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Superintendents and the Coronavirus: Advice From a Prize-Winning Leader

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.

Duncan Klussmann was the popular superintendent of Spring Branch Independent School District in Texas for 11 years, and currently spends his time at the University of Huston mentoring system leaders. Klussmann has long been heralded for his creative problem solving, including the launch of the wildly influential SKY Partnership with KIPP and YES Prep. Having learned long ago that Duncan is always a fount of clear-eyed analysis, I reached out to get his take on the challenges coronavirus has presented for system leaders. Here's what he has to say.

Rick: What's the biggest challenge supes are dealing with right now?

Duncan: One of the biggest challenges is shifting from disaster recovery and shutting down schools to business continuity in a whole new environment. Schools are making decisions about grading, GPA, graduation expectations, grade-level promotion, and every other aspect of running a school in a completely unanticipated—and, from a school leader's perspective, I would say unimaginable—way. An entirely new system of schooling is being designed overnight.

Along with this shift, equity is a major concern. Educational leaders are concerned the outbreak will only deepen the divide between students of poverty and those not in poverty. Many leaders have fought their whole career to even the playing field, and this situation just makes that challenge more difficult.

Rick: OK, and what are some of the practical challenges in getting distance learning and course-management software up and running?

Duncan: Access is clearly a challenge of distance learning. Access really depends on where you are located. A Pew Research study in 2019 found that roughly 10 percent, or 33 million, Americans do not have internet service. In rural areas, this climbs to 15 percent compared with urban areas at 9 percent and suburban areas at 6 percent. I believe this crisis has clearly indicated the need to view the internet as a utility.

Another challenge is the way we have implemented technology in our schools. In many cases, we have allowed implementation by choice, and in this situation, choice is not an option. This is particularly true in terms of course-management software. Many districts have purchased some level of course-management software, but in many cases, have not implemented it across the board. For example, many of our seniors leave high school never exposed to platforms such as Blackboard, even though the district has a license to use it. They enter higher education where it is utilized to a much greater degree, and it is a major adjustment. The coronavirus crisis has exposed this deficiency in the system. Instead of being prepared to jump right in and ramp up their utilization of these platforms, many teachers are starting from scratch, having to learn a system that is entirely new to them.

Rick: OK, and how are leaders dealing with these?

Duncan: Districts I have talked to are using a dual approach by offering online learning and at the same time providing the work in hard-copy packets to students without access. Many districts are distributing the packets at their feeding sites. One principal I talked with used a personal touch. She asked all the advisory teachers at the campus to reach out and connect with each student to see who had access and who did not. This allowed the campus to develop plans for the students without access. I'm also seeing systems moving to pass/fail grading to take into the account the extenuating circumstances their students are experiencing.

They are also redefining the roles and responsibilities within a system. It is important to determine who can remain working remotely and who needs to be on site during this transition. A significant issue has been how to train teachers who had not adapted to a virtual environment at a time when it might be unsafe to have small groups come together to be trained. Systems moving effectively through this phase have simplified and clearly communicated their process to offer online education to everyone in the organization.

Rick: As you look ahead to the time when a governor determines it's safe to reopen schools, what's involved, and how much lead time does a district need to actually make that happen?

Duncan: From an educational and physical standpoint, schools will be ready to go in a very short timeframe. The emotional aspect will be the most difficult to confront. Parents will be concerned about the safety of their children; teachers and staff will be concerned about their own safety and the safety of their students. I experienced this during the Ebola outbreak in 2014. A teacher had traveled to Africa for her wedding hundreds of miles away from the outbreak. Once she returned to the U.S., the parents did not want to send their pre-K students back to her classroom out of fear and concern for their children.

Rick: Are states or the federal government doing anything that's unhelpful?

Duncan: Superintendents view the shifting sand of Washington's approach to the coronavirus outbreak as a major challenge. A lack of a national strategy makes the decisionmaking very difficult at the state and local levels. One day, we are going to reopen the economy by Easter and then a few days later, we will stay closed til April 30th. The federal responses seem very reactive. As Washington's inconsistent approach continues to evolve, superintendents are concerned that the mixed message between the president and many governors will just confuse the public and make their job of transitioning to a new system even more difficult. I think the key question that should be on everyone's mind is, "Can our economy open up if our schools do not?"

Rick: On the other hand, what should Washington or the states be doing to help right now?

Duncan: Providing maximum flexibility is critical. We need to trust our school district leaders. They have the student's best interest in mind. Washington needs to move fast and be very clear on what statues they are freeing up. They cannot just talk about the flexibility they are giving; they need to follow-through with the guidance on how to implement the flexibility. And importantly, it cannot include massive amounts of paperwork by requiring a waiver for each action. Since education is a state function, governors and state chiefs need to also trust their district leaders and provide maximum flexibility. The best day-to-day decisions are made at the local level.

Rick: OK, last question. What kind of long-term impacts will this shutdown have on schools?

Duncan: To a large extent, technology in education and particularly virtual education has been delivered by choice. In the future, choice will no longer be an option. The calendar is another area I see possibly changing. We have been on an agrarian calendar since education was organized as a governmental responsibility. For years, educators have discussed the need to move to a year-round schedule. The discussion has centered on reducing the long summer break and summer learning loss. As our educational leaders consider all the options in front of them to address this outbreak, I believe they should consider calling it summer at this point and adjust to a new year-round calendar. This would require bold decisionmaking at the state level by governors and state superintendents. They will make the best decision when all the options are on the table.

This post has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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