Education leaders share perspectives on impact of COVID-19

May 4, 2020

Across the United States, the rapid onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has upended the operations of school systems. Among the questions facing educational leaders are how teachers can keep students engaged in learning remotely, how to support the continued progress of already-vulnerable students, and how to plan for an uncertain future.

Several educational leaders in Washington state — all current students or alumni of the University of Washington’s Leadership for Learning (EdD) program — recently shared their perspectives on some of the critical issues facing education leaders in Washington and beyond.

Below, watch a video podcast with three Washington education leaders discussing lessons learned during COVID-19 and successful strategies for school and system leaders, as well as written reflections from school system leaders.

Video Podcast: Lessons for Education Leaders

Watch a conversation with Trevor Greene, superintendent of Yakima Schools; Kelly Niccolls, learning design manager for Getting Smart; and Kate O'Brien, principal of Hazen High School in Renton School District. Each of the three are members of the UW College of Education’s current L4L cohort.

They discuss challenges that are the focus of their attention during the COVID-19 pandemic, strategies they are pursuing to attend to the well-being of vulnerable students, what they are doing to prepare for the reopening of schools and what changes this crisis might prompt in school systems.

Education Leader Reflections on COVID-19

Washington education leaders, all current students or alumni of the College of Education’s L4L program, recently shared their insights on the issues they’ve faced during the COVID-19 pandemic. Read reflections from Tanisha Brandon-Felder (EdD ‘15), director of equity and family engagement for Shoreline School District; Omar Escalera, principal of Frost Elementary in Pasco; Haydeé Lavariega, community impact manager for United Way of King County; Mike McCarthy (MEd ‘11), director for mathematics in the Everett Public Schools STEM Department; and Sarah Pritchett (EdD ‘18), executive director of schools for Seattle Public Schools.

What’s one challenge that’s emerged during the COVID-19 crisis and taken up a lot of attention in your role as an education leader?

Sarah Pritchett: One of the most critical challenges that has emerged during the COVID-19 crisis has been the realization of the false sense of community that many teachers, staff and schools touted. We are challenged to build a new understanding of what community within our schools really means. Since the shutdown of our physical buildings, we have been focused on what it looks like to keep our students connected and close to us. We have before us a great opportunity to both challenge and redefine our thinking regarding relationships and true connection with our students and families. How do we build something more powerful, relevant and meaningful than what we have grown accustomed to? Daily conversations with school leaders center on strategizing how we capitalize on this opportunity to change practice, including how we teach, how we lead and how we connect with students and families.

Haydeé Lavariega: Undocumented families and students are one of the groups being hit the hardest by COVID-19. We need to open up more space for families to share their experiences and guide our educational solutions as they are closest to the pain and closest to the solutions but too often furthest from the power. It is our duty to change the way systems have been operating and work collectively for the future of all of our children.

Many undocumented families working in restaurants, gardening, house cleaning and the informal economy have lost their jobs with no employer or much government support. Families with at least one undocumented person didn’t receive a stimulus check. For many families, health, food and shelter, Maslow’s most basic needs, have become the most urgent priority as security in their lives has evaporated. In addition, families are having to navigate the educational system in completely new ways and are often left behind because of a lack of English skills and technology literacy, deepening already existing educational inequities. 

As leaders we have a tremendous responsibility to listen to families and their needs in their own language and in the technology they prefer, often phone or text. Listening to historically oppressed and immigrant families benefits us all. Their knowledge, wisdom and experience of their communities together with our expertise in navigating systems will allow us to learn and create change together.

Tanisha Brandon-Felder: One challenge that has emerged is keeping the “action" of equity in the forefront. We say the word, but we are not living it. In times of crisis or stress we tend to go back to the tried and true ways of navigating and running a system. I am in a district that has equity as a main driver of the work we are doing, yet when decisions started to be made, they were made in very individualistic and technical ways and left little room for collective and adaptive ways of responding.

These have started to shift more as we come to see this will be a long-term situation and the variance of diverse needs has only increased in this structure. What has become very clear to me is that collaboration, which is more about working together and delegation, is much different than collectivism, which is about being together and that we can only be as good and as OK as those around us.

