One Week at a Time, Together: A COVID-19 Diary

March 3, Instruction Partners unveiled its new five-year plan to the internal team. We spent the first 10 minutes of the presentation asking the team how much they were tracking news of coronavirus and talking about the importance of washing our hands. March 12, we called in all our team members who were on the road, closed our physical office, and everyone became a remote worker. We spent March 13 realizing that our partners needed support on a much broader range of topics. By March 16, we were a new organization.

We threw ourselves into learning—speaking with educators, researchers, content experts, families, and students. We did our best to share what we were learning, right as we were learning it, even if it wasn’t pretty or perfect.

As part of that commitment to share our learning, I began sending a weekly email to leaders in our partner schools as well as a small circle of colleagues. I didn’t realize at the time that these weekly emails would also become a living journal of this unprecedented time.

Below is an abridged version of the emails I sent between April and September. If you’d like to read the emails in full, you can do so here.

At the encouragement of our partners and colleagues, I will publish future emails through Medium as a way to share what we’re learning with a wider community. If you’d like to follow along, you can also subscribe to the email list here.

April 3: The need for leadership and solutions

Yesterday, one of our partners told his team, “We’re not flying the plane while building it. We are flying the plane while inventing flight.”

As confirmed cases and unemployment numbers grow at heart-wrenching rates, we are all processing the impact and fallout from this crisis on our country.

Among our partners, we have been so impressed with so many leaders who have sprung into action. We are seeing leaders organize food programs, improve access to devices, and get their teachers going on distance learning at impressive rates. We are also seeing how hard it is to reimagine school on a dime and build a mental picture of what this can look like for students, staff, and families.

Communities are looking for leadership now more than ever, and you all are doing an incredibly impressive job leading in uncharted territory. Arthur Ashe said, “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” Because we have each other, we have a lot.

April 10: Reimaging school

This week there is promising news emerging in a number of communities as the curve appears to flatten with social distancing. We also see countries ahead of us enter the chapter of reentry, a complex time requiring heightened precaution to prevent resurgence.

Overall, we keep hearing leaders express some version of this: “I feel like a brand new principal again, struggling to make it through each day. I know there are many things I want to do to support students, teachers, and families, but there just is not enough time in the day.”

You are not alone. No one is an expert at leading education in a pandemic. But helping students and families stay engaged and continue some learning is a worthy goal and we are so impressed with how partners are figuring out how to do new things.

April 17: A hard time to lead

Almost all of our partners are now in states that have called for schools to be out for the balance of this school year. Even if we saw this coming, it is a hard moment. On the one hand, relief from uncertainty feels helpful; now we know what we are dealing with. On the other hand, it feels like it will be harder to engage students and staff without the hope of return.

This is a very hard time to be a leader. And yet leadership has never been more important. Our teams and communities are looking for answers that are not easy to find. I personally felt lost once the goals we had been working towards were no longer relevant. It has been helpful to create new goals and aspirations for impact in this new time to anchor my work and leadership.

April 23: Rethinking intervention

As leaders and policymakers try to prepare options for what they can do when students are back in buildings, whenever that may be, it is more important than ever for us to take a hard look at what we know works and what we know does NOT work in the job of intervening and accelerating student learning. Otherwise, we run the risk of the triple threat of expanded inequity: inequity was already there, the pandemic and time out of school makes it worse, and our response to increased inequity makes it even worse.

We need to be sure the treatment for expanded inequity does not slow the learning trajectory for the very students who need acceleration. My hope is that six weeks from now we will have clear frameworks ready as schools start planning for fall.

April 30: Managing energy and focus

Anyone else feeling exhausted?

Leading in these times is depleting. One superintendent I talked to this week told me, “I called myself a leader before, but this is the first time I am really, truly required to lead.” The rules of the game we knew are largely irrelevant — there is no clear north star or safety net and the stakes are high. Lives and futures depend on making good decisions.

And the complexity is growing, not shrinking. Until there is a vaccine or effective treatment, public health will remain the first priority. Keeping our communities safe is the goal that needs to guide action.

While school building life will return in some form, for the next year school will look and feel very different, and leaders will have to continue to help their teams redefine school as we know it.

