An Unprecedented Crisis Stretches Superintendents’ Role

Type: Article
Topics: District & School Operations, Leadership Development, School Administrator Magazine, School Safety & Cybersecurity, Technology & AI

May 01, 2020

Executive Perspective

With each passing day, Americans are seeing an escalation in the spread of the COVID-19 virus, sadly followed by a rise in the number of deaths caused by the pandemic. Businesses have shut down, school buildings are empty and Americans are being ordered to stay home.

Throughout our country’s history, public education has persisted, moving forward in the aftermath of blizzards, fires, floods, hurricanes, snipers, school shootings and, of course, the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, 2001. Communities have worked nonstop to create a sense of normalcy following these tragedies.

During these untimely events, the role of the superintendent has changed significantly. It has evolved from focusing on educating students to maintaining their personal safety. You have created programs to feed the hungry, care for the homeless, address the social-emotional health of students, prevent bullying and reduce threats of gun violence at schools.

In the wake of this spring’s unprecedented school closures, superintendents have been asked to dramatically shift from teaching and learning in the physical space to providing education virtually for all students in all places. However, in doing so, educators have encountered the reality of the digital divide.

Our K-12 education system was built on face-to-face interaction with a teacher, not online learning.

A Model in Maryland

How are superintendents dealing with this new reality?

In Maryland, leaders moved quickly. When schools shut down, districts made sure children did not go hungry, delivering lunches at first and then providing eligible children with three meals and a snack each day.

In places where students are without access to wireless technology, instructional packets have been distributed, and internet hot spots have been shared with students in rural areas, often locating them in fire stations with abundant parking for parents and students.

Karen Salmon, Maryland’s state superintendent of schools for the past four years after serving as a local superintendent in two states, orchestrated this work with her 24 district superintendents via Zoom video meetings every other day for the first several weeks. (Although Maryland has comparatively few school districts, eight of them rank among the nation’s largest 150 districts in enrollment.)

Salmon works closely on making the right decisions with Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, who has gained acclaim for his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in his state.

As a former special education teacher, Salmon seeks to ensure students with special needs receive the help they require, and she is grateful that many teachers are spending time on the phone with their students and using FaceTime to provide instruction.

With an abundance of free online instructional products being made available to schools, the Maryland State Education Department is vetting them and providing guidance to the districts about their fit.

The possibility that school buildings may remain closed for the remainder of the school year raises additional concerns. Pro-motions to the next grade levels, graduation ceremonies, school proms and so many of the activities that usually take place at this time of the year may not happen. Salmon and her state’s superintendents are looking for creative solutions so as not to totally deprive students of these once-in-a lifetime events.

AASA Adapts

Like Salmon and her superintendents, all of us must work to create solutions during what has become the new normal for schooling during this pandemic.

To that end, the AASA Leadership Network and its extended team of lead superintendents, faculty, mentors and facilitators have mobilized quickly to offer training workshops on running schools under quarantine, staying connected to staff and students and operating quality distance instruction. With support from our partners, these virtual and blended learning programs will continue for the foreseeable future to promote leadership development.

Examples of the webinars, offered at no charge, are:

  • “Meeting the Needs of ALL Students During COVID-19”;

  • “How to Keep Potential Dropout Students on Track to Graduate”; and

  • “Don’t Forget Your Staff! Supporting Their Mental Health.”

We owe a debt of gratitude to all of you who are working around the clock and sacrificing time with your families in your steadfast efforts to come up with solutions to ensure every child is safe and their needs are being met during this unprecedented public health crisis.