A Special Message to All School Leaders

When all is said and done, at the end of this pandemic year, I hope school leaders across the nation will be recognized as national heroes. With nearly 40 million K–12 students dependent on you from coast to coast, you had to find a way to educate them without a crisis road map. Neither did you have a timetable, because in the beginning it was inconceivable that this crisis would stretch much beyond a couple of weeks. A month later, the possibility of an open-ended timeframe was dawning on you. And the invaluable role of schools in society was dawning on parents, the media, elected officials and the public at large. 

In the earliest days, you tried to figure out where to begin: Providing breakfast, lunch and dinner for all the kids who relied on school meals just to survive? Developing a hybrid instructional plan and finding a scheduling genius who could implement it? Securing your buildings and acquiring the personal protective equipment (PPE) necessary to short-circuit a much more dangerous contagion than we first imagined? You quickly learned that you had to keep your focus on all those things at once—and you met the moment.

The logistics of establishing remote, in-person and hybrid learning solutions were staggering. Without much training, you had to figure out how to shift at least partly from in-class to online learning. Some of you, and your teaching staffs, distributed computer equipment to your students at their homes. Many of you put pressure on internet providers to offer families free access. With your unique people skills, you sought allies in your community to shore up connectivity wherever possible. You also had to attract and try your darnedest to keep qualified staff to teach in all three situations: online, in person, and both. 

And while you were pulling off these daily miracles, quite a few of you were dealing with multiple new aspects of the human condition. In all of our districts, students have vanished from the rolls. I’ve written at length about youngsters who’ve gone missing while you and your staffs searched online, and often in your cars, and then knocking on doors. This attendance crisis could have lifelong consequences, and you’ve been losing sleep over it.

The human condition also reflects sorrows closer to home. While some of your own family and friends were slipping away from the virus, you had to help your staffs and students deal with their trauma. Sometimes tragedy visited your school—a teacher, a cafeteria worker, a student’s parent. School leaders like yourselves weren’t immune. In New York, Dez-Ann Romain, a 36-year-old principal, lost her life early in the pandemic. No matter where you lived—California, Maryland, Michigan—you took each of these losses personally. But you carried on.

While juggling responsibilities and emotions, and in some cases never taking a day off, many of you generously contributed to your national union’s Issues Guide to Reopening School Safely, published in July. I can’t thank you enough. For this AFSA handbook, you came up with 17 ways to create a safe school environment, guided by three overriding considerations: the safety of students, school district employees and the community; prominent parental involvement in determining what a school day should look like during the “new normal”; and a generous infusion of funding to make possible all the safety measures. It is tremendously rewarding to see months later that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has now published a guide that almost exactly matches ours, but with the addition of contact tracing, which our schools would have had no way of accomplishing on their own.

You also have found time to be vocal on the legislative side, advocating additional funding for K–12 schools, including for cleaning and sanitizing, PPE and professional development. You have made it clear that a separate stream of funding is necessary for computer devices, hotspots and internet access services for the 12 million students who lack connectivity in their homes. AFSA has been pushing this agenda forward. Right now, the government is on the brink of passing a COVID-19 relief bill that would respond to nearly everything you’ve advocated.

Despite the unpredictable nature of the pandemic, it is possible that many schools will reopen fully in the fall. Various logistical hurdles in the strict CDC guidelines, as well as in AFSA’s, will have to be overcome if all schools are to open. This will not happen unless President Biden’s package, with its $130 billion to pay for all staff and safety needs, is fully implemented, and his vaccination plan is completed. But his would not even be a gleam in the eye of the powers that be if you had not already shown the way forward with your daily triumphs, against the odds.