Theodore Roosevelt said, “Courage is not having the strength to go on; it is going on when you don’t have the strength.” This is what courage feels like. Let’s keep going.

May 8: Reflecting as we transition to reentry

It is hard to place where we are in time these days. Without familiar traditions to mark beginnings and ends, we are left to draw lines in time for ourselves.

Be well, take care of yourself, and know you are doing a very hard thing that no one knows how to do. Remember you are not alone and just keep going.

May 15: There is no perfect plan, but we need to make plans anyway

The challenges ahead are significant, but so is our capacity to rise to those challenges. I was reminded of this fact in my recent conversations with Deborah Ball and Jamila Newman for our Rethinking Intervention learning series.

Deborah reminded me that “We have known . . . children are capable at a very young age of working on very complex problems. . . . Kids like puzzles, they like to think about things that are uncertain or unclear. They like problems that don’t have single answers, and may even have infinitely many answers.”

Jamila reminded me that “students are very perceptive about the educational experiences that they’re having. Often as adults, we’ve discounted their perceptions. But they are very accurate and real in many ways.”

May 22: Kids will see past the masks

On the one hand, parents are right to be concerned about the potential consequences of this time. Disruptive events cause real and compounding trauma for children in ways that affect their health and perception of themselves into the future.

At the same time, children are resilient and this chapter will eventually become memories in the rearview mirror. Taking the long view helps me remember what matters. If teachers in masks can limit the risk of lasting trauma by increasing safety while allowing them to get what they need most from school, then bring on the masks.

May 29: History is not destiny

This has been a grim Memorial Day week. We grieve the 100,000+ lives lost to the virus. We stand with the 40M+ unemployed. We mourn the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, as well as the trauma their deaths inflict on all people of color and the psyche of our nation.

The mantra I find myself repeating (and requiring to get out of bed) is: “history is not destiny.” We have an obligation to learn from our past and do things differently in the future. The way to do that is by learning and helping each other learn.

Everything we have done to date as educators has been a warm-up for the year to come. There are no simple answers, but we are in it together and we will find answers together.

We are educators. The premise of our profession is the belief that learning is possible and learning matters. It has never mattered more.

June 12: Pandemics crack us open; students can build us up

Schools play an important role in limiting the spread and impact of the virus. The 1918 flu’s second wave emerged in September; recent predictions about COVID-19 put us on the same course. We also know that disrupted schooling poses a multigenerational risk, especially to young learners. Schools must reopen, but interactions in school can accelerate community-wide spread of communicable disease. We have to find ways to open school safely.

Schools also have an important role to play in limiting the spread and impact of racism — always and especially during a pandemic. Education is our best tool to undo the impact of racism, and we need to do overdue work to dismantle the racism children also experience in school.

Reopening schools safely and counteracting racism in schools is the same work and it must be done together.

Putting equity at the center of reopening plans means serving the needs of those who need the most first. Equity is not equality. We must start by identifying the students who need the most and are most likely to be overlooked, deeply understand their needs, and then design the reopening plans to prioritize serving those students.

Putting antiracism at the center of reopening plans means explicitly naming the existence of bias and racism in ourselves and our culture, and acknowledging that we are in a time of heightened risk for treating each other harmfully. It means being proactive in helping staff and students look for the ways bias plays out in our interactions and taking action to limit the harm.

This is all very hard. And the thing is, we are all understandably tired. You all have already put in a lot of hard leadership work these past four months. You deserve a vacation.

But the 2020–21 school year will be the hardest year our children have experienced. And they are counting on us to be prepared.

June 22: Making plans for impossible choices

Last week, I heard partners share a range of different experiences and thoughts on reopening:

  • “We reopened our athletic program last week and two students tested positive within a week.”
  • “Every time we think about what a hybrid plan will look like, it just leads to more questions and it feels impossible to know how to answer them. So we are planning for in-person like usual and we’ll adjust if we have to.”
  • “I didn’t think in-person school was going to be possible for us this coming year, but now I think it might be and I am worried we are not going to be ready.”

The equity stakes are high on all sides of the equation. This virus is most severely impacting already disenfranchised communities — specifically Black and Latino communities. Disrupted schooling causes the greatest risk for already marginalized students. People of color make up almost half of essential workers. Leading with equity means putting the needs of students and communities that need the most, first — and deeply listening to what they say they need.

