Know the Right Strategies and Tools for Large-District Leadership

Jennifer Rose Hale

It is difficult to process lessons from a crisis when that crisis is still going on. But enough time has passed and enough has changed since schools and organizations responded to COVID-19 to allow their leaders to consider how key steps taken early can reduce the impact of a crisis.

The impact of COVID-19 on Northside Independent School District (ISD) has been in direct correlation to the school district's size. Northside is the fourth largest district in Texas with 106,000 students. It has 120 campuses over 362 square miles on the northwest side of San Antonio. District leaders have their work cut out for them in an average year, so add the uncertainties of a pandemic, and the issues that have to be faced only grow exponentially.

Northside ISD may not have been fully prepared for March's shutdown'after all, who was?'but logical steps taken by district leadership enabled their schools to continue to operate.

Set Priorities Early

Creating ordered priorities cuts through the noise quickly and gives leaders needed structure for decision-making. Karen Freeman, Northside board member, explained, 'We came up with three very clear priorities. The first was to provide nutrition to our students who were in need. The second was the safety of our students as well as our staff. Even though students weren't at school, we had food service staff, volunteers, and technology staff delivering devices, all at our schools, so safety became a second priority. Then, of course, instruction'providing virtual instruction for everybody.'

With priorities in place, where to divert resources and how to organize decision-making became clearer. BoardDocs goal tracking can be employed to track updates on these priorities.

Maintain Adherence to Laws

Rules and regulations that apply to school boards and civic entities continue to apply during a crisis and must be considered. Freeman noted that board members had to be mindful of staying in compliance with open meetings rules that regulate trustees' private communications by not, for example, replying to all on text messages.

A district's board portal software provides a good solution for storing and sharing documents and communications related to an issue so that information is not being shared through and stored in texts and emails. Having a location that is the single source of truth for the most up-to-date information is imperative when regulations and policies are changing quickly.

Establish Metrics

Measuring the scope of a crisis and progress toward restoring normalcy is made easier by establishing a few thoughtful metrics early. The Northside board kept abreast of information coming from health experts and evaluated and continues to evaluate key metrics, such as infection positivity and hospitalization rates, in determining how and when to reopen schools.

The board recognized that it was critical to have 'everything in one place''health metrics, updates from the superintendent, parent communications and more. She said, 'While we were getting these updates on a daily or weekly basis, it was easier for us to go to one place to identify these types of items'not go through emails.'

As with compliance issues, having a single source of truth like that offered through BoardDocs allows education leaders to stay on top of specific issues related to specific goals or metrics.

Recognize Human Needs

People need rest to function and make decisions optimally. When new information is coming around the clock and decisions need to be made quickly, the instinct can be to keep going no matter the cost.

'Say I work on a Friday evening,' Freeman said. 'Rather than wait until Monday to email the superintendent, I would do that on a Friday night or Saturday. We realized as trustees we were all doing that, and the superintendent was responding to us all on the weekend.' The board acknowledged they needed to fit in breaks. 'We realized we all needed some downtime from social media and other forms of communication,' Freeman continued. 'So, unless there was anything that needed immediately, we wouldn't go through those text messages or emails.'

Recognizing the human need for rest allowed the team to sustain energy and creativity for long-term problem-solving. The searchability and user-friendly interface of BoardDocs can allow leaders to find updates and historical documents easily and stay on top of new developments without constantly being connected.

BoardDocs Makes Leadership Manageable in Any Conditions

The events of 2020 were a catalyst for Northside ISD to make the most out of BoardDocs' features after adopting the portal in January. School leaders are still managing their responses to the pandemic as circumstances change and new guidance is issued. Taking the lessons of the year and making use of the right tools can make a crisis more manageable whether a district is managing 10 schools or 120.
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Jennifer Rose Hale
Jennifer Rose Hale has over 20 years' experience with digital and employee communications in for- and nonprofit environments, including managing large-scale website launches and redesigns, copywriting for Fortune 200 companies and identifying and using goals and analytics to measure online performance and project success. Her writing and client areas of expertise include personal finance, science, technology and education.