Omar Escalera: The existing systemic inequities that exist in education are now much more acute and glaring. We are struggling to meet the needs of our most vulnerable students and communities because they have not been at the center of what we do. For me as an equity-minded educator, my priority is not instruction but well-being and safety. Are my kids and their families safe? Do they have enough to eat? Do they have a place to live? Utilities? These are the things that are often at the forefront during a “normal” school year. I also worry a whole lot about the agricultural workers and their students in my area because for them there is no choice but to go work and their kids are left taking care of themselves and other kids.  

What’s one strategy or effort you’re pursuing to attend to the academic, social-emotional or overall well-being of students during the current school closures, in particular vulnerable students?

Mike McCarthy: Through this crisis, we have been forced to see Maslow’s hierarchy taking precedence over Bloom's taxonomy. With this knowledge we are working hard to reduce the time teachers would need to be planning for essential content so that they can focus on reaching out to each and every student to determine needs.  

Our curriculum departments have assembled coaches and teacher leaders to identify common priority standards and aligned instructional activities, so teachers are freed up to focus on social and emotional aspects of their care for students. While curriculum leaders identify and create content, building leaders across our system are learning about social emotional learning to transfer immediately to practice as well as to inform processes and focus for when students return.  

In a recent training, we focused on the idea that SEL isn’t more being added to the plate, it is the plate — the foundation — that all learning must stand on if we are honoring each of our students. This awareness is already leading to action in our district for the current year and the years to come.

Omar Escalera: We have created a system of support that checks in on the families and students on their time, not ours. Flexing our office hours to make sure that we have people answer our phones and text messages in the mornings and afternoons. Then using our support structures (CARE TEAM, Guiding Coalition, Home Visitor, Counselors) and intervention flowchart to connect the families and students with the appropriate person in charge of resources in the system.

Tanisha Brandon-Felder: The idea that each student gets what they need to be successful is the basic definition of educational equity. I have taken the responsibility of reviewing the printed packets that go out to students every two weeks. With a team of equity leads, we look at all material submitted by teachers through the guiding questions: Is it engaging, is it accessible, is it culturally responsive? It is important that students are able to engage in work that is meaningful, that is able to be done with limited adult support and that it is culturally responsive — that it builds on their own background knowledge and experience. We know that our most impacted students need work that is beyond just busy work.

How do you think COVID-19 will change how our school systems operate beyond the current crisis?

Omar Escalera: I think this challenge can help us create a post-text of inclusion and equity in education. This is an opportunity for us as system leaders to stand up and advocate for our vulnerable students and our communities. We see disparities in how we are responding to this crisis within our districts based on the socio-economic status of our families. This has always been the case and these inequalities have always been there. COVID-19 can help us rethink the educational debt that is owed to our most vulnerable students and the system itself needs to be restructured to meet the needs of these students and their families.

Tanisha Brandon-Felder: I hope that every inequity that exists is spotlighted and cemented in time. This will forever be the true measure of what our school system is. I hope that we are shamed to the point that we finally ask those most impacted by our systems: “how can we do better?” And then we — wait for it — “We actually DO better.”

I hope that we examine the existing structure of how we teach and how our school days are scheduled and we adjust it for the students we teach, not the students that we taught decades ago. I hope we recognize the skill and art of teaching and invest in professional development that supports that instead of alignment to the “standards and fidelity to curriculum.”

I hope that we realize that schools do not work without true family engagement. I hope that we realize that our students are only held back by the adults in the system — let’s listen to them.

Mike McCarthy: One area where COVID-19 is transforming the way districts and schools operate is in how school walls have diminished and technology has stepped in to provide opportunities for collaboration. In the schools where teachers feel most supported to lead and learn with their students, they are collaborating across the district with colleagues teaching the same grade level or content area. Teachers fresh out of teacher preparation programs are contributing alongside veteran staff to engage learners in rich and relevant synchronous and asynchronous instruction. 

COVID-19’s closures have allowed many leaders to see what is possible while creating joint work amongst teachers. Building on this collective success, we see collaboration, even over a wide physical area, as powerful and possible moving into a more traditional teaching and learning future.


Dustin Wunderlich, Director of Marketing and Communications