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COVID-19: Listening to Those in the Trenches

Irvin Scott, a senior lecturer at Harvard, was the force behind the launch of Harvard Ed School'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, and 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

Facebook Sparks Conversations

A couple of Saturdays ago, I woke up, did my daily devotional, and then took a few minutes to catch up on Facebook (FB), where I connect with family members, friends, and former students and colleagues. It was at that time that I saw a post from one of my former doctoral students, Dr. Cheryl Camacho. Cheryl (she is OK with me sharing here) is a system-level leader in South Bend, Ind., where she oversees 2,100 students who are predominantly students of color. In her post, Cheryl was expressing her concern about the recent spate of "Returning to School" blueprints that were being published by various "Think Tanks," former practitioners, and thought leaders. Since I was one of those former practitioners that contributed to the AEI Blueprint, I read her post with heightened interest and angst. 

Cheryl's thoughtful, but candid, FB treatise is summarized in her own words here, "What I really want and need as someone who is responsible for the safety and education of 2,000 kids, is some thought partnership that respects and takes into consideration the specific needs of my families and staff." What I heard in this statement was a desire for those of us in positions of influence to listen and hear those "in the trenches."

That got me thinking, and as a result, I spent the week of March 18, Zoom-conferencing those who are "on the front lines" (to extend the metaphor): parents, teachers, students, principals, and system-level leaders from across the U.S.

During my blogs, my goal is to give voice to those in the trenches. Each day, I will talk about my conversations with different folks around the country from that week—everyone from a school parent in New York state, to a district athletic director from Pennsylvania, to a school social worker in Maryland, to teachers and a principal in Massachusetts, to system-level leaders from North Carolina, Maryland, Nebraska, and Indiana. And, to keep us all grounded, the last voices we will hear from are students.  

The Personal and Professional Collide

In my first interview with a parent from Upstate New York, it became apparent very early on how COVID-19 was affecting the way parents supported their children. Discussing parenting while trying to work from home she observed, "It's all blending together. There's no separation, so sometimes I just long for a state of normalcy." She described the joy of simply returning to a familiar drive when she had to go into work one day. At her house, it was becoming "extremely tough" to interweave creating a schooling environment for her two children—a daughter home from college, and a son in elementary school, with an IEP (individualized education program)—even with the help of her spouse.

Things being extremely tough took on a whole new meaning for the athletic director I interviewed from Pennsylvania who is a parent of four and who contracted the virus—along with his son. He and his wife, herself grappling with a serious illness, are trying to create some since of normalcy as they shelter in place. He spoke about feeling guilty for being away from work because of his illness, even though his "superintendent and the district team were very supportive." He spent most pf our conversation talking about student athletes and how the abrupt close of school was impacting scholarships and athletic aspirations. "The spring-sport seniors have missed their final opportunity to shine, so we've had to work with the NCAA to secure opportunities for students."

The elementary school social worker I interviewed also talked about the challenges of blending the personal and professional. "I feel for the parents and grandparents because I see the stress that it's having on them. Although my focus is on teletherapy with students, I am doing referrals for parents and families as well." As I listened to her, it became clear that this new window into the homes of her students is uncovering a plethora of issues like parents and grandparents feeling overwhelmed, which might otherwise go unnoticed.

Finding Silver Linings

Despite the challenges, these parents and educators are looking for silver linings in it all. The mother from N.Y. state had high praise for the school and educators, particularly those who supported her son. She spoke about gaining a new appreciation for teachers' experiences as they work with students, particularly those with IEPs. "It takes patience," she said, "and I will view things differently when my son returns to school."  The Pa. athletic director noted, "What this pandemic is highlighting is the haves and have nots, and it's coming through full force." The social worker from Maryland talked about the creativity and ingenuity of teachers, saying, "They are using XBOX and Playstation to deliver some of their instruction. They are looking for ways to engage students, and for some of my kids, it works."

The Path Forward

"Safety, Safety, Safety" were the words the athletic director from Pa. shared with me when I asked him to list his top three concerns as leaders prepare to reopen schools. For so many of the interviewees that I spoke with, they had a very high bar for what it would take for them to feel that it was safe to go back to school. The social worker from Maryland stressed the importance of social and emotional supports for students and training for teachers when they return. The mother from N.Y., who highlighted the difficulties of managing it all, still said, "It's not enough for the governor to say my son—who has asthma—can go back to school and be safe. There would have to be zero new cases and zero deaths."

What Keeps You Going?

To understand how they are making it through these challenging times, I ended by asking them what keeps them going.

The mother from N.Y. stated, "Looking forward to a new beginning. Really taking this opportunity to reinvent yourself and just hoping for the best. This is a learning experience for everybody ... for educators, as well. They're trying to do their best."

The athletic director from Pa. had one word: "family."

Finally, the social worker from Maryland paused, then asked me if it was truly OK to share, and she said, "My faith, prayers, self-care, and spouse are what keep me going through it all."  

—Irvin Scott

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