Former Superintendent Terry Grier on the Challenges of School Closures and Distance Learning

“Most of the country’s school districts do not have enough laptops for students and teachers to use at home and school.”

Terry Grier spent decades as a highly regarded superintendent in Houston, San Diego, and elsewhere. Today, he spends a good deal of time mentoring current superintendents. And, being in an emeritus role, he has the privilege of speaking more freely. I wanted to get Terry’s take on what he’s seeing and what he can share about the response to the coronavirus. Here’s what he had to say.

Rick: What’s the biggest challenge superintendents are dealing with right now?

Terry Grier

Terry: The biggest challenge superintendents are dealing with differs district by district. Still, there are similarities. Everyone is leading in a chaotic situation filled with tremendous stress. Variables seem to change minute by minute. Having to respond responsibly to a crisis they did not know the severity of until very late in the game has been overwhelming. Most are struggling with how to effectively feed their disadvantaged students. In some rural areas, when food is delivered to trailer parks, over 100 students will come out to receive their meals at the same time. They are worried about how to keep their staff safe. Figuring out how to implement learning programs outside the schoolhouse walls is also a huge problem for most. As they know, encouraging teachers to develop learning packets that can be delivered with daily meals is a short-term solution to what is likely to turn into a long-range problem. They are being confronted with leading in isolation, and the lack of support and reluctance to make decisions at the state and national level has been problematic. There has been little training for superintendents, or leaders in general, on how to lead and manage workers remotely.

Rick: How are they responding?

Terry: The vast majority are doing a fantastic job. They are first and foremost making sure that their staff, students, and community understand the seriousness of the coronavirus threat. When some governors hesitated in making statewide school closure decisions, several superintendents stepped up and did not hesitate to close their schools. Superintendents have been excellent in handling the short-term solutions to this daunting problem. Their teachers are distributing learning materials to parents, and they are partnering with nonprofits and vendors to offer free online programs. Some have parked school buses equipped with Wi-Fi equipment strategically across their community. Everyone is coming to understand the cost, training, time, and needed assistance associated with establishing a quality distance-learning program. Many are struggling with whether this is necessary, as a part of the new normal, and hope they will be able to return their students to school in the near to mid future. A few are now talking about the possibility that students may not return to school until 2021.

Amidst all this, they are not backing off from innovation efforts and plans, during this crisis, and saying, “Let’s put this on the shelf until this is over.” They see this an opportunity and are pushing their teams and boards to look for solutions to problems such as: How can virtual education be used to serve special-needs students? How will technical and vocational education be taught in virtual settings? How do we ensure that our curricular content meets the needs of students with such diverse learning levels? Can our content meet the expectations of students who have grown up with smartphones that are user-friendly, provide on-demand access to information, etc.?

Rick: What are some of the practical challenges in getting distance learning up and running?

Terry: Most of the country’s school districts do not have enough laptops for students and teachers to use at home and school. Districts lack the bandwidth to support a districtwide laptop program, and some older schools do not have the wiring necessary to recharge laptops in a schoolwide program. And many students and teachers do not have internet access in their homes. Teachers are ill-prepared to deliver online instruction, and many are very uncomfortable with technology and online learning. Superintendents must lead the effort to determine the most effective online course composition or platform needed for their students, based on student demographics, student needs and learning styles, and different course areas. There are many options. Then comes the huge funding issue for the hardware and infrastructure, the curriculum development or procurement, and the staff and parental training. In many situations, funding is available, but it takes political will to redirect it. Beyond all that, they have to decide on closing or combining schools—which can mean between $500,000 and $1 million in savings, raising deductibles on flood and fire insurance, implementing a three-tiered transportation schedule, eliminating central-office positions, eliminating textbook and materials funding, and establishing energy-management-saving programs that work—just to name a few.

Rick: How are leaders dealing with all of these challenges?

Terry: It takes time. In most states, schools have only been closed for a few weeks. Superintendents have spent a lot of time reassuring everyone in their communities that it will take everyone working together to get through this crisis. Affluent parents want virtual schools “yesterday.” So do superintendents, however, they also want to ensure that their most needy students have food to eat each day. They have to deal with these competing priorities. Specifically, several superintendents have gained board approvals to use fund-balance dollars to purchase enough laptops for all students to use at home and schools. Others have empowered teachers to utilize free online materials from nonprofits or vendors, while many staffs are developing their own.

Rick: What should Washington be doing to help right now? What can they provide, or what rules or requirements would it be useful to relax?

Terry: Ideally, Congress would pour billions of dollars into education to fund meaningful distance-learning programs. If they do not provide those funds in the stimulus package, however, they could eliminate federal funding guidelines to allow the co-mingling of federal and state dollars to develop and implement effective distance-learning programs. Congress and the FCC can allow superintendents to use E-Rate reimbursable dollars to provide laptops and internet access to as many students and teachers as is possible.

The US Department of Education could also finally get serious about children not being able to read. If a child cannot read, how are they going to get the maximum benefit from online learning? The department could waive testing requirements, mandate that districts train all elementary teachers to become reading specialists, and require elementary schools to teach only literacy, art/music/PE, and a second language in an immersion setting in grades P-3, every day, until students can read on grade level. That may seem extreme, and I don’t expect everyone to agree, but kids cannot read, and nothing we are doing is changing that fact.

Rick: What can state leaders do right now to be most helpful?

Terry: They can lead. Governors can go ahead and establish school restart times, contingent upon the progress of the country’s success in dealing with the virus. School funding budgets for the next 12 to 18 months can be finalized, allowing superintendents needed planning time. If the federal government does not help, state legislators should provide enough funding to lease laptops for all K-12 students and to provide necessary training for all staff. Governors should direct state universities to issue provisional teaching certificates to college students who were scheduled to graduate in May 2021. Higher education governing boards can require colleges to offer courses that teach school leaders and teachers how to establish distance-learning programs and how to manage teams remotely.

Rick: What will be involved in trying to restart school systems? If a governor determines that schools can reopen in a state, how much lead time does a district need to actually make that happen?

Terry: Following a governor’s order, it should take one to two weeks to reopen schools. What’s still unclear is what protocols districts will be required to have in place to clean schools once they have reopened. The big question that schools find themselves asking right now is, “Will we return to the way we were or to a new normal that is much different from our old normal?” If the answer is a “new normal,” who will decide what that looks like? Washington?  State leaders? School boards? Unions?  My money is on superintendents and their teams—and they must begin that planning now. They need to confront some important questions: Will districts simply toss aside their distance-learning programs? Will the new normal simply be the old normal with a few tweaks to protocols? Or, will it be a hybrid of the old normal and a new normal of distance learning? Will mastery finally replace seat time?

Rick: Based on your experience, realistically, how long do you think we can expect teens or families with elementary-age kids to abide by the rhythms of social distancing?

Terry: Children and teenagers are social beings. Friends and family are important to them. Watching the news feeds, I’ve been disappointed to see how many people, young, middle-aged, and old, have responded poorly to the call for social distancing to curb the spread of the virus. Hopefully, school districts will use YouTube to develop short clips that can be shared and posted on their website to get out the importance of social distancing to students. Parents and guardians must take their role of explaining the why behind social distancing seriously, and demand that everyone in their household begin practicing the concept. The lives of many people depend on it. All of us, including parents and guardians, have a moral and ethical responsibility to do whatever it takes to fight and win one of the biggest battles mankind has faced.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Frederick Hess is director of education policy studies at AEI and an executive editor of Education Next.

This post originally appeared in Rick Hess Straight Up.

Read more from Education Next on coronavirus and Covid-19.

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