As COVID Emergency Ends, a Superintendent Calls on Education Leaders to Reflect

Like health workers, educators have spent much of the last three years in crisis mode.

And as the world moves from a crisis response to COVID-19 to long-term management of the virus, district leaders must take time to reflect on what they’ve learned and set a vision for their “new normal,” said Lisa Herring, the superintendent of Atlanta public schools.

The World Health Organization ended its COVID-19 global health emergency on May 5 and issued recommendations for health leaders to reflect, continue monitoring the virus, and prepare for future crises.

The announcement caused Herring to consider a similar vision for K-12 leaders, who will see the effects of the crisis for years. She spoke to Education Week about her own self-reflection and her priorities moving forward.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why do you believe this is an important time for school and district leaders to reflect?

Lisa Herring

There are several reasons for reflection. In March 2020, the guidelines and the blueprint needed for us to assess how to operate simply were not present. We’ve all been affected by questions about how to educate children, not only during the crisis, but even afterwards.

I believe strongly that we need a set of recommendations that are not only tied to how to navigate the educational system, especially K-12, before, during or after a pandemic, but how we navigate educating our children because of the impact of it.

Are you concerned that there could be another pandemic or similar crisis within your lifetime that schools should be ready for?

My wheelhouse is education, not so much public health and the medical field. But if nothing else, this has elevated the concern that whatever occurs from a global standpoint, that impacts us in K-12. I will always have a concern if we don’t have a blueprint or a guidebook to navigate us through the process.

There is an imperative that, if there ever is something else that disrupts us in this way, we must be prepared.

Very early in the crisis, in July 2020, you moved from your former role as Birmingham, Ala. superintendent to Atlanta. What was it like to take the helm of a new district at that time?

I felt fortunate to have been an experienced superintendent with some level of success in leading an urban district. But there is a challenge in inheriting an invisible culture. In April, May, June, July, all the way till December of 2020, I never saw a fully occupied school. All of the offices were vacant. There was no tour-the-city handshake experience.

It was, from day one, virtual engagement grounded in reactive steps to address a crisis. That’s complicated, regardless of the expertise you bring.

This opportunity to build trust and familiarity [with families and the community] was, without question, the greatest challenge.

Moving Out of Crisis Mode

When the World Health Organization ended its COVID-19 crisis declaration this month, it issued a set of recommendations to help public health officials move into the next phase of response to the virus. Herring has a similar list of recommendations for education leaders, who have spent much of the last three years navigating unfamiliar territory.

  • Responding to declining student achievement in math and reading through evidence-based interventions, consistency in leadership, and problem-solving, rather than finger pointing.
  • Prioritizing social-emotional learning and mental health support.
  • Working with private partners to continue innovation once federal relief aid expires.
  • Providing counseling support, employee assistance programs, and ongoing work to help educators who are “brilliant, dedicated, and worn out.”
  • Preparating for potential future crises and disruption.

There has been a lot of turbulence beyond COVID in the last three years: political tensions about what schools teach, racial justice protests, disagreements about health precautions. Was it difficult to navigate that while you were building trust with the new community?

Yes, it was difficult. Yes, exclamation point! There was a collision of issues that were so troubling and yet so necessary to highlight.

I, along with another superintendent, had [to deal with] billboards along a major interstate directing us to rethink our practices around how we were navigating the pandemic. And we have a responsibility to make the best decisions for our children.

There was also this need for a voice for our children as it relates to social justice. I established for the first time in history, in Atlanta Public Schools, a center for equity and social justice. And immediately we began hearing voices from our community—from children and parents. Most of that was support and some was a bit of criticism. It was the right work.

It was difficult. Then you compound that with the inability to shake hands, and to sit at the table for individuals to get to know you. Even in this past month, I am still going places hearing people say, “I finally get to meet you.”

After the [World Health Organization] declaration, I couldn’t help but wonder if there’s some residue to name and call out so that we’re not [working from a state of] trauma, but operating proactively in our work for children and our teachers.

There was a petition effort a few months ago calling for a change in district leadership. They cited state test scores. How do you respond to that?

We’ve had to establish baseline data. We did not have a universal screener using MAP [an assessment given several times a year to monitor student progress in math and reading] before my arrival. As a result, we’ve been much more transparent about that data.

There’s a need for clarification about “what are we doing?” and “how are we addressing this?” When you look at that petition, you’ll note that they’re referencing the data that we’ve been unpacking for the last eight months. There’s a need for clarification that we were not at a higher performance level before the pandemic, but we are poised now to do more about it.

It tells me that we have more work to do in not only informing our stakeholders, but helping them understand the data.

One of your turnaround strategies was extending the school day to give students focused time for academic recovery work. What have you learned from that?

I was just in a budget committee meeting sharing with the board that they should expect at the conclusion of this next school year an evaluative review and audit of the extended school day. [Editor’s note: Atlanta schools restructured their schedules to add a half hour of learning time to the elementary school day so that students could spend focused time mastering grade-level material they may have missed.]

We believe that it was important to bring an outside evaluator to help us identify not only the return on investment, but where we’ve seen best practices and performances. We anticipate having that feedback as we go into the fall, and we will determine what is important to continue, what to scale back, and what to stop.

The effects of the pandemic are going to be around for a while, right? There’s not, like, this date when we will stop feeling it. But the federal COVID relief funding for schools is going to end in 2024. That feels like a pretty abrupt thing, no matter how much you plan for it.

Those federal dollars have been a difference-maker for us to be able to move quickly and strategically around supporting student performance and addressing the issue of disrupted learning or learning loss. That being said, we knew upon receipt that they would be sunsetting.

We know we have to continue the progress we’ve seen with some interventions, and we are planning now for how to do that.

How do you reflect on these difficult years and let those reflections motivate you rather than deflate you?

Two words: for children.

Leadership is about work that is for children. As long as we can keep our focus on what is good for children, over adults, you find the fire to keep going and the fight to win.

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