When you are leading school in a pandemic, you need a plan for what you will do if the virus spreads or resurges. Having a plan is as essential as having car insurance or doing fire drills. We must find a way to live our lives and educate our children safely amidst this virus. We must believe it can be done. And we must teach our children how to do it.

June 26: Making the healthy habit the rule

Ms. Bryngleson, my 4th-grade teacher, made our class wash our hands every time we coughed or sneezed. She told us that this policy led to 75% fewer absences. It took lots of reminders, but eventually we got used to it and missed less school. Ms. Bryngleson made the healthy habit the rule.

I am not an elected or appointed school system leader and I do not envy those who are. Local control means that 15,014 school system leaders will ultimately decide how to open schools. We’ll know what the better choices were in two years.

For now, we know that two things work in limiting the spread of a lethal disease: 1) washing hands and 2) wearing masks.

How do we make the healthy habit the rule? Require both wherever possible.

July 10: The muscles we are building as we plan to reopen schools will be needed all year

Sound sleep has not been common among the leaders I have talked to this week.

This is all so hard. The launch of the school year has started to feel like the finish line. But we know we will not wake up from this dream the day after school begins. “Reopening committees” will turn into “continuous monitoring and improvement committees,” which may lead to “supporting distance learning and reopening again committees.”

The muscles we are building will strengthen our capacity to continue redesigning school. We will get better at it and get better at supporting it. Just think how practiced we will be at redesigning school and what this can lead to for students and families on the other side of this pandemic.

July 17: We can do hard things

At such an intense time for school, I feel a great deal of empathy — for families asked to make impossible choices; for teachers scared for their students, health, and work; for leaders navigating only bad options, insufficient data, and charged up politics; and for students craving relationships and joy and purpose, and longing to claim the dream for their future they so richly deserve.

Among all the uncertainty of school reopening, I keep coming back to a few things that feel constant and actionable:

  1. The choices we make every day are easier to make and uphold when they are made with, not to, historically marginalized families.
  2. The success of the coming year will not be about how schools reopen but how well we learn and improve through the year.
  3. While every school will have different approaches, all schools will have some students doing virtual learning for some period of time.
  4. We should learn how to do distance learning within the context of the content.
  5. Common instructional materials will make instruction better and life easier.
  6. Relationships will be the foundation of our success.

Young people are capable of big things and we will need them to do big things, like rebuild our economy and advance our country. Schools play an essential role in preparing them to do so — whether in person or at a distance. The mission has not changed.

This is a very hard time and it will reveal who we are.

July 24: This is what we do

Happy March 125th.

As schools announce and update plans for reopening, the reality of more distance learning is sinking in for many communities. I’m hearing from educators and friends: “I can’t do spring again. I can’t manage that juggle for a whole year. My child can’t make that little progress. I can’t feel that way about my job.”

Here is the good news: We don’t have to do the spring again. Time only moves forward. We are done with our first large-scale attempt at distance learning. We are on our second attempt. We know more now. We can make different choices.

Like everyone, I hope for schools that we can safely find a way to get creative with resources to offer in-person options for students and families that want it — especially young children — and that teachers that want to be in person can feel comfortable and be safe.

But many students will need distance learning this year. Let’s keep finding new ways to make their experience stronger and support their learning better.

We are educators — that is what we do!

July 31: Flip the script: Bring schools to families

There are things we can do to help every family, but no single solution will meet the needs of every family. To find solutions, we need to go person by person and figure out the plan that works best for them.

I realize how hard this is to implement. It is an idea that is full of complications in a time that school system leaders are admirably trying to do their best to get school back in motion, with stronger distance learning where that is the safest option.

But the start of the school year is not the end of the opportunity to be in dialogue with families about what is working and what is not. And we’ll need every creative idea we can find to meet the needs of students for whom it is not working.

We can do hard things. Keep going!

August 7: The new school year is here

What is going to happen this year?

I previously imagined this year would involve rolling closures and flipping between different scenarios based on the state of the virus. I now see that our psychological need for dependability in a crisis and our capacity to adapt complex operations makes frequent changes in plans unlikely.

