How California Superintendents Can Manage Schools During COVID-19
By Brian Soika
California superintendents are navigating uncharted territory. As COVID-19 forces the closure of schools statewide, superintendents have to deal with evolving day-to-day challenges, and contemplate what this all means for the future.
California Schools Will Never Be the Same
“Instruction has changed forever,” says David Cash, EdD ‘08, a former superintendent of the Santa Barbara, Clovis, Claremont and Buellton School Districts. “There’s no way it’s going to go back to the way it was… [But] I think your best superintendents realize that and are going to take advantage of it.”
Cash now serves as a USC Rossier Executive in Residence and governance chair of the EdD in Educational Leadership program, in which he also teaches.
Throughout the early weeks of the Coronavirus crisis, Cash talked with around 150 superintendents to gauge how they’re managing their districts.
Based on those conversations and his own years of experience, here’s some guidance from Cash for current superintendents, as well as anyone aspiring to the role in the near future.
Determine the Right Level of Autonomy for Schools
Coronavirus presents unprecedented challenges for California schools; there is no convenient template for superintendents to follow.
Almost all schools remain closed for on-campus instruction while students practice distance learning from home. Bigger school districts have bureaucratic standards in place for communication and technology tools, but smaller districts lack the same kind of guidelines.
In the absence of established best practices, it’s important that superintendents determine how much autonomy to give schools and teachers in their district.
Is it okay for teachers at different school sites to use different e-learning tools? Is there a central, consistent message for parents that’s appropriate for all sites, or does each site create their own?
Communication Is Critical
“Communication is the key thing,” Cash stresses. California superintendents need to ensure that communication is consistently happening with the community, and at every level of the school district.
Externally, update parents and community members on timelines for school closures, as well as developments with distance learning.
Internally, you should communicate with administrators often, especially principals. Other administrators will need to be informed of their evolving roles and responsibilities in this rapidly changing environment. If needed, deploy them to communicate with parents.
Follow Through With Parents
Because parents are now tasked with overseeing their children’s education at home, it’s critical to connect with them often. Schools should be asking, “Is what we’re doing meeting your child’s needs? If not, what do we need to do either to intervene to support or intervene to advance?” says Cash.
The technology component to instruction compounds the problem. You need to make sure that parents can manage not just the content, but the user experience as well, i.e., are they able to navigate Zoom, use online tools, etc.
And remember that, in addition to assisting with learning, parents may also be working from home full time, and difficult to reach. Be sure to follow up.
Ensure Principals and Teachers Are Talking
In these uncertain times, frequent communication between principals and teachers is essential.
“Principals are having to talk to teachers, if not every day, then a couple times a week to say, ‘[Which parents] aren’t you hearing back from?’” notes Cash. It’s only through their coordinated efforts that you can prevent students from slipping through the cracks.
Additionally, if principals weren’t already a resource for information on technology before the current crisis, they are now. In the absence of dedicated instructional technologists at a school, teachers look to principals for answers to questions about online education and communication tools.
Make a Long-Term Plan
California schools will remain closed indefinitely. If distance learning continues into the fall, or if schools resume instruction and then need to close again due to another COVID-19 flare up, superintendents need a long-term strategy.
Identify which teaching and communication tools work well, and train your teachers how to use them. In his conversations with California superintendents, one takeaway for Cash is that there is a huge range of competence among teachers. Ensure that everyone is comfortable and able to use the school district’s technology tools.
Also, find out which teachers are the shining stars of online instruction, and have them advise or train their colleagues.
Invest in More Technology
Presently, California schools are focusing on reinforcing concepts introduced before school closures. However, if closures continue, teachers will be required to introduce new material.
This is an ideal time for your district to either increase your investment in technology-based learning, or unite your district behind the investment that’s likely already been made.
If there’s been resistance or disagreement about technology, stakeholders are probably more motivated to come to a solution now about how to integrate it into the curriculum.
Require More Collaboration Among Teachers
While it may sound counterintuitive, some California superintendents believe that online education breeds more effective collaboration.
To pave the way for the integration of technology, savvy superintendents have already insisted that teachers collaborate. For example, they might structurally put them in elementary grade groups, or secondary content area groups, forcing them to work together.
The effect is to increase opportunities for productive technology-based learning environments throughout the system, and increase outcomes for students.
Prepare for Budget Cuts
The Coronavirus crisis is projected to have long-term negative effects on the economy. Unemployment is already reaching record highs in California. And with many parents potentially out of work, it could impact tax revenues, which results in less school funding.
As a result, California superintendents anticipate deep cuts to education. To manage the loss of revenue, redeploy existing resources to support online learning. Developing the strategies now to redirect people, equipment and programs will be the key to success in the next several years.