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COVID-19: Listening to Those in the Trenches Part III

Irvin Scott, a senior lecturer at Harvard, was the force behind the launch of the Harvard Graduate School of Education's Leadership Institute for Faith and Education, which convenes education and faith-based leaders. Irvin's background includes more than 30 years in education, including years in schools and districts as a teacher, principal, assistant superintendent, chief academic officer, as well as five years as a foundation executive. This week on the blog, Irvin will be sharing conversations he's had about the realities of educating from home and reopening with those "in the trenches": parents, teachers, leaders, and, of course, students.

—Rick Hess

Today we conclude this week of blogging with system leaders from Indiana, Maryland, Nebraska, North Carolina, and two students, one from New York and another from Massachusetts.

COVID-19 Does Not Discriminate

First, I pick up with system leaders from across the country. These individuals work with principals, central-office leaders, and superintendents who lead schools and districts. However, as we have heard so many times, "COVID-19 doesn't discriminate!" Consequently, like the parents, teachers, and principals we've talked to, these leaders are having to make sense of how to live with the personal effects of this virus, while maintaining a focus on ensuring that teaching, learning, and leadership occurs—at the highest level possible—for America's children. And, speaking of those children, the last group that we'll hear from are students. While the focus of these blogs has been on the educators who are teaching and leading during these unprecedented times, I did not feel right about ending the blog without putting the voice of a couple of students into this reflective space.

The Urgency in Their Voices

One of the things that I heard in the voices of system-level leaders was a sense of urgency. Perhaps it has something to do with their training. Maybe it speaks to the milieu of complexities that comes with having a larger span of control. I suspect the urgency results from the fact that COVID-19 is unprecedented and is having such a lethal effect on communities, particularly for those most vulnerable—where all of these system leaders do their work. As the district leader from Indiana said, "Even as I think about how this COVID-19 is mutating, and now kids don't really have temperatures, but they're getting really sick and having to be hospitalized, I'm just terrified of kind of going along with opening up, and then a child dying or a staff member dying on my watch." This statement represents that sense of responsibility: "in locus parentis," which has personal, professional, and legal implications for system leaders. Another leader who runs her own nationally focused nonprofit, which provides consulting services for organizations, expressed a concern in making sure we have high-quality data and information regarding this virus. She elaborated: "I'm working with seven child-development centers nationally around unsheltering for kids 0 to 5. [We can do this], but we must think about all the risks. What happens if a staff member passes away, if a child gets sick and infects their entire family? We must essentially think of all these situations and how we are going to address them. What about people who should be employed but are high risk, what do we do with them?"  

One of the statements that stayed with me was, "We can do this." I did not hear a sense of hopelessness or panic but rather a desire to be listened to so that others can truly understand the challenges and risks that come along with leading during COVID-19. As they made abundantly clear, all of this gets magnified when you are leading in America's most vulnerable communities.

The Personal and Professional Collide

As with all the parents and educators that I have spoken to during this series, you cannot be an American educator and not be experiencing a collision between your personal and professional identities. For example, the system-level leader from Nebraska talked about living and working in the middle of the country, where there appears to be a "false sense of security, and I hear those comments regarding this being something that only 'the Coasts' have to deal with." She explained the difficulties of leading in a place where the virus is viewed as less pernicious, while seeing families and friends die from it.

The nonprofit leader from North Carolina spoke about the awkwardness of going on maternity leave when work was face-to-face, yet returning as everything turned virtual. She also spoke poignantly about the mixed emotions of welcoming a newborn at this time: "We haven't been able to see family or do the things you would imagine doing as you introduce your son to the world. It's essentially the new normal."

The leader from Indiana also talked about leading the system for which she is responsible, while raising and educating her own children. She was struck by the fact that while she was more physically present than ever, she was still very distant. As she put it: "I'm physically around my children more than I have been in a long time. I'm not running off to meetings, they're not running off to this thing or that thing. We're all in the same house, but I'm on Zoom calls every day from 7 in the morning to 7 at night, at a minimum, which is really grinding and grueling, and it's as if there's no space in between. So, hopping from thing-to-thing-to-thing is really exhausting mentally and spiritually. And my kids are sort of fending for themselves." At the same time, she continued, it is making her wonder about those families where the children are more vulnerable than her own. Again, you could hear the urgency in her voice as she talked about ALL her children, in her home and beyond.

A Focus on Equity and Innovation

Like many of the parents, teachers, and principals I spoke to, these leaders stressed the fact that COVID-19 is exposing the inequities in educational opportunities in our country. Every one of these leaders talked about this being an opportunity to truly do something about inequities, provided we have the courage to do so. They also talked about a chance to do things differently. "How do we take remote learning to the next level?" asked one of the leaders. This leader was already beginning to wonder about how virtual learning created opportunities to ensure that all students experienced impactful teaching and learning. She continued, "How do we have really strong teachers do a set of core instructional videos, so all 5th graders get high-level quality instruction?" Another one of the leaders talked about improving professional learning for all teachers and school leaders. As one of them put it, "We cannot assume just because teaching and learning is happening online, that suddenly it is great!" Teachers and leaders still need opportunities to learn and grow together, perhaps more than ever. As former teachers, teacher leaders, and school principals, each has firsthand experience working with parents and students, and you could hear that lasting connection as they spoke.

Ending with Student Voices

Keeping the focus on students and their communities is essential to the work we do as educators. To remind myself of this truism, I reached out to a couple of students to ensure their voices were in this "space" and these reflections. The first student is a high school student from Massachusetts. When I asked her about the impacts of COVID-19, she shared an interesting fact with me: she was previously home-schooled for seven years, so she was used to working from home. "I was somewhat used to managing my time," she said. At the same time, she expressed deep frustration with not having what she called "human connection, aside from Zoom calls and Facetime." But she also noted that the quarantine has given her opportunities and connections that may not have happened otherwise. She spoke about being able to participate in virtual classes from other institutions as well as an internship she has with a lab. This latter point made me wonder about opportunities to extend students' learning beyond the school walls.

The other student I spoke with is a college senior who was graduating from an upstate New York college with a degree in mathematics. She spoke somewhat despondently about not having a live commencement. What raised her level of regret was the fact that she is a black student attending what she referred to as a "PWI," a Predominantly White Institution. She went on to talk about how "the struggle is a little bit different for us, and it just means a lot [when you make it through successfully]. It has a different meaning for every student, but it just would have been nice to have been acknowledged. And that is a big thing." I tried my best to remind her that she has a lot to be proud of and COVID-19 will never change that reality. She smiled and thanked me. But as with all these conversations, the fact remains that this pandemic continues to affect us in ways that we could never imagine.

In closing, I want to thank all those who took time out of their busy schedules to share their hearts and minds with me. I trust that these blogs remind us all of the importance of connecting with and listening to those who are closest to the daily work of raising, teaching, and leading America's children.

—Irvin Scott

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