Whatever the model, the new year is here. It is time for relationships and learning to take center stage. It is time for reopening committees to become continuous improvement committees. It is time to turn the aspirations that anchored planning into goals and quantitative and qualitative data tracking systems. It is time to shift stakeholder engagement from informing the plan to informing what is working and what can be improved. It is time to identify the few big things we care about most this year and unleash problem solving to make those aspirations a reality.

August 14: The power of relationships in learning

I read an article this week in which Dr. Sonja Santelises reflected that “the schools that were most successful in engaging students were the ones where relationships and culture had been built before the pandemic.” This makes perfect sense in light of the conversations about intervention.

The foundational role relationships play in learning puts heightened primacy on the importance of our awareness of unconscious bias. I had previously thought about the impact unconscious bias has on instructional decisions — as Dr. Ladson-Billings put it, “Who do we permit to fail?” — but now I see how important this consciousness is in our relationships. Who do we see as whole and perfect, just as they are? Who receives the small moments of individual focus and attention, or the warm and demanding feedback, that builds a valued relationship?

We need strong relationships now more than ever. We need them to stay healthy, connected, at peace, and to make it possible to support learning. I am learning how to build these at a distance just like all of us, and I am more committed to making relationships the utmost priority this year.

August 21: Why I’m becoming obsessed with assignment completion

The grim truth is that young learners, especially those from families living in zip codes in the bottom 25% of average, are at enormous risk. We already have evidence of profound disparities in assignment completion.

It breaks my heart to think about what this means for our babies. Our beautiful, bright-eyed, full-of-potential children will be the ones that suffer the consequences. And because we operate in community, our fates are intertwined. We all lose if we lose out on the potential of our young people.

I believe with every fiber of my being that we can avoid this outcome. History does not have to repeat itself if we learn from it.

To avoid this outcome, we must do three hard things:

  1. We must do things in really new ways. We have to resist the pull of wanting to go “back to normal.”
  2. We must design support and recovery solutions entirely around the students that need the most.
  3. We must lock in on what we know works.

August 28: We have the power to shape our legacy

My heart aches for Jacob Blake, his children, and his family. It aches for Joseph Rosenbaum, Anthony Huber, Gaige Grosskreutz, and their families. It aches for every human being that faces the repeated trauma of imagining that next time it will be them or their children or loved ones.

As a student of history, I often wondered how I would handle moments when our ancestors rose and fell. Well, here we are. This is a defining time; future generations will look back on the choices we are making right now. Our actions have power to influence the answer, as do the actions we call each other to consider.

When we look back on the events of this school year, I suspect we educators will measure how well we showed up for each other during this time by our actions in our relationships with students and families. This time could either lead families and educators to bridge new and deeper relationships or further distance and bias us against each other.

Forging relationships of equanimity and respect between educators and families can be a powerful model for all children of the real potential, power, and beauty of beloved community. And it may help us get one step closer to making the world safe for Jacob, Joseph, Anthony, Gaige, and all our children.

September 4: September can be better than August; October can be better than September

Last Friday, I facilitated a “one month in” stepback meeting for the leadership team of a small district. It had been a turbulent summer for this community. It took all the leadership team had to get school up and running and keep the community connected. They wanted to step back on how it was going but we were all dragging as we came to the call for the last two hours of our Friday at the end of a long and emotional week.

Then a funny thing happened. As the team poured out the challenges and the victories, took a hard look in the mirror to see what was happening, examined what was true and what was missing . . . everyone’s energy level increased. As we looked hard at which students we were most worried about, we gained a stronger sense of purpose and focus.

Focus is hard to find in a crisis. But once a leadership team can breathe again, even just a little, it’s probably time to check in on how it’s going and figure out who needs help most. Here is the agenda and template we used — they’re imperfect and likely incomplete but you can adapt them to your context or framework.

No one is going to have an easy or consistently great year this year, but we can have a year that keeps getting better. October can be better than August. January can be better than October. The 2020–21 school year can be the year of continuous improvement.

One of our values at Instruction Partners is “choose optimism.” To be honest, some days I find it hard to keep choosing optimism. The uncertainty is exhausting, the inequity trajectory is grim, and the stress and stakes are high. But some days I look back and marvel at how much we have learned in a short amount of time, and it reminds me that we have every reason to believe in our ability to solve hard problems in the future. We know we can do hard things because we have done hard things.

