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Preparing for Back-to-School During a Pandemic: A Q and A with Two Ohio Superintendents

Excitement, anticipation, and ready.

These are words and feelings that most administrators and educators typically associate with back-to-school. This year, in the wake of COVID-19, the words frustration, uncertainty, and flexibility have been added to the list. Faced with questions like: Will students attend school face-to-face or remotely? How will our educators be trained to deliver instruction remotely? How will we meet the needs of diverse learners? Questions that do not have black and white answers.

A few weeks ago, OLAC had the opportunity to talk with two Ohio superintendents to discuss how they’re tackling these questions and about the importance of staying focused during this unique time in education, and the world for that matter.

Michael Tefs, Ed.D.: Superintendent, Wooster City Schools (left)
Josh Englehart, Ed.S., Ph.D.: Superintendent, Painesville City Local Schools (right)

What are your primary concerns as you prepare to start the new school year during a pandemic?

Tefs: “In the spring, we received a lot of credit for how fast we pivoted, but I don’t know that any of us, as educators, were truly proud of our efforts around teaching, learning, and assessment. As we prepare for this fall, we need to be more synchronous and less asynchronous with our delivery model. We need to be more standards based and really focus on what great instruction looks like in this hybrid environment. This approach isn’t ideal, but we’ll do the best we can. The situation has definitely elevated teaching and learning and what we’re really focused on.”

How will you be supporting staff to be able to teach using a new instructional delivery model?

Englehart: “We pushed our calendar back a few days, which gives our teachers a full week of professional development and preparation time. When it comes to supporting staff to deliver online instruction, we are pretty lucky. In the spring, we already had the vast majority of our teachers using online platforms. Because we had structures in place, our staff and students were comfortable using them. During that time, we provided professional development and we learned a lot. Our teachers have remained engaged in their learning, even throughout the summer. We feel really good about our preparation. We still have district-designed professional development planned for the fall because we want to have the baseline tools in place for every teacher.”

How have you have been able to use systems and processes during the pandemic?

Tefs: “From a BLT and DLT perspective, we find that those systems are as robust and as comprehensive as ever. These systems and protocols are engrained in our work and have served us well as we have tried to navigate in this pandemic. I am such a believer in the distributive leadership model. It has made our work really efficient and we are finding that the implementation is easier because we have buy-in and support. The only difference is that we’re doing them remotely.”

Englehart: “We’ve worked really hard to implement the OIP process with fidelity for a long time. We’ve really established the value of those teams – DLT, BLTs, TBTs – working with school improvement at each level. While we’re not going to be doing the same work this fall that we normally would be doing –like mapping out the building and district improvement plans and looking at key indicators of progress and improvement – it’s different now. Being in a crisis mode, our vision has shrunk. We’re now looking at what’s directly in front of us and that is implementing a new mode of instruction and designing an instructional program. It still needs the same monitoring, guidance, and correction that the other school improvement work would need. Now, those teams will function in the same way, but their purpose is about the here and now and the delivery of the instructional programming and making sure we’re doing the best we can do and getting the resources where we need them. We’re going to rely heavily on the OIP structures to implement our work now.”

With most school districts using a hybrid model or a fully remote model, how will you work with your teams in this new environment?

Tefs: “First of all, I’m really thankful that we have our teams. We’ve been able, in a really distributive and collaborative way, to survive this pandemic because of our teams. Our BLTs are still meeting and our DLT meets weekly. Teams are part of our culture and climate and we’re seeing the fruits of that model. We will be doing a hybrid model this year and Wednesdays will be dedicated to our staff for continued professional learning and an opportunity for our DLT, BLTs, and TBTs to come together for their work. It’s been amazing to see our DLT pivot from their typical role, especially as they’ve authored our recovery plan.”

Englehart: “As far as our team structures and school improvement pieces, they are well established and are really important. We’re in an ‘all hands on deck’ approach to getting our opening plan implemented and being able to monitor how it’s going, how well students are engaged, and how students are doing academically. Some of our longer-term school improvement work that our teams are typically tasked with is going to get pushed down the road a little bit. But, the good thing is that we have the structures in place and now we can repurpose them to monitor this new approach to instruction.”

How are you working to ensure an equitable educational experience for all learners?

Tefs: “We remain centered around specially-designed instruction. For our diverse learners, we have communicated with each family about how to meet their individual needs. We have been successful with about 75% of these students and with the other 25% we’re really challenged. Many of them have health conditions and it’s been hard to navigate and support them remotely. We’re working hard to try to problem solve that. If you break down sub groups and try to design instruction around a student and family, its labor intensive, but we’ve been able to make progress here. We’re also really focused on the mental health aspect for our students. I applaud the Ohio Department of Education’s social emotional learning (SEL) standards. It’s really important to our community and district. And we couldn’t do the work without all of our partners – from mental health to clinical therapy and family liaisons.”

Englehart: “Equity issues are always a concern and in a time of crisis, there’s a brighter light shined on them. It’s always front of mind here. We serve a diverse population, mostly of urban generational poverty. We have to think about basic needs, along with instructional needs. The first things we rolled out in the spring were making sure our kids were fed, to make sure they had the basic things they needed to participate. It’s one thing that I feel best about with our response in the spring—that we kept kids fed, we engaged a lot of people in the community to get computers out, to get Wi-Fi access and get print materials out—those basic of needs. We’re going to continue that this fall through our family resource structure. This year, meeting those basic needs will entail things like personal protective equipment (PPE), internet connectivity, making deliveries to the home with materials and computers, etc. These structures will proceed everything else.”