Leaders of Illinois and Ohio school districts share challenges of continued learning amid COVID-19 pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a major impact on the national school system. During a recent EDEngage session, Legat Architects hosted an online open forum that brought together Midwestern district superintendents to learn about the challenges that they’ve confronted with the quarantine.
The session revealed many examples of strong leadership ranging from acting quickly to equip students with e-learning capabilities to ensuring that all students have access to food. Each district that participated in the forum has gone above and beyond the call of duty to ensure the social and emotional wellness of their staff and students.
We’re All in This Together: Crisis Communications
Northridge Local Schools (Northridge, Ohio) learned on Thursday, March 12 that the following Monday would be its schools’ last day before closing due to coronavirus. Superintendent Scott Schmidt and his team, meeting late into the night, decided to make Friday the last day and have students take home everything they needed.
The Sunday night before schools closed, the Northridge administrative team hosted a Facebook Live event during which they acknowledged questions that had been asked but did not provide answers. “The situation was changing way too quickly for us to provide valid long-term solutions,” said Schmidt. “This was just an opportunity for the community to take a deep breath and show that we’re all in this together.” Since then, the district has used its website to answer questions.
Other districts are taking similar steps to listen and keep their staff connected. For instance, Dr. Peter Hannigan, superintendent at Hawthorn School District 73 (Vernon Hills, Illinois), said that his district is following the Illinois Association of School Administrators’ three priorities: physical/mental wellbeing, communication, and remote learning. To keep in touch, the district has hosted everything from online principal coffee chats to video conferences within specific schools.
The Saturday morning before Addison School District 4 (Addison, Illinois) closed, Superintendent John Langton met with his leadership team. They determined their small team would not be able to individually reach each of the district’s more than 500 employees. As an alternative, the team tweaked its snow emergency call tree and came up with a plan for principals to make “intentional contact” with every staff member. During the next few days, they reached all but four of the 500 staff members.
Moreover, when Addison students and staff left school the afternoon of Friday, March 13, they did not know that schools would be closed on Monday. Thanks to strong planning, the district was able to check in on all but 20 out of its 4,000 students.
Now districts face another challenge: how will students be able to access their personal belongings?
Both Illinois and Ohio have stipulated that all students under the age of 18 qualify for free breakfast and lunch during the coronavirus epidemic. Consequently, districts have scrambled to find ways to get food to students.
When she first anticipated closures, Roselle School District 12 (Roselle, Illinois) Superintendent Dr. Mary Henderson was not satisfied with the options her vendors initially provided and therefore asked them to refine their offerings. In the meantime, she and her staff picked up groceries and gift cards for students in need. The vendor then came back with better options.
Langton, who works in a region where nearly 50% of families are low income, teamed with three other local districts to distribute more than 70,000 meals to children throughout their communities. One day a week, families can go to designated locations to pick up five days’ worth of meals for their children.
“I would have said there’s no way we could have done this,” said Langton, “but so many people came through: our food vendors, volunteers, paid lunchroom personnel . . . everybody chipped in.”
Northridge Local Schools has also adopted a one-day pickup for five days of meals strategy. Since its schools are in rural areas, the district has worked with churches and other organizations to establish more convenient pickup points for some of its families.
To alleviate school pickup congestion, some districts have even tasked bus drivers with distributing meals to neighborhoods.
Now that Illinois and Ohio schools have closed for the remainder of the year, Langton and others worry that if the economic downturn interferes with food service providers, districts could face an even greater battle.
Another major obstacle that districts have encountered during the pandemic-induced quarantine is how to continue educating students. The districts in our forum have been quick on their feet to adapt.
Over five days, teachers in Hawthorn School District 73 used Google’s platform to create a menu of activities for students to work on at home. Hannigan and his team then launched a district-wide survey, which revealed that families preferred a set schedule with specific activities versus a menu of options. The district fine-tuned its website offerings with daily schedules and trained five substitute teachers on remote learning so they could fill in if staff members went on leave.
The Hawthorn district also deployed roughly 700 devices to families that have either no devices or smartphones only. Additionally, the district is in the process of arranging 150 hotspots for families that do not have internet access. Hannigan and his team also took the opportunity to rewrite tech-specific grants; he encourages other districts to do the same.
Teachers at Northridge Local Schools moved into Google Classroom so quickly that the district chose to use that as its primary e-learning tool. Northridge’s website also offers a Learning at Home Resources and Information page including video updates, grab and go lunch info, and answers to frequently asked questions. There is a link for parents to ask questions or share comments.
What About Grading?
The spotlight on grading was strong before the quarantine; now it’s even more intense. Henderson, recognizing the difficulties that parents face while working from home, has embraced the Illinois State Board of Education’s “do no harm” approach. Roselle students’ GPAs can only increase during the quarantine.
Henderson’s district also has the e-learning needs of special education students covered—each grade level has a full-time special ed teacher orchestrating Google meetings, family calls, and one-on-one calls to help kids navigate online tools.
Schmidt, too, said that students in his district can only increase their GPAs. The Northridge district’s message, he said, has been “trying to keep the peace and keep kids engaged. If kids want to put forth the effort and spend individual time with a teacher, then that teacher will work with them to increase their grades.”
The Days Ahead
Recently, my colleague Robin Randall went for an early evening walk. She noticed that a neighbor’s child had used tape and chalk to create a stained-glass design on the sidewalk. A few doors down, Robin saw a similar drawing. Another block, and there was another stained-glass sidewalk creation. This is an excellent example of how teachers are overcoming quarantine obstacles to reach out to their students and keep them engaged.
As a parent, I’m grateful to everything that districts have done to support students, whether it’s hosting meetings, answering questions, developing home learning programs, or, as in the case of Rockdale School District 84’s (Illinois) Dr. Paul Schrik, working with the local police chief.
In the days ahead, Northridge’s Schmidt urges school leaders to “strike a balance” by considering the stresses that teachers face, as well as the pressures of parents who try to balance workloads with helping their children.
The most important thing, according to Langton, is that district communities “remain patient, don’t take things personally, and continue to lean on each other.”
A Call to District Leaders: Join the Conversation
During our next EDEngage forum slated for May 5, we’re going to be asking district leaders what they’ve learned over the past few weeks, what’s working and what can be improved, and how they are addressing graduation. If you are a superintendent or school administrator interested in joining the discussion, please contact me.
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