September 11: How do we restore trust?

Trust is important. Within our schools, teacher trust is closely linked to student achievement, and trust in leadership plays an outsized role in creating conditions that affect trust across the school community. Trust is foundational to relationships, and relationships are foundational to learning and identity.

This week, I want to share a personal story about how trust is also vulnerable and impermanent, and what we need to do to restore trust that’s been eroded or build trust when it wobbles. I offer you my two-part conversation with Lacey Robinson, CEO of UnboundEd.

I realized in my conversation with Lacey how rarely I reflect on or explicitly discuss trust in my relationships. “Did the logic of my actions generate trust?” is not a question I regularly ask of my colleagues. Nor do I tell others when the logic of their actions compromised my trust. The thought of doing so brings up real fear. Even if I directly acknowledge how important trust is, I am unpracticed at having direct conversations about trust.

Similarly, even though we know trust matters in schools, teacher and leader prep programs don’t devote explicit attention to how we build trust. Discussions about the role of trust in school and classroom culture are often abstract; rarely do we talk about instructional decisions in terms of trust.

Trust is not another thing that we need to layer on top of our overflowing plates; it isn’t a tacked-on “initiative” we need to add to the mix. Trust is already at play in every conversation and every action. And students are perceptive — they know who to trust, even through the Zoom screens and the face masks. Their trust in educators affects their actions and their learning, as it does for all of us.

September 18: It’s time for a hard rethink of school-wide intervention systems

I believe school-wide intervention systems, most commonly referred to as Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) or Response to Intervention (RTI), have the potential to be among our greatest assets in systematically supporting students in the coming years. At their core, these are problem-solving frameworks for identifying and providing support to students that need it. That sounds like exactly what we are going to need over the next several years if we don’t want to lose out on the contributions of generations of students, knowing the inequitable impact of disrupted schooling.

But the design and practice of MTSS and RTI are not without their problems or challenges, and those problems disproportionately impact historically marginalized students. There is a wide body of existing research on the disproportionate representation of culturally and linguistically diverse students, particularly Black boys, in special education, and this three-part series dives into structural and cultural challenges, adaptations, and promising examples of RTI in urban settings.

As I think about MTSS and RTI in this time and context, I have four big wonderings:

  1. The design and language of intervention systems orients around student skill “deficits” to target areas of improvement, yet we know the power of maintaining a focus on growth mindset. What could it look like to organize around students’ strengths in a way that affirms their identities as learners?
  2. The screeners become the driver of the process and measure of success, yet they rarely represent a full vision of what educators or families want for students. What could it look like to be more intentional about the purpose of screening instruments and more explicit about the potential bias in screeners?
  3. We have not seen a strong connection between the content and curriculum design of Tier 1 and Tier 2 instruction, yet we know how important coherence is for learning. Rather than reducing to generic ideas about “research-based programs,” how can we better leverage what we know about how students learn the content in the design of the materials?
  4. While the multiple roles different people play in the process at best allow for stronger collaboration, at worst we saw it lead to unclear or diffuse accountability (“I don’t have to worry about this student’s learning because she’ll get it in this other setting”). How do we better define what true accountability to student success means and what shared accountability really looks like?

Given all the challenges leaders are navigating, strengthening the design of MTSS and RTI is understandably not a top-of-mind topic right now. But I predict this question will go from “important” to “important and urgent” in six to nine months, especially in states that use MTSS and RTI as the central process for identifying students with specific learning disabilities (SLD), because we will likely start to see an increased number of students tracking towards the SLD designation due to unfinished learning from disrupted schooling.

As the urgency grows, we will have to decide what, if anything, needs to change in the policy guiding intervention systems to meet the moment. As we do, I hope we will not just answer the immediate questions but try to see clearly what, within the system, is causing the change in rates of labeling and be open to leveraging the assets while fundamentally rethinking what might need to change. Because we know students are as capable as ever.

Instruction Partners CEO, former AssistCommish for TDOE, library lover, Sunday afternoon chef and head of the Jan, Owen and Liam fan club.