Few administrators felt prepared for the coronavirus pandemic that shut down schools in the spring, although many said they felt most prepared to equip students with laptops or tablets and to provide meals and other essential resources for families in need when schools shut down in spring, according to the Education Dive: K-12's COVID-19 Preparedness Survey.
The school and district administrators nationwide took the survey between July and August. The results provide a snapshot of where education leaders nationwide stood at the onset of the crisis — and how prepared they feel to address a similar emergency in the future.
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Going beyond the basic essentials is daunting
When the coronavirus pandemic forced schools to shut down in the spring, 56% of administrators reported they felt somewhat or very prepared to provide meal distribution or other essential resources to families in need. Another 18% reported feeling prepared in some ways but not in others.
When prompted to list essential resources they were able to provide for families in need, many listed meals, school supplies, books and hardware such as devices and Wi-Fi hotspots.
Indeed, making sure the needs of students and their families were met was priority No. 1 for leaders nationwide, as also shown by high school principals reporting in another recent survey that they adopted a whole-child focus to get through the spring.
But the transition to an entirely new learning model provided hurdles few were prepared for.
Few administrators felt prepared for a public health crisis like the coronavirus pandemic
While 62% reported feeling somewhat or very prepared to provide laptops or tablets as schools shifted to remote models, getting devices in the hands of students was only part of the battle. Just 42% felt curriculum was flexible enough to adapt to distance learning, 31% had teachers who were prepared for distance learning, and 38% were prepared to offer distance learning professional development for staff.
Further compounding these challenges, not all families had access to home internet access — and not always because they couldn't afford it. According to Pew Research Center data, a third of families with children between ages 6 and 17 with an average household income of $30,000 or less don’t have a high-speed internet connection at home, while only 6% of those whose families make more than $75,000 a year or more lack internet access.
Administrators felt most prepared about the availability of laptops/tablets for their students
While service providers in many areas of the country have stepped up to help close what has long been referred to as the "homework gap" during COVID-19 distance learning, students in some particularly remote rural areas have faced a hurdle of service not being available where they live to begin with. And in some cases, there aren't even nearby cell towers to tether a hotspot to.
"Sometimes it doesn't matter if kids do have the device. We're still left with the challenge of how do we help that child get internet service," said David Raleigh, superintendent of LaRue County Public Schools in Kentucky, in a follow-up interview to the survey. "We had to think outside the box in terms of taking some buses that already had wireless internet connection on them to certain areas within those communities that don't have internet access so people could pull up close by and log on and get some work done."
Raleigh said the district provided hotspots for lots of families, but "the hotspot only works if there's internet connectivity." "There's a few challenges there in terms of equal access to internet," he added.
A similar trend presents itself when it comes to how prepared administrators feel they are to provide varying degrees of safety measures in the event of a reopening: A sizable percentage are prepared to provide basics like masks (68%), cleaning and disinfecting (65%), and temperature checks (58%), but more complicated measures like social distancing and improvements to ventilation prove tougher to navigate.
Administrators feel most prepared in providing masks, cleaning and disinfecting if schools open in the fall
And across all cases, many of the hurdles come down to a question of funding. As an Arkansas district administrator shared in an open response section, "If you wonder why we would still be 'somewhat prepared' instead of 'very prepared,' it's due to funding or lack thereof. If we could afford it all, we'd do it in a heartbeat!"
Raleigh noted that his district is "deeply concerned" about the overall, long-term financial impact the pandemic will have on schools. In regard to safety measures, for example, May estimates from AASA, The School Superintendents Association, show it would cost an average district approximately $194,045 for personal protective equipment, $1.23 million to hire additional staff such as custodians and nurses, and $116,950 for health and disinfecting equipment.
Politicization, inconsistent messaging are issues
On top of the many technical challenges school and district leaders face, they've also been forced to contend with inconsistent messaging at the state and federal levels, as well as the greatest health crisis in a century becoming a divisive partisan issue.
"Uninformed parents and self interest groups have created a culture of mistrust and suspicion," a school leader from Southeast Michigan reported in their response. "The politicized nature of this health crisis is a huge detriment to addressing the needs of the whole child."
In Kentucky, Raleigh reported educators are suffering from "information overload" and "COVID fatigue."
"Consistent messaging from national leadership would go a long way in reducing the anxiety of parents regarding the reopening of schools," he said. In this sense, communication with families and the community have become essential for administrators nationwide.
"Even though there are inconsistencies at the national and state level, now you're trying to get parents — and even folks that don't have children in the district — to trust that you're going to make decisions that are best for their kids and the community," Raleigh said.
"It's very difficult, but then it becomes politicized," he added. "So sometimes when you're making decisions that don't agree with one group of people, it makes it look like you are leaning toward the left or toward the right."
To this end, LaRue County has focused messaging around the priority of preserving the health of students, staff and community, stressing that what happens in the community is going to impact schools and vice-versa. Facebook has been a crucial tool in doing this, and Raleigh said video messages in particular help put a face to the decisions being made.
Most feel prepared in at least some ways to address future surges or health crises
The district also used infection data from nearby districts like Hardin County, as well as the American Academy of Pediatrics, to support a decision to delay in-person reopenings until late last month. It is "about 70% in-person," Raleigh said.
In Fort Walton Beach, Florida, Liza Jackson Preparatory School Principal Kaye McKinley has felt similar frustrations.
"I think it is imperative that each school makes the decision on how to deliver instruction," McKinley said in an interview. "The principal knows her population better than anybody. Making unilateral decisions from the top down doesn't make sense."
As the leader of her district's only public charter school, she said she's basically making decisions for her school alone, and that communicating the importance of flexibility to staff and parents is key.
"I preface all my robo-calls with the statement that this is the information I have [for example] 'as of 4:00 pm on Oct. 5,'" she said. "I also took time in the beginning of the pandemic to make phone calls to all 865 parents to personally speak to them concerning the road ahead. I believe I gained their trust and they understand that I am trying my hardest to keep their children in school and safe."
While she now relies on a handful of resources that include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), local health department, a local infectious disease doctor and the state's charter school contact, McKinley was initially overwhelmed by an onslaught of information from various "experts."
"Too much information can bombard you from all sides and it becomes conflicting," she said.
Planning for an uncertain future is difficult
When it comes to future coronavirus surges or health crises, 49% of administrators reported feeling at least prepared in some ways to handle them. People in the school community testing positive, Raleigh said, "is inevitable."
"Be prepared for positive cases in your school and your district, and have a protocol in place for contact tracing and working with the health department and all those things," he reiterated. "Because it is going to happen."
Over the next year, many will also be faced with the challenge of catching up on learning losses incurred during spring shutdowns and summer break, closing gaps produced by what is being referred to as the "COVID slide."
"Don't get overwhelmed by all the resources that are thrown at you," McKinley said. "Be flexible and ask for support from your parents and staff. Let them know you appreciate their understanding. Don't lower your expectations for academic achievement even though it will be tough. Make sure you have a list of non-negotiables and hold people accountable."