Luan Burman Rivera headshot
Teri Vigil headshot
Deb Dudley headshot
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Effective leadership in times of crisis

Dear Boardwise

What does effective leadership look like in the age of COVID-19 and other emergencies?

Luan Burman Rivera: If the last few months have taught us anything, it is that none of us has a crystal ball and that disasters come in all shapes and sizes — and sometimes they may seem unimaginable. California and our school districts and county offices of education are no strangers to the plight of natural and sudden disasters. Earthquakes, fires and floods have plagued our state and impacted our schools and students, but no one could have foreseen the magnitude of the impact that COVID-19 would have on all aspects of our lives. This virus has taken its toll on our schools, our students, our families and our communities. The question now is, how can we be better prepared for the next crisis?

As board members, it is important to know your policies — what plans are in place for dealing with a disaster? The time to learn about your policies and disaster plans is not in the middle of a crisis. Stay informed. Review Board Policy 3516 – Emergencies and Disaster Preparedness Plan and its accompanying Administrative Regulation, as well as, BP/AR 0450 – Comprehensive Safety Plan.

Are your policies and administrative regulations up to date and compliant with the law? Are your safety plans comprehensive and in compliance with both your policies and state law?

An additional policy that is crucial during an emergency is BP 2210 – Administrative Discretion Regarding Board Policy. During the COVID-19 outbreak, we saw how rapidly situations can change and the need for quick and nimble responses. BP 2210 gives emergency powers to superintendents so that they can be fluid in their response to various situations and react immediately. Some boards went even further and passed emergency resolutions that clearly delineated the powers of the superintendent during these trying times. No one can be totally prepared for the unexpected, but being knowledgeable is important. Know your policies and ensure that appropriate safety plans are in place before a disaster hits.

Teri Vigil: When responding to unplanned disasters or crises, as stated above, we need to make sure we have policies in place to facilitate quick action to respond. As board members, one of the things we must address is equity and access to services. In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic we had to transition with great speed to an online platform to deliver our K-12 curriculum to our approximately 6 million students in California. So, how does equity apply in an emergency response?

We have many students who are living below the poverty line. How do we provide these students access to services they need to be successful when transitioning to their virtual classrooms? More often than not, it is our historically underserved student groups who do not have internet access. These students may need printed work packets due to the inability to access their classroom work online. Are the parents or caretakers able to get to the schools to obtain these packets? If not, what delivery method will be used for check-in and classroom work? How do you send out communications in an equitable manner? In what languages should your communications be delivered and how will they be delivered?

Another important issue faced by underserved populations is access to nutrition. Are families able to pick up food from the district’s nutrition services? Many of our students count on being able to eat breakfast and lunch at school. Again, we must reflect on getting these food services to all students and families in our district.

Some of our students have great parental and/or caretaker support. What tools can we provide the students who do not have these supports? How will they be provided? What data points do we, as board members, look at to determine the needs of every student? During a crisis, we must not assume that every student has the same support and resources. We must determine the needs of all students and do our best to provide the systems of support so that each one can succeed during these trying times.

Deb Dudley: In times of crisis, as we experienced these last few months with COVID-19, the community looked to our school district and county office of education leadership teams to provide a unified message to employees, parents and the general public. We can use a lot of what we learned to be sure that our local educational agencies are prepared for any time of crisis.

Some of the deep concerns that emerged during the quick transition to distance learning are reaching non-English-speaking populations with appropriately translated messaging, maintaining individualized instruction for students with disabilities and providing related medical services and, as has been mentioned, nutrition services for our most vulnerable students. Unfortunately, this is just the tip of the iceberg for districts across the state.

Your board and superintendent have vital and unique roles to play as these unprecedented events unfold. With situations that change daily, best practices are as important as ever.

In addition to what you have already read, here are a few critical things board members can do to best serve their district or county office.

1. The school board and superintendent should stay connected: Social distancing is the recommended way to avoid spread of the virus, but boards need to continue to communicate regularly, even if it is at a distance. It is important to stay connected with your community in these times, too. Proactively seeking community partnerships (private and public) to extend internet access into the community is one option to explore.

As your team discovers what works best for remote meetings and distance learning, share those best practices and resources (digital or analog) with neighboring districts.

2. Let your superintendent lead: During this period of uncertainty and constant change, it is time for your superintendent to lead. Emergency calls, important decisions and tasks that immediately impact your district should be managed by your superintendent. This is where the trust issue can be so important. It is incumbent upon the board to empower your superintendent to manage the day-to-day activities and decision-making that will prove critical to your district.

Allow your superintendent or other designated spokesperson to continue to be the voice and face of your district. Relying on the chain of command as a best practice is crucial in a time of crisis. Stay in regular contact with your superintendent and call emergency board meetings only when the meeting is necessary for the welfare of the district.

Make sure your district maintains a unified public message and, again, remember to let your superintendent or a person designated by the superintendent be the official voice of your district.

Promote messages that are:

  • Supported by your entire leadership team
  • Clear, calm and reassuring
  • Factual (Here is what we know, here is what we are doing, here are the organizations we are working with)
  • Exhibiting leadership in communicating best practices for a variety of matters (not just school matters). In many communities, schools are a trusted messenger and are often the primary source of information about health, well-being and nutrition.

Take the necessary time to connect with your community. Share positive messages through video or social media. Do not be afraid to share hope, gratitude and compassion in a world facing uncertainty. In times of crisis, people want and need to feel connected; they want to share good news. Position your school to be that beacon of light and encouragement.