Seeking School Certainty in Uncertain Times?

Most of us are getting tired of hearing the phrase “new normal” in reference to our lives the past three months. Slightly more frustrating – and unrealistic – may be hearing those who yearn for the time, be it next week or next month, when things return to the old “normal” and we go back to doing and behaving as we long had.

Last week, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy was asked about the state’s plans for reopening. At first, Murphy stated that his state departments of education and health were “wargaming” scenarios for reopening the public schools in the fall. He followed that remark the next day with the revelation that he intended to follow the guidelines offered by the New Jersey School Boards Association, Searching for a New Normal in New Jersey’s Public Schools.

For some, the NJSBA recommendations are a common-sense approach building on the CDC guidelines to address the needs of a state hit particularly hard by coronavirus. To others, it appeared an untenable future, one that drastically detours from how children actually behave in school buildings and from what would be possible in 2020-21 school classrooms.

In the interim, parents and educators and learners are growing more and more frustrated with how to navigate the virtual classroom in a meaningful way. Many of those parents – seeing the stresses and emotional toll the ongoing lockdown and school closures have had on their children – are desperate to have those yellow buses rolling and students sitting next to each other in desks, even if they are socially distanced.

That desperation, though, has been met largely with silence by school decisionmakers. School superintendents are speaking in relatively united voice that they can make no decisions about school plans and school calendars until they receive guidance from the state. The cycle is all too expected. Parents look to the schools for answers. The schools say they can’t act until the state gives them direction. The governor and state officials can’t act until they have received guidance from the state school boards association and the state teachers union. The school boards and the teachers unions can’t act until they have feedback from local school leaders. Rinse and repeat. Who will actually make a decision?

At a time when we need educators the most, leaders to innovate and ensure student learning and bring stability to the lives of young people in dire need of such, we are collectively waiting for direction from on high. We are waiting for permission to begin addressing our educational needs, rather than asking for forgiveness if some of our steps may need adjustment later on.

Case in point is the “letter” released over the Memorial Day holiday from David Aderhold, the superintendent of West-Windsor Plainsboro, NJ Public Schools (the school district I send my own children to), to Governor Murphy. In his missive, Dr. Aderhold, who also serves as the president of the Garden State Coalition of Schools and the New Jersey Network of Superintendents, posed 91 questions to Governor Murphy, questions that superintendents say they need answered before they can begin planning for the new school year that begins in three short months. And these are just “a list of 91 Questions to get us started.”

Yes, asking and documenting these questions is important to the strategic planning process. Some are global questions that many have been asking for months. “Who gets to determine the acceptable risk of foreseeable harm, illness, and potentially death in our public schools should we return from virtual instruction to in-person instruction?” “What will be the criteria and parameters to reopen schools?” And “What will be the budgetary impacts for school districts based upon the economic challenges realized due to the public health crisis?”

Some read like questions we should want our local communities to be answering, and don’t want a governor or a state legislature meddling in. “Will accommodations be made to allow families who wish to keep their children home in the fall? Will those children be allowed to participate in virtual instruction or will they be required to withdraw their children to be homeschooled by their parents?” “Will there be modifications to our school day?” “What are the contractual impacts to the myriad of possible scheduling solutions?” “What are the financial impacts in order to implement social distancing requirements?” “Will school districts continue to offer extended daycare programs (before school and after school programs)?” “How many staff members will be needed to accomplish this?”

Others are larger questions that reflect the future of teaching and learning in general, particularly when offered in a hybrid environment. “What will music classrooms look like in the Fall 2020?” “How do you socially distance physical education classes?” “What professional development needs will school districts have in order to assist their teacher’s enhancement of virtual instructional practices?” “How will we teach programs that require hands-on interactions in close proximity, such as Robotics, Woodworking, Culinary Arts, and Fashion Design?”

And other questions are those that public schools should have and should continue to be asking regularly, key questions that are essential to k-12 public education in the United States but that may be accentuated by the current situation. “How will school districts assess education gaps and remediate learning needs?” “How will the implementation of IEP’s for Special Education students be met in a virtual, hybrid, or partial day academic program? What is the state’s guidance for Extended School Year programs for students who receive Special Education services?” “How will we assess which students need academic support and remediation?” “How will school districts address the digital divide that still exists months into the pandemic?”

It is important for school leaders throughout New Jersey and across the United States to document all of these questions, while also adding to the list as situations evolve and as new issues arise. After all, part of successful leadership is anticipating what could happen, even if it means playing devil’s advocate and thinking through the absolute worst-case scenarios, including those that estimate that New Jersey public schools will need a supply of 900 million masks for the upcoming school year.

What we must avoid, though, is the perennial educational issue of perfect being the enemy of the good. Local leaders should not have to wait until they have comprehensive answers to each of these 91 questions (and their subparts) as well as new questions that arise in the coming weeks before they are allowed to begin substantial planning for the 2020-21 school year. In fact, superintendents and principals and teachers should have been empowered to begin long-term planning months ago, when we first locked the doors of our community public schools.

As a community, we also must accept that we will never have true certainty when it comes to this planning. We will need to weigh the risks of one action over another. We will need to realize that we will never receive complete assurance that not a single student or educator will get sick if only we devise the ideal plan. We need local leaders who, instead of waiting for permission before they start addressing these 90-plus questions, are prepared to apologize tomorrow for taking actions today. And we need state leaders who quickly empower those local leaders while guidance is being worked out at the state and regional levels, recognizing that decisions are needed today.

Now is the time to act. It is the time to help families and learners understand what the coming school year might look like. It is the time to help educators understand what their teaching environment may look like. It is time to help localities understand the financial and health realities of the school this fall. The answers might not be perfect, but in these uncertain times, the only thing we can be certain of is we need to be proactive, particularly when it comes to the future of our schools.

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