Stronger on the Other Side: Considerations for School Boards as Recovery Begins

Diana Baker Freeman
As school districts begin the process of coming back together, reopening district offices and resuming some form of in-person services, questions are starting to arise about what that will look like. Most of these decisions are management decisions. While the superintendent will typically keep the board informed, the minute by minute decisions must be made by the administration. What, then, is the board's role in reopening schools?

School boards in their governance role serve as the example and ambassadors for the district. A modern governance board embraces the role of trustee, taking seriously the opportunity to create a district culture that strives for excellence, views mistakes as learning opportunities and sees their work as one of constant improvement'looking ahead rather than behind. This is the time to partner with the professional educators to do everything we can to safeguard student learning. Every question should be asked in the tone and spirit of someone who is deeply committed to the mission; the staff should feel that. We need a fail forward mentality where information is data from which to learn, questions are asked with a growth mindset and where 'us versus them' thinking fades into the realization that there is only us. If the COVID-19 crisis taught us anything, it is that.

With regard to the culture of your district:

This is your time: Embrace your role of taking care of your community.

As community leaders, all public officials are entrusted to care for the stakeholders of their community. After being chosen and elected by neighbors, taxpayers, and citizens, the good of the organization and how it contributes to community culture should be at the forefront of every elected official's thoughts. Governing is setting the direction and creating a culture for the place you call home. Creating a positive culture through adopting belief and vision statements and carrying those out can have a cascading affect in a community.

Questions for board members to ask:

  • Do we have a vision statement in place for the district? Belief statements?
  • If not, what time can we put on the calendar to discuss and create a vision statement?
  • Are our actions, communications, and decisions reflecting those statements?

Model respect and pride in order to cultivate that in the community.

Crisis situations can and do create chaos. Bringing calm and reassurance in a community is a primary function of any elected community board. Nerves become frayed, voices become impatient and tired minds sometimes overlook the obvious. A board that has discussed its values and come to consensus on beliefs is better equipped to take that notion into its work in the community. Times of distress are where an organization can sink or where they can shine. Anytime should be an 'all hands on deck' moment but that is magnified in a crisis as well as the recovery; no one should be above doing any job that is needed. Creating a culture of pride and respect requires work every day so that when crisis hits, it is second nature to continue that commitment.

  • What did the board do to support district efforts?
  • How could we have done more in our governance responsibilities?
  • Were we visible? Were we unified in our message?

Celebrate the people on the front lines.

In times of crisis, we see 'front line' employees going the extra mile over and over again. Make sure that those people are being taken care of and are celebrated publicly as the district comes back together. Many employees have been tweeted about or featured on Facebook, but as the whole comes back together, take a moment for the socio-emotional wellbeing of staff members that may not have even had time to process all that has happened. Celebrate the successes and the instances of 'heroism.' At the same time, many staff members have suffered loss and the board should be cognizant of, and acknowledge that as well.

  • What have we done as a board to celebrate staff?
  • What are we doing to attend to the socio-emotional needs of all district members (students to staff)?
  • How are we cultivating a culture of resiliency and joy in our district?

With regard to the Crisis and Recovery Plans:

The board should evaluate the response of the organization to the crisis.

Once the dust clears, the board should take what it has learned and look at their policies, revising policies that inhibited process or progress. Recognize where policies were not serving the board in terms of current technology and surprise issues that surfaced during the crisis. They should also take the time to examine their vision and beliefs. Focusing on these amid any crisis will allow the board to coalesce around the message they want to send before panic and uncertainty overwhelm the public.

  • Do we have a crisis plan? Did we follow it? Does it include mid to long term plans for continuity?
  • Where were we successful? Where do we need to improve?
  • Did our response and communications reflect our beliefs and vision?
  • Are we using data to drive our decisions? Is the data available to everyone?

Involve a representative from the most impacted areas of your organization in decision making and meet frequently.

While a crisis plan needs to be developed in advance, no plan can predict the specific needs to deal with a unique emergency situation. Just as many organizations had a Crisis Team, they need to have a Re-entry Team. No one person can have all the information or should be saddled with all the decisions. How decisions will impact different constituencies, teams, families, and individuals needs to be assessed. Creating a team from across the board ensures that many perspectives are represented.

  • What is the data on student engagement during the SIP virtual learning period?
  • What steps were taken to address special needs of students with learning differences?
  • Are we communicating with key audiences about issues facing the district?

Stakeholders want to hear from you.

Communication is key in any crisis. Consistent communication is key to maintaining public trust. Even if the communication is, 'We don't have all the details, but are monitoring the situation,' patrons want to know that they can trust you to stay on top of things and respond as needed. They need confidence and calm. Updated and regular communication helps them see that your organization will be the place they turn to for information they can trust.

