HomepageISTEEdSurge
Skip to content
ascd logo

Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
Join ASCD
December 1, 2020
Vol. 62
No. 12

3 Leadership Lessons from COVID-19

author avatar
    In the months ahead, public schools should double down on strategies that support student well-being.

    premium resources logo

    Premium Resource

    Leadership
      The closure of school campuses in spring 2020 came with little warning, few resources, and minimal guidance from federal and state officials or professional organizations. Yet, principals across the country leaned into this monumental task as health threats and economic dislocation affected staff, community members, and students. As one California principal reported, the transition to remote instruction "will go down as one of public education's most incredible feats in its entire history."
      My UCLA colleagues and I conducted a nationally representative survey with more than 300 public high school principals in May and June to understand how schools took up this new role and how learning and student well-being have been affected by COVID-19. Our findings highlight public schools' heroic responses in supporting students and sustaining communities in difficult times, but they also point to the ways that long-standing inequities and challenges to learning have been exacerbated, particularly in schools serving high-poverty communities. We can take away three lessons for school leadership and educational policy as schools move into 2021.

      Lesson 1: The best public schools connect families to health and social welfare services and foster social trust and understanding.

      Most principals reported that their school helped students and families access and navigate health services. More than two-thirds said their school or district provided meals to family members of students who were not enrolled in the school. Half provided support to students experiencing housing insecurity or homelessness. Sadly, 43 percent of principals reported providing support for students who experienced death in their families.
      In the months ahead, public schools should double down on strategies that support student well-being and strengthen relationships with various segments of the community. As one principal told us, "The connection between schools, students, and communities will be the key to not only getting back to 'normal' but also coming back better than ever." Principals should conduct inventories of community needs, initiate conversations with community partners, and encourage teachers to engage students in curriculum that examines issues and concerns in their local communities.

      Lesson 2: Providing learning opportunities for all students requires that we address pre-existing and pervasive inequities.

      Even as the global pandemic created a set of shared educational challenges, learning in some schools was more adversely affected than in others. Schools in middle-class communities were more than three times as likely as schools serving high-poverty communities to have all staff equipped for remote instruction when they closed their doors. Principals also reported great variability in student access to the technology hardware and connectivity needed to participate from home. High-poverty schools were more than eight times as likely as schools in more affluent communities to experience a severe shortage of technology at the time of transition—their principals reported that at least half of their students lacked the necessary technology.
      The pandemic has clarified what already was an emerging insight: Universal access to personal computing devices and broadband has become an essential precondition for learning in the 21st century, and access should be considered a fundamental right for all students.
      In addition, COVID-19 has brought into stark relief the effects of economic distress on young people and on their learning. A principal in a high poverty urban school noted, "My students' lives and well-being have become more and more precarious. There are some social safety nets, but not nearly enough, and the disparity is palpable." Students' ability to participate consistently in school is contingent on social policies that ensure secure food, stable housing, and ready access to healthcare.

      Lesson 3: Educators are anxious to get back to in-person learning, but many do not want to return to schools as they were.

      A Texas principal spoke for many of her colleagues when she said: "It is hard to go out into the hallways and not see any kids." Yet, numerous principals told us that the COVID-19 crisis is an opportunity to "reset," "reflect on our values and beliefs," "shift the way students are taught," or "dismantle broken systems." Explained one California principal, "Public education has not only changed during this pandemic, but [also] caused us to prepare to see a new way of teaching our students forever."
      As we move forward, it will be important to nurture educators' desire to reimagine schooling and to do so in ways that center trusting relationships. Many states and districts have established elaborate rules about social distancing to ensure the safety of students and staff who return to school. In addition to providing sufficient physical space, educators need to foster creative space in which teachers, students, and community members can develop a shared vision for what schools should become.
      Finally, principals and education policymakers are not the only ones learning lessons during this crisis. The most important educational lessons from COVID-19 are those that our students are learning every day as they observe their schooling and our political life—lessons about equity, social trust, and the value we place on young people's lives. The lessons students learn today will stay with them. What do we want these lessons to be?

      John Rogers is a professor of education at UCLA. He serves as the faculty director of Center X, which houses UCLA's Teacher Education Program, Principal Leadership Institute, and professional development programs.

      Learn More

      ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

      Let us help you put your vision into action.
      Related Articles
      View all
      undefined
      Leadership
      The Problem of Nominal Change
      Jim Knight
      2 weeks ago

      undefined
      Leading from Your Core Values
      Elena Aguilar
      2 months ago

      undefined
      Making Emotions Matter for Leaders
      Juan-Diego Estrada
      2 months ago

      undefined
      Leading with Empathy
      Brittany Hogan
      2 months ago

      undefined
      Becoming an Emotionally Intelligent Leader
      Naomi Thiers
      2 months ago
      Related Articles
      The Problem of Nominal Change
      Jim Knight
      2 weeks ago

      Leading from Your Core Values
      Elena Aguilar
      2 months ago

      Making Emotions Matter for Leaders
      Juan-Diego Estrada
      2 months ago

      Leading with Empathy
      Brittany Hogan
      2 months ago

      Becoming an Emotionally Intelligent Leader
      Naomi Thiers
      2 months ago