Editor's Note: The Thomas B. Fordham Institute occasionally publishes guest commentaries on its blogs. The views expressed by guest authors do not necessarily reflect those of Fordham.
Author's Note: The School Performance Institute’s Learning to Improve blog series typically discusses issues related to building the capacity to do improvement science in schools while working on an important problem of practice. However, in the coming weeks, we’ll be sharing how the United Schools Network, a nonprofit charter management organization based in Columbus, is responding to and planning educational services for our students during the COVID-19 pandemic and school closures.
Once we at the United Schools Network learned about Governor DeWine’s school closure order on the afternoon of March 12, the pivot to remote learning began immediately. The first thing we did was create a COVID-19 Task Force to start planning for the initial three-week closure. While those plans were quickly implemented, we’ve now transitioned to creating longer term plans that address learning needs as Ohio schools will remain physically closed to May 1 and possibly beyond.
This limited (we hope) blog series is our attempt to share what we’re learning during the pandemic. We’ve outlined seven early lessons in this post, which are focused on setting a network or district up for success throughout the closure.
Lesson 1: Create a well-balanced team focused on responding to the pandemic.
The COVID-19 Task Force we created has the responsibility of guiding our network through the pandemic. It includes senior leaders from our network office in addition to school and teacher leaders from each of our four schools. It has four primary purposes: (1) communicating with staff and families; (2) designing remote learning; (3) reviewing and creating policies and procedures; and (4) coordinating support to our students, families, and staff during this challenging time.
Lesson 2: Plan for how work will happen in key areas.
We already frequently use Google Drive as our primary knowledge management tool, so it made sense to continue to do so during the pandemic. The first thing we did when we convened our task force was to create a shared drive with all task force resources. Our knowledge management system is broken down into six areas: (1) project management, (2) resources, (3) communication plan, (4) education plans, (5) HR and operations plan, and (6) talent and hiring.
We defined these six areas as the core functions that we have to get right to operate at a high level during the closure. All materials are carefully organized within these sub-folders. There is generally one task force member heading up each of these critical areas and creating network-wide operations plans.
Lesson 3: Start each team meeting with level setting.
Conditions are changing rapidly with information from local, state, and federal sources coming in at a breakneck pace. It is critical that leaders of this work are on the same page. We started our very first task force meeting with forty-five-minutes of level setting. All known information was put on a white board, and then task force members added what they knew about the closure, and also had chances to ask questions. Our twice-a-week virtual meetings start with a standing agenda item called “Update on Situation,” during which team members review and discuss state and federal policy changes since the last meeting.
Lesson 4: Establish a single point of contact for organization-wide communication.
We did this at our very first task force meeting. For us, this is our Chief Schools Officer and Co-Chair of our task force. As of March 30, she has sent six all-network emails, on March 12, 13, 15, 18, 26, and 30. These were more frequent when the original closure order was put in place because things were changing so quickly. Content typically includes an update on state and federal policy and building access parameters and a word of encouragement.
Lesson 5: Be flexible.
When the closure order first came in, our task force quickly worked to create a short-term education plan. However, we also gave teachers a week to experiment with various online learning platforms, such as YouTube and Google Classroom. While some teachers are more tech savvy than others, even those that were well-versed in these platforms are used to using them with students in the classroom. Similarly, students also had to adjust to this unfamiliar environment. The table below measures the percentage of students at one of our middle schools that are completing online practice related to the daily lesson that each teacher is posting.
Even though we weren’t grading assignments in the first few weeks of the closure, we have begun to collect this engagement data to see where our initial education plan is working and where it is not. At the same time, we’ve been working to coordinate efforts to ensure all 900 students in our network have a device and internet access. We’ll be able to use these early lessons, in terms of access, lesson design, and student engagement, as we formulate our long-term education plan.
Lesson 6: Check-in with your community frequently.
The health and well-being of our school community is at the front of our minds. All of our schools are meal distribution points for our neighborhoods, and teachers are checking in twice-a-week with students. Similarly, a small team from our network’s home office has divided up our staff roster, and we’re making calls this week to check in with all of our staff members. We’re asking questions like: “how are you doing?,” “do you have everything you need?,” and “do you have any questions?” It is more important than ever right now to work together as a community to take care of each other.
Lesson 7: Think about what’s next, now!
One of the toughest but most important things to do during an uncertain situation is to plan for the long-term. This is challenging when there is so much uncertainty right now. However, as educators, we need to be thinking now about how we are going to do school remotely for the foreseeable future. It is even possible that we may go back and forth between opening and closing schools for the next twelve to eighteen months until either a vaccine or treatment is developed.
We hope these seven lessons can be of use to other districts, schools, and charter networks that are making major transitions during the pandemic. Our remote learning team, which is a subset of our full task force, is working on long-term plans now, and we’ll be sharing what we’re learning in future posts. Stay tuned!
John A. Dues is the Managing Director of School Performance Institute and the Chief Learning Officer for United Schools Network, a nonprofit charter-management organization that supports four charter schools in Columbus. Send feedback to [email protected].