  • Did we have a centralized messaging and communication center?
  • Did we adequately publicize it?
  • How are we measuring the success of our response in the community?
  • How are we fostering confidence in our reopen plans?

The challenge is the unknown'be prepared to see the response through for as long as needed.

With some emergencies, it is easy to see when things will be over; the rain will stop falling or buildings will be repaired. With a crisis like COVID-19, it is hard to see where it will end so the challenge in some situations is sustainability of services and maintaining morale. Leadership is key in sustaining the response. Schedules may need to be adjusted, allowances made for family concerns, or fiscal reallocations for resources. A successful crisis team along with the board will monitor the situation and adjust as needed to effectively maintain support as long as needed.

  • What considerations have been made with respect to staggering start times, mealtimes, playground, or gym usage?
  • Has the school calendar for 20-21 been adjusted to allow for ongoing closures, quarantines, and opportunities to accelerate learning to combat the COVID slide?

With regard to facilities, technology, and budgeting:

Consider current resources and begin to prioritize.

Maintaining current schedules of assets, facilities, and maintenance is not only key for activities such as budgeting, they are key in effectively responding to a crisis. You have to know what you have in order to know what you need. As districts move forward and prepare for the expected budget cuts, it is important to know where you stand so you can prioritize maintenance and spending. Reopening is going to require much more in terms of cleaning, disinfecting, and protective equipment for facilities and staff.

  • Do we have a maintenance schedule for all campuses? Does it prioritize needs and earmark those that require immediate attention?
  • What spaces or facilities could be repurposed to allow for social distancing?
  • What health and safety protocols are we putting in place to keep both staff and students safe?

Double down on technology.

That's right, even as we come back together in face to face formats, it is time to utilize technology in more meaningful ways. It is tempting to look forward to going back to our 'old normal' that rarely integrated technology. COVID-19 closures exposed huge cracks in education from a technological sense. It also brought home the fact that technology is the primary tool to adapt to most circumstances. While many students are proficient with 'pop' technology, they could not find where their Word doc had saved or follow the thread of an email. Conversely, many teachers struggled to create and post videos that students do in TikTok all the time. Every day needs to involve technology and district leaders need to model that. To set aside virtual meetings and go back to asking for paper agendas is to lose momentum with our communities.

  • What access level do students have to the internet?
  • What can we do to improve that?
  • How are we training and improving skill levels for everyone in the district?
  • Are we collaborating with key stakeholders to creatively resolve issues?

Prepare now to advocate with state and federal officials.

One thing the COVID-19 shutdown has highlighted is gross inequities in our education system. Something as simple as access to the internet has long hindered many students in academic pursuits, but so many of them adapted quietly. They worked in the library or parked outside a coffee shop to tap into free Wi-Fi. Many of them also quietly fell through the cracks. All schoolwork going virtual exposed that 30% of students were without access. Many schools compensated with hotspot distribution or accommodated by creating paper packets that were mailed or delivered. But many students simply quit trying in a world they could not overcome. Schools did not always have the tools to help. Similarly, decisions about school closings, school reopening, calendars and academic accountability have often been dictated at the state or federal level leaving schools with little flexibility to adapt for their local needs. Board members have a responsibility in actively advocating for a change in laws to allow for local control and to ensure that the federal agencies that can impact access leverage their power.

  • Have we lobbied the FCC to wield its influence over telecommunication companies as well as to earmark some of the billions of dollars under its own power to get schools connected?
  • Have we partnered with local providers to devise a plan to ensure our impoverished students can get access?
  • Have we communicated with state and national representatives that schools need equity in access, local control to respond appropriately to crisis, and to prioritize school funding even in the face of loss of tax revenue?
  • Have we partnered with our state association and the NSBA to make our voices stronger in advocacy?
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Diana Baker Freeman

Diana Baker Freeman is a Senior Customer Success Manager for Diligent Mission-Driven Organizations. She holds an MS in Education Leadership and has taught in public schools and at the university level. After being elected as a school board member she developed a deep understanding of board members' roles, and how they drive improved educational outcomes.

As a public school trustee, Diana was nominated and accepted to Leadership TASB, through the Texas Association of School Boards, and graduated as a Master Trustee. Diana became a Board Development Consultant for the TASB and has led boards through strategic planning, goal setting, ethics training and the examination of roles and responsibilities of board members. She has presented at various state-wide, regional and national conferences and developed online training for TASB as well as the Southern Regional Training Consortium.