September 21, 2023


education gives you strength

How an unprecedented, indefinite crisis forced education leaders to change the ways school districts operate

Snowstorms. Hurricanes. Shootings. Educators and the students they serve have long been at the mercy of crises; most have some sort of plan for disasters.

But with coronavirus, a new national emergency forced districts to rewrite their playbooks. While it’s obvious how COVID-19 changed the structure of school, what’s less known is how districts had to overhaul their operations.

To continue working safely, they had to change, and fast: Lengthy in-person meetings went online, where districts had more control over interactions and public input. Transparency laws changed. Some districts, like Seattle Public Schools, enabled superintendents to spend large sums of money without bureaucracy through the end of the 2019-2020 school year. And many local districts did not let reporters observe their first days of classes, citing privacy concerns and technical issues.

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Schooling solutions amid COVID-19

This story was produced with support from the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship program.

Experts recommended efficiency. The Washington State School Directors’ Association listed seven model resolutions that school boards could use to respond to the pandemic, including one that called for an emergency suspension of policy “designed to allow boards to suspend provisions of board policies and/or whole policies as necessary to implement official guidance in response to COVID-19.” This resolution, per WSSDA’s website, “allows districts to take actions needed immediately without first laboring through the revision of existing policies.” 

But how are school boards and districts serving the public amid a pandemic that requires people to socially distance to stay alive? And how do school board members plan to continue this new digital way of governance indefinitely, making sure they avoid transparency pitfalls? 

One potential benefit: Districts have been forced to find new, creative ways to engage families who have been left out of decision making.

A new — and limited — way of interacting with the public 

One thing that’s helping districts: a watered-down Open Meetings Act. In March, Gov. Jay Inslee waived and suspended in-person meeting requirements. The Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington then gave government entities tips on holding public meetings remotely. People could attend meetings, but only using telephonic conference calls and/or web-based video conferencing platforms like Zoom or Google Hangouts. Per Inslee’s proclamation, public meetings also must “provide the ability for all persons attending the meeting to hear each other at the same time.” 

These formats can be limiting: Some school board members, like Robert Perkins of Evergreen Public Schools and Hilary Seidel of Olympia School District, said their districts’ Zoom contracts only allowed for 1,000 people to participate. Perkins said they’ve used YouTube to simulcast the meetings. 

Many school boards let community members leave public comments via email or voicemail. But Sandy Hayes, a veteran school board member in the Northshore School District said that online or phone communication often feels less human and more inflammatory.

“People are less filtered when it’s not them saying it.” Hayes said. “There’s something about the in-person connection that calms people down and has been more reasoned in their argumentation.”

The unprecedented crisis plan

It can be challenging for someone unfamiliar with education bureaucracy to know how school governance actually works and if it works well, even without a pandemic. Federal officials, governors, mayors, state board of education administrators, superintendents, school board members, and now even public health experts all have a say in what happens to teachers and students who spend eight hours together in, typically, a classroom setting. 

Some governors, like Texas’ Gov. Greg Abbott, have wrestled with local health authorities when it comes to who has the ultimate control to decide whether students should be learning inside classrooms, putting state funding on the line. Abbott takes a similar stance as federal leaders like President Donald Trump and the Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, believing that schools should reopen, even while coronavirus cases rise. And in New York City, the often-at-odds Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio have fought over who has the definitive authority over the nation’s largest school district. 

In contrast, Inslee said it was “unsafe” for many students to return to physical classrooms in the fall. Inslee has allowed local officials to have the final say — ultimately, over 94% of districts, including Seattle, chose to start remotely.

For Hayes, the biggest thing she said her board is struggling with is connecting with community and making sure there are no inadvertent meetings that would be considered a quorum on any site or event unless it is advertised as a public meeting.

And then, there’s the possibility of a “Zoom bomb.”

“Anybody around the world can then come in,” Hayes said. “When we are having a public meeting at a district office or at a school, we would advertise it and maybe somebody from the community that wanted to attend could attend, but you didn’t have to worry about somebody with an agenda 5,000 miles away attending.”

More on the coronavirus outbreak

A new way to make decisions

When COVID-19 cases spiked in King County this summer, the Renton School District was left to change tactics quickly. 

District officials first sought to allow kindergartners to third graders to come to school five days a week in-person. Fourth and fifth graders would come in three times a week. They began to execute this plan: They brought in additional custodians for deep cleaning. Enough personal protective equipment for staff. Plexiglas. 

And then: the spike.

Randy Matheson, Renton School District community relations executive director, said district decision makers talked often to the King County public health department and other King County school leaders.

“What you don’t want is for one school district to be open and one school district not to be open. If the positive cases and deaths continue to go up, then you want it to be a coordinated effort,” said Matheson.  

Renton decided to scrap the hybrid model to go completely remote.

“That was a very difficult decision,” Matheson said. “We’re going to cause families to shift how they think about their own personal life. Those families have to make hard decisions based on our decisions. We can’t take that lightly.” 

These choices might have some ramifications beyond COVID-19 safety planning.

Jessica Rigby, an education professor at the University of Washington who researches and works with school and district leaders on instructional practice and policy, wanted to hear about solutions that were productive, anti-racist and high quality. 

Rigby and her team interviewed 13 leaders from seven Puget Sound districts, including Northshore, Renton, Highline, Issaquah and Federal Way. 

She noticed that many were shifting toward communicating with families in new ways. Districts were able to provide translation services. They could also talk to families and students about learning in deeper ways.

“Instead of checking in and saying that your kid (has) these many work sheets… (Teachers are asking) about what kind of things are you doing at home? Tell me about it? Oh, let me connect this activity that you’re doing to one of our math goals,” Rigby said. 

For the fall, she wants school districts to not only make sure students have technological devices and internet access, but to focus on what kids are learning at home instead of losing, to prioritize family relationships, and to create processes and tools that center BIPOC, or Black, Indigenous, and People of Color groups. 

“I hope that we find the time to look at the things that we stopped before we bring it back…” Hayes said. “Let’s stop and say, well, what really works?”

How to improve school governance

As education leaders dive further into uncharted waters of indefinite digital, socially-distanced learning, it may cause many more changes. 

Kenneth Wong, an urban education professor at Brown University who specializes in school governance, said that the convergence of two sets of challenges – COVID-19 as well as the current social unrest – call into question the current structure of school districts.

School governance is confusing and convoluted when it comes to who has the authority over what, Wong said.  Districts, he said, usually don’t connect with other municipal systems like public health officials.

Now they have to. 

“So COVID-19 really called our attention to the fact that this pandemic needs public health professionals and social workers to work with the families,” Wong said. “We also need the public health officials and the nurses and the physicians to work very closely with schools.” 

Wong said that it’s time to break down barriers between government entities. Districts also need to rebuild trust with disenfranchised populations, such as Black families.

“So we know that when we do research on community engagement, a lot of the communities of color tell us that their voices are not respected, their voices are not heard, and their ideas are often marginalized,” Wong said.

He added, “Education is so close to the diverse communities, that governing bodies, the school board, the superintendent office, that they should take a first proactive step to make sure that they would turn this disenfranchisement around.” 

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