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Today's One Thing for Leaders: What's Next? Planning for Success When There Is No Plan

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Jeremy Jones

The Learning Accelerator

The school year is coming to a close, and in many parts of the country, what next year looks like is still a mystery for leaders. Despite that, school leaders are likely being tapped to answer big questions without the right resources or insights to answer with confidence.

This week’s big question is: How can leaders start planning to support their school communities this summer and in the fall?

School leaders should begin the planning process now given the complexities of relaunching learning. TLA’s CEO, Beth Rabbitt, outlined the stages of reopening in her recent piece in The Hechinger Report, calling for plans to be flexible, personalized, and oriented towards continuous improvement. There are several options that states and districts are currently considering when it comes to returning to learning in the fall. While there are variations, those options generally fall into three buckets:

  • Remote Learning Models: Distance learning practices will continue for students and teachers. School leaders will be pressed to continue providing support for teachers to increase their efficacy in remote teaching strategies while also ensuring all students have access to quality learning resources and materials that meet their needs.
  • Hybrid School Models: Hybrid models will be diverse and based on context. These approaches will combine in-person learning on alternating schedules that allow for smaller groups of students to be physically present in schools at any given time with remote plans that support at-home or distance learning. The most resilient models will blend multiple approaches to learning.
  • Back-to-Campus Models: There may be places where leaders have determined that it is safe to return to campus. These back-to-campus models will likely entail adaptive school year calendars that give school and system leaders the flexibility to extend breaks if needed and daily schedules that allow for extra cleaning and safety measures to be taken.

Given the degree of uncertainty at this point in time, it’s likely there is no one “right” model. Adaptive plans will be more responsive to science and circumstances, allowing leaders and their teams to shift with evolving conditions. For example, it’s likely that teams will need to plan for absences of students and teachers and consider the need for additional closures. Schools that have ideas about how to easily shift to a virtual space for some (or all) will be better positioned to support learning.

Because this problem is complex and ever-changing, it can be helpful for school leaders to explore the research and dig into some frameworks for decision-making and planning. Additionally, leaders will need to plan for effective communication that reaches all members of the community. A successful relaunch in the fall will require effort and buy-in from the entire community.

Do the Research

Position your school community for success regardless of decisions outside your control. As a school leader, the decision to return to campus (and in what format) may be out of your control. However, asking the right questions, resourcing appropriately to support your most vulnerable students, and creating a warm, welcoming learning environment for all children is at the core of what school leaders do.

  • Education Next’s Blueprint for Back to School creates some framing and provides an outline for circumstances and conditions that school leaders can consider in their planning. This piece acknowledges the levels of decision making and can help school leaders design specific questions to ask their leaders.
  • Getting Smart’s 10 Point Plan for reopening schools is framed in a way that puts equity at the center and can be a great place for school leaders to build from or adjust planning.
  • Transcend offers their Three Jobs that Matter for School Communities Navigating a COVID World in which they provide stages and timelines for school transformation.

Communication is Key

Provide proactive and transparent communication about the possibilities and approaches for school reopening. Restarting school will require effective communication to myriad stakeholders through the right channels, at the right times. Sharing often, honestly, and with enough specificity to allow educators and families to prepare for diverse eventualities will increase the odds of a successful reopening. Leveraging communication tools like newsletters, mailings, callouts, and social media can also create a strong foundation of knowledge for the community.

  • Dallas ISD presents this example of upfront communication with families and the community about the possibilities for school openings in the fall. This example can be adapted for social media posts or campus-specific websites.
  • Other districts are creating guidelines for teachers and staff around communication with families. This example from Highline Public Schools maps out approved and denied communication tools for teachers and staff communicating to families.

Work as a Team

Leverage the time, talent, and muscle of everyone in your school community. Leaders will need to build the capacity of school-based teams and the community to face challenges head-on together. Engaging your team and your community early will help create buy-in for future plans. Creating clarity around requests and job assignments, along with specific protocols, will develop strong throughlines that help people navigate through murky situations.

  • Opportunity Labs has put together a Return-to-School Roadmap to help school leaders assess their resources, position their teams for action, and consider multiple factors when planning for reopening.
  • Edutopia examined how schools in other countries are opening and outlines how these approaches may provide a model for schools in the United States. This resource gives school leaders insight into the operational systems they’ll need to consider when planning for students to be on campus.

Next Steps

If you are looking for additional support to continue planning to support your school community the summer and into the fall, The Learning Accelerator (TLA), in partnership with several organizations, has launched the Always Ready For Learning Network, which can help connect leaders who are planning robust, comprehensive responses to current challenges with free, customized coaching.

Jeremy Jones

Jeremy Jones

The Learning Accelerator

Jeremy Jones is a Partner at The Learning Accelerator, where he brings insight to TLA's schools and systems strategy work. Jeremy has spent 15 years working alongside students and families in schools across the country to close the academic achievement gap.