Board-Savvy Superintendent

Reestablishing Norms at the End of a Dark Tunnel
BY NICHOLAS D. CARUSO JR./School Administrator, October 2022

WHEN THE PANDEMIC first appeared, it caused a major shift in leadership in many school districts. While I have spent a career teaching boards of education to think strategically, COVID-19 caused school districts to be focused tactically.

Our message to board members during the early stages was often to get out of the way and let superintendents do what they needed to do and to provide the resources needed to overcome the obstacles that popped up every day. Long-term strategic thinking had to go by the wayside in many districts, as directives from federal, state and local leadership took hold, sometimes arising daily or weekly.

As we see the effects of the pandemic slowly wind down (at least in one optimistic view), it gives us pause to think about what comes next. We often talk about returning to “normal” as a goal, but is that ever going to happen?

Preparatory Measures

So what are some of the things you as superintendent need to do to prepare your board of education for what comes next?

»No. 1: Equity.
On the broadest scale, the pandemic exposed major inequities in our education system. The gaps we have talked about for years were emphasized throughout the pandemic. Poor children and children of color fell further behind, as those inequities included personal technology and health care.

»No. 2: Remediation. Many children did poorly outside of the traditional classroom. Many had issues with classroom engagement, the inability to stay focused with little or no direct teacher contact. Many children experienced significant trauma, affecting their ability to stay focused and learn. Others were separated from the support systems they had received during pre-pandemic times, including counselling, health support and nutrition.

Along with all we’ll need to do to move forward, we will also need to help those affected by the pandemic to have as successful an educational experience as possible.

»No. 3: Return to long-term vision. It is time to refocus on the future. Revisiting long-term strategic planning, district improvement plans or district goals, our boards must reimagine what the future will look like. We need to include what we’ve learned over the past three years in that long-term vision. Certainly we need to figure out what changes in curriculum and instruction will need to take place. 

Technology plans must ensure that devices and connectivity are available to all and that devices are used effectively as teaching tools. Physical plant issues, such as fresh-air delivery, also need to be addressed.

Getting school boards to consider these issues while staying out of the weeds will be a challenge, particularly for those board members who came on board after the start of the pandemic and don’t really know how boards of education function during more typical times. Some of them were affected by the politicization of board elections during the last few election cycles and may have an unrealistic view of what their responsibilities and authorities are. Consider providing professional development for your board to help them transition back.

»No. 4: Support for your staff. Your district staff members were real heroes during the pandemic. Bus drivers and custodians, teachers and administrators, all worked tirelessly, trying to help students succeed during a difficult period. These staff members were dealing with their own anxieties and traumas as they were thrust into an environment they were little prepared for. They need support to restore normalcy in their careers.

For those still in the profession, you will need to ensure an environment that nurtures them professionally and emotionally. You also need to find qualified people to replace those who left the profession and make them feel supported going forward.

Professional development ought to include effective online teaching and learning in a digital world, a shortcoming exposed by COVID-19 in most locations.

My advice: Hold conversations with your board about transitioning so they understand that times are changing again, and the role of the leadership team must accommodate the new reality.

NICHOLAS CARUSO JR. is senior staff associate for field service and coordinator of technology with the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education in Wethersfield, Conn. Twitter: @gibsonjunkie