9 Questions for District and School Leaders to Consider in Getting Ready for the 2020–21 School Year

Woman speaks while gesturing with handsBy Aaron Butler, PhD

June 9, 2020

We have all been through a lot over the past few months: a global pandemic, unprecedented levels of unemployment, stay-at-home orders, social distancing, and recent incidents of police violence toward African Americans that highlight the reality that racial inequities continue to permeate our society. I hope that our country emerges from this moment in time with changed hearts and minds bold enough to take actions that address longstanding inequities. Across the country, we are already seeing teachers, students, families, and community members set an example through myriad creative strategies, programs, and resources.

However, now that this 2020 roller coaster is moving into the summer, many educators likely find themselves more exhausted than usual as the school year ends. Rather than spending the summer on typical back-to-school preparations, principals and district leaders find themselves facing more uncertainty, reflecting, and planning for multiple reopening scenarios in the fall.

Where to Start?

So, where should district and school leaders start in planning for the reopening of their schools? What are the top planning priorities? What questions should be asked along the way?

In a recent meeting with the Region 9 Comprehensive Center Advisory Board, we asked our board members to help identify priority areas of attention for schools in Illinois and Iowa as they reopen. Four priority areas quickly rose to the top of the discussion:

  • Student safety
  • Equitable access to technology and high-quality instruction
  • Social and emotional supports
  • Short- and long-term budgeting

While we realize that this list is not exhaustive, it does provide a good place for district and school leaders to start.

9 Questions to Consider

Informed by the conversation with our advisory board, here is a starter list of 9 obvious and not-so-obvious questions that district and school leaders can ask themselves and their leadership teams during summer planning:

  1. How can we ensure that our school mission and vision reflect the role we can serve in addressing institutional racism and inequities and be a guiding star for our actions moving forward?
  2. What are some different ways we can get input from diverse groups of families, students, and staff to better understand how they feel about issues such as safety and options for in-person or virtual instruction when restarting school in the fall?
  3. What health and safety processes and materials must we consider for essential staff members such as school nurses, custodians, and front office staff as we plan for a return to school?
  4. In what ways can we implement and monitor social and emotional learning supports for students, teachers, and staff that are sustainable and become part of our school culture?
  5. In what ways and with what frequency will we assess student access to technology and additional supports needed for distance learning to ensure equity?
  6. What information do we need and who needs to be involved in short- and long-term budget planning conversations and decisions?
  7. How can we gather and use feedback from students and families on quality of distance learning materials and instruction to address learning loss, accelerate learning, and improve overall educational experiences for students in the 2020–21 school year?
  8. In what ways can we improve and expand two-way communication with families and community members moving forward?
  9. Who are our trusted partners who can provide an external viewpoint to help us identify gaps or unintended consequences in any of our plans and keep us true to our mission?

Now What?

So, if I focus on four priorities and ask these 9 questions, then my district or school will be ready for the 2020–21 school year?

If only it was that easy! The summer of 2020 is shaping up to be like none before. Rather than looking at all the challenges and tough decisions that you will be facing as obstacles, I encourage you to view them as opportunities. The actions that you take as an educational leader can serve as steppingstones down a path of unprecedented innovation in the structure of the school day, curriculum design and delivery, and addressing the inequities prevalent throughout our education system.

For example, you can take this opportunity to do the following:

  • Recruit and engage a racially diverse group of internal and external stakeholders in upcoming leadership team meetings.
  • Make a list of reflective questions your leadership team should ask on a regular basis to address issues of equity, cultural competence, and unconscious bias.
  • Challenge your teaching staff to identify and try new ways to deliver high-quality instruction while providing a safe and supportive environment for them to do so.
  • Connect with a research partner to help you evaluate new programs to add to existing lists of evidence-based practices.
  • Conduct a thorough resource allocation review as part of your short- and long-term budget planning to ensure you are investing in your top priorities.

I encourage anyone who made it to the end of this blog to come out of this summer committed to taking action when it comes to addressing issues of equity, engaging families and community, providing social and emotional supports for students and staff, and delivering high-quality instruction to all students. For the veteran teachers and leaders out there, why not start by looking to your past and revisiting some of those ideas you wrote out as a first-year teacher who was ready to change the status quo and re-invent education? Ultimately, let’s seize this opportunity to deliver the equitable, supportive, and high-quality educational experiences that our students and families deserve.

Share Your Questions and Stories

Whatever the case, please feel free to share your innovative ideas, success stories, or questions with the Region 9 Comprehensive Center through our website or on Twitter. We look forward to continuing to provide timely, relevant support and to highlight success stories across Illinois, Iowa, and beyond.

Aaron Butler, PhD, is the director of the Region 9 Comprehensive Center and a principal technical assistance consultant at the American Institutes for Research. Dr. Butler has more than 20 years of experience supporting school improvement in public education and is a former teacher and administrator.

Photo courtesy of The Jopwell Collection.