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Coronavirus and Schools: What PDK's Josh Starr Has to Say

As families, educators, and community leaders wrestle with COVID-19, we'll be trying to bring conversations to readers that will be helpful in confronting the challenge.

Josh Starr, CEO of PDK International, previously served as superintendent in the Montgomery County public schools in Maryland and in Stamford, Conn. Josh has been immersed in conversations with teachers and education leaders across the nation regarding how they're responding to the coronavirus. I thought it worth checking in with Josh about what he's hearing and on any thoughts he could share. Here's what he had to say.

Rick: Putting on your old superintendent hat, what are all the things that school leaders have to be thinking about right now?

Josh: Beyond the basics of getting online instruction going and feeding kids where appropriate, superintendents are in a "hurry up and wait" period. They have to do all of the planning necessary to deliver instruction and serve vulnerable populations. They have to keep track of legislation at the local, state, and federal levels and respond where appropriate in order to plan or access funds. They have to ensure adherence to union contracts and employee agreements and negotiate flexibility where appropriate. They have to be in constant touch with their boards and other elected officials. They have to be available to media and attentive to local listservs, discussion boards, and social-media posts. They have to coordinate with local agencies. Most importantly, they have to communicate regularly with their employees, students, and families about what's going to happen and when. But they also don't know what might happen tomorrow or next week if the governor decides to close school for the rest of the year. All of their planning for what's happening now may not be relevant if the game changes.

Rick: How well are supes doing at balancing all these responsibilities?

Josh: I'm not sure any of us really know, beyond what we read in the Twitterverse or on Facebook, although it's great to see how some groups are starting to track what districts are doing. From what I see, the rock stars out there continue to shine, and everyone else is going about their business, but it's frankly hard to tell the reality on the ground.

Rick: Can you talk a bit about the mechanics of closing and reopening schools?

Josh: Physically closing is reasonably straightforward; the main issue is communications and allowing staff to access necessary materials at a certain time. Schools won't be "mothballed," meaning utilities will still be on in anticipation of reopening at some point. The decision to close in this kind of situation is typically made in consultation with local and state health officials, although we've seen governors make the call throughout the country. The decision to reopen will be much more difficult, as there will need to be reassurances to staff, families, and students that schools are safe places. If tests are available and individuals can be controlled, then it's a matter of thorough cleaning and the typical things you do before the start of a school year. Communication, as always, will be key, in order to reassure parents and staff that it's safe to go back.

Rick: In the meantime, what are some of the practical challenges in getting distance learning up and running?

Josh: The first challenge is obvious—access to hardware, software, and broadband for typical students, English-language learners, and students with disabilities. Once that's figured out, there are two strands of work: staff supervision and instruction. Central-office leaders, including those focused on English-language learners and students with disabilities, should be designing lessons, vetting and supporting technology, determining policy issues, and assisting teachers. Teachers need to be given clear direction about what, when, and how to teach virtually, and then they need clarity on assessment and grading. There also needs to be a customer-service strategy and hotline for technical issues for teachers and kids and a way for parents to ask questions. Again, communication is key.

Rick: You mentioned policy: What policy questions do school leaders need to be thinking about when it comes to school personnel?

Josh: Classroom teachers make up a little more than half of a typical district's employees. So, what is everyone else doing during this time? How are-central office administrators not involved in instruction, paraprofessionals, custodians, and secretaries being deployed? Employee agreements and union contracts will have to be discussed and opened up if necessary to account for new demands, especially if the economic downturn forces a reduction in force (RIF) and involuntary transfers. Can new teachers be hired virtually if the standard practice has been face-to-face with a demonstration lesson?

Rick: And what policy questions should school leaders be thinking about when it comes to students?

Josh: Districts will have to consider FERPA implications if someone gets COVID-19 and other parents need to be informed. FERPA is also a consideration when coordinating social services with other agencies for the most vulnerable kids, as I discussed in my latest PDK column. Districts also have to consider "acceptable use" policies that ban social-media contact among employees and students, as teachers may need to use it to conduct lessons.

Rick: What about academic policy questions?

Josh: On the academic side, assessment, grading, and end-of-year completion requirements are probably the biggest policy issues to consider. Additionally, there needs to be a mechanism for ensuring that lessons and instruction are standards-based, unless states waive that requirement.

Rick: OK, let's talk about spending. What are the big funding-policy issues?

Josh: On the financial side, there are questions about flexibility. Will the feds and states allow districts to roll over Title I, II, and III dollars? If there's a minimum reserve required by local statute, will that be waived in the face of the coming economic downturn? Also, many districts purchase technology through request for proposals (RFP's) or state contract and sometimes use capital dollars for hardware purchases. As they may want to accelerate those purchases, will they be allowed flexibility?

Rick: What are you hearing from the field about how educators are dealing with these adjustments?

Josh: We surveyed our PDK members and Educators Rising students and teacher leaders; here's what they said. One really interesting finding is the disconnect between the SEL supports that teachers say they need and the lack of focus on that by administrators. I actually think that when we reopen schools, the SEL needs of adults will surpass those of kids, as kids are resilient, and employees and parents will be super-stressed. High school seniors in particular are bummed about missing end-of-year celebrations and want a lot of positive reinforcement from parents and teachers.

Rick: OK, last question. What are you seeing that's most heartening?

Josh: These crises tend to bring out the best in people, and the immediate attention to equity issues was both heartening and not surprising. I think when we all have an opportunity to breathe and debrief, the major inequities in our society and the realities of serving such a range of children will be more apparent to more Americans. I also think that we've been seeing a lot of patience from people, at least as far as I can tell. Everyone seems to understand that this is completely different from anything we've ever seen and appear to have some tolerance; at least a former super can hope.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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