This last 15 months or more has been unlike any other for most district leaders. All are still navigating situations they have never been prepared to deal with nor had any formal training on.
In a recent survey, fifty Midwest school district superintendents were asked for one word that described the last year during the COVID-19 pandemic. The top results were: “chaotic,” “challenging,” “unique,” and “crazy.”
One of the benefits and challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic is using the extra money schools received from the federal government to manage the “chaotic,” “challenging,” and “unique” educational needs of students and staff. The extra funding is certainly welcome but also presents new questions of how to leverage these resources to improve schools and meet the unique learning needs of all students.
Due to the stress, increased demands, and lack of staff or community support (in some cases) many district leaders have contemplated leaving their job or moving districts. Education Week reported in August 2020 that 45% of that pandemic conditions are prompting them to leave the job sooner than they had previously planned, according to a survey from the National Association of Secondary School Principals. No superintendent, serving in a large or small district, is immune to the challenges and public criticism throughout the pandemic.
A survey was sent by Grundmeyer Leader Services after Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds were made available to gauge how school districts intended to address learning loss and would look different after the pandemic. Fifty Midwest superintendents responded, offering insights to how they were leveraging the federal money and their feedback offers hope for true long-term school improvement and also calls into question if the increased funds to schools will truly make schools better after the pandemic than before.
In the survey, superintendents were asked to rank the areas to which they devoted the most attention. The most time-consuming tasks reported were “learning recovery” and “mental health for students and staff.” Other areas of priority were “recruiting and/or retaining staff” and “calendar or schedule changes.”
This was really no surprise when reviewing the data because anyone who watched the news realized how school leaders were trying to decide on how learning would look based on the number of positive cases in their buildings and counties.
For district leaders who are planning for next year, many choices will be available to tackle these challenges. The primary focus for 55% of survey respondents is to address learning loss with the extra funds they were receiving from the pandemic and ESSER, which have been earmarked specifically to address learning loss. However, many superintendents are choosing to spend these monies on heating and cooling systems, building projects, and other initiatives that are further away from the direct impact on students.
The strategies for addressing learning loss identified on the survey were:
- More time/focus on core content: 46%
- More teachers or staff: 26%
- Summer school: 20%
What to Consider
One dilemma facing education is that some district leaders are hoping to go back to a new normal that was much like education before the pandemic, and may not fully leverage the funding and urgency to improve their system.
However, for innovative or progressive district leaders, the pandemic may be the catalyst needed to truly reform or refocus their system. Social and emotional health of students and staff, the need for new learning models, hiring and retaining teaching talent, and the potential hybrid or virtual learning were among the priorities cited by superintendents who responded to the survey.
No doubt that this is a pivotal time in the history of American education. Schools will most likely never get more funding than they are receiving now thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. The competition for students will increasingly become more fierce with K-12 schools offering more online learning options and being innovative about how they prepare students for college and careers.
While district leaders are dedicated to improving or finding a solution to a current challenge, there are many concerns in the field that these approaches may lack three specific things:
A holistic approach. Many decisions are being made in silos, a problem the education field cited as a top barrier for any type of innovation. If district leaders are piecemealing solutions, they will likely end up frustrated and with products that are incompatible. Educators should be looking at resources like IMS Global and finding solutions that are interoperable.
Strategic foresight. As mentioned, many districts are planning to use or have used these funds for ongoing expenses. Using these one-time funds for the workforce and even technology that will need to be refreshed in 3 to 5 years is concerning. Some districts have not aligned these monies with a current 5-year strategic plan, making two plans run parallel without remembering the true goals of the district.
Future funding implications. If this incredible influx of cash does not show significant gains in academic achievement, policymakers will not be easily convinced to provide any additional funds, and could in fact, reduce state funding budgets for education. The result may also lead to solutions such as education savings accounts and opportunities for families to decide how funding is spent for their students.
Because of the extra ESSER funding to schools, many districts have been focusing on hiring more teachers. With the extra educators, schools hoped to provide more one-on-one intervention time for students, ramp up instruction for special education students, and offer counseling for students in need. The barrier to this effort has been a lack of candidates entering the profession and other certified staff who are nervous about working in a school system with the health risks that come along with it.
Many districts have turned to retired and substitute teachers to fill the temporary void. Many states also loosened the regulations around collecting retirement benefits for retired teachers and made it easier for support staff to get their substitute teaching authorization.
In this newfound reality, there is a responsibility for district superintendents to leverage the resources that will benefit their system long-term. Every choice a superintendent and school board make will have a consequence. Now is the time to take a step back, a deep breath, and look at what we think the future workforce will look like. The systems we design today will make a difference when it comes to how competitive the U.S. is in future markets. If we want students to be ready for the future, we have to teach to that.
Hopefully, 10 years from now, we will look back and be proud we leveraged the resources provided to truly make a sustainable difference with our schools.