 include investigating how peers districts plan to deliver counseling services in a remote environment, or how to provide safe places for physical meetings between students and mental health professionals.

School cleaning and paying staff (mercifully) seem under control

EAB does not want to give the impression that districts aren’t taking school decontamination and maintaining the economic security of staff and contractors seriously—they certainly are. But compared to the “known unknowns” of special education/IEPs and SEL and mental health, cleaning and payroll seem relatively straightforward. The district leaders we spoke to have satisfactory plans for deep cleaning during breaks that will be revisited when schools reopen, and most are capable of uninterrupted payment to teachers, paraprofessionals, staff and contractors for 2-3 months if it comes to that.

Getting ready for reopening

It seems premature to talk about reopening so early in the unfolding crisis, but several superintendents are already looking to compile a list of decisions and actions for a hoped-for return to normal in May or June.  More to come here from EAB.