District Leaders Have Some Big Decisions to Make. Here Are 6 Things to Know

What to plan for during the coronavirus crisis

OPINION – We are in the midst of the most disruptive and devastating crisis in the history of American and global education. This is no time for rescue fantasies or ostrichlike head-burying. The cavalry is not poised to ride in, but a lot of superintendents feel like Alice when she was talking to the Cheshire Cat.

While federal and state officials struggle with equipment shortages, stay-at-home orders, and mounting disease and death, school systems are left on their own to provide education as best they can while making plans for a coming school year that is murky at best. Decisions must be made soon about staffing and budgeting with no real sense yet of how “distance learning” is working and how education funding will be affected by the economy, unemployment, business failures, and mass inability to pay taxes.

The silver lining—if there is one—is that there is time to plan for those willing to get off their heels and onto their toes. It is a daunting task, given how much is still uncertain.

Are districts going to make staffing decisions as if nothing has happened? Are they going to staff based on a new model of distance learning? Or is it going to be a blend of the two? Are they going to be able to deliver on negotiated or promised salary raises?

See Also: Coronavirus and Schools

How will your state fare? Is it aggressively showing leadership to flatten the curve, mitigate the spread of the virus, and make recovery possible? What’s the size of its rainy-day fund, and will it be able to raise revenue while making cuts? Will states seize on school districts’ reduced expenditures on professional development, substitute teachers, utilities, and staff vacancies to reduce their contributions to public education?

There are more questions than answers, but they must be met head-on. To manage this looming financial crisis, there are specific actions district leaders should take now.

1. Planning matters. Is it permissible in your state to offer an early-retirement/notification bonus to teachers (or those in teacherlike positions) who notify you by a certain date that they are not returning to employment next year? If so, it is something to explore. Texas had a law prohibiting retirement incentives. So, when I was the superintendent of the Houston public schools, we instead called our plan an “early-notification incentive,” with no mention of retirement.

“Cover your bases—make sure any changes are cleared through legal counsel.”

We paid educators who notified us by Jan. 21 that they planned not to return to work with the district the next school year accordingly: $5,000 to teachers, counselors, and librarians with 21 or more years; $4,000 for 16-20 years of service; $3,000 for 11-15 years of service; $2,000 for 4-10 years of service, and $1,250 for less than four years of service. That money counted toward their retirement. In turn, having a grasp of the number of vacancies helped us with our recruiting efforts. And by not filling unnecessary positions and hiring less- experienced replacements with lower salaries, we were able to cover the cost of the payouts. If you go this route, communicate the proposal carefully: You do not want to be perceived as “pushing out” your most experienced teachers.

2. Online recruitment tools are evolving. With central offices shuttered and social distancing the norm, online teacher interviews using Skype and Zoom (or the app of your choosing) are a must—and districts that already use an online screener are ahead of the game. You can narrow down candidates to interview by first asking pre-established questions and “rating” responses. I’ve had good experiences using the Haberman Foundation as superintendent in three different districts; Virginia Beach schools utilize InterviewStream. Spark Hire, Jobvite, VidCruiter, and Hirevue also get high marks.

3. It’s time to start thinking about which positions you must hire for. Given the new reality of distance learning, should you rehire vacant physical education, vocational, arts teachers, counselors, or noncore teaching positions? Should you fill nonteaching vacancies—teacher assistants, school custodians, bus drivers, nurses, librarians, and others? If you rehire folks in these roles because you think schooling is going to return to the “old normal” sooner than later, can you assign them work as online tutors until schools reopen? If so, be careful that the modified assignment does not violate contract language that outlines teacher duties.

4. Distance learning may require different staffing arrangements. Should you staff at the same teaching levels or employ teachers to work half time? The American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization both recommend that elementary-aged students should only engage in limited screen time each day. So, do you need teachers who can work with 15 students at a time, interfacing with their students daily or every other day via an online teleconferencing app? If so, hiring two half-time teachers might make more sense than hiring one full-time teacher—allowing for 30 students being served by two half-time teachers versus one teacher trying to work virtually with 24 or more students.

5. This crisis is affecting the current teacher pipeline. Thousands of college students were on schedule to graduate in May with teaching degrees. Many will not be able to fulfill student-teaching requirements necessary to receive certification. Without them, there may not be enough teachers to fill vacancies. However, districts can still hire them by requesting waivers from their state’s department of education. Now is the right time to ask that your district be designated the organization to grant certification for those holding provisional certification. When I was working as the superintendent in the Guilford County district in North Carolina, we sought and obtained permission from the state legislature for our district to grant those certifications. We were then able to hire individuals who had college degrees but who had not graduated from teacher education programs, such as chemists and mathematicians. The certification program is usually controlled by colleges and universities and is little more than a cash cow for their departments of education, so there’s no reason you, as a district leader, shouldn’t be doing it.

6. International teachers can fill gaps from afar. Districts experiencing teacher shortages should look to using international teachers to fill vacancies next year. With distance learning in place, does it matter if the teacher is in your hometown or in a different country? During my tenure as superintendent in Guilford County and Houston, we worked with Participate Learning to hire international teachers. While such organizations currently focus on in-person teacher placements, they have a strong network around the globe of teachers who could work virtually.

Cover your bases—make sure any changes are cleared through legal counsel so that you don’t violate board policies or state laws as you seek to meet new challenges with bold action. Don’t be afraid to ask for state or federal waivers.

Just last week, it was reported that the global collaboration among researchers to treat and vaccinate against COVID-19 is unprecedented and that it could set the stage for a new era of cooperation and breakthroughs. As educators, we should view this crisis with that same collaborative spirit by tackling challenges, sharing successes and failures, and seizing the potential to redefine and move education forward into a new age.