A crisis of leadership threatens to overwhelm the nation's schools as they struggle to start a new year during a pandemic. And it's unclear exactly who can and will fill the vacuum.
Before the pandemic, politicians and power players took for granted the traditional routine of opening bell and homeroom period that-educational mission aside-assured that adults could head off to work.
With that routine broken, the educators directly responsible for the upcoming school year-chief among them tens of thousands of local superintendents and principals-now mostly hear a discordant chorus instead of clear direction. There are those in positions of authority and influence who want school buildings open immediately, but they offer conflicting plans for how to restart. Sometimes the clamor of voices alternates between demands and indifference.
It only takes Greene County, N.C., schools Superintendent Patrick Miller a few seconds of discussing his job to say he's on the "brink of insanity" as he readies for the new school year.
"The two terms I'm sick of are, 'unprecedented' being one and 'fluid' being the other. But I can't think of better terms to describe it," Miller said. He added that despite his appreciation for crucial support he's gotten from the state, there's a lot of "political noise" around his work and that sometimes, "I'm in a fog. I'll wake up in the middle of the night."
The bewilderment and backlash at the local level has been intense and public. Some have focused on what they deem a lack of "empathy & grace," as Richmond, Va., Superintendent Jason Kamras put it in a July 14 social media broadside directed at the Trump administration and its pressure for immediate brick-and-mortar reopening.
Others have decried what they see as a lack of clear direction, or a growing and entangled mass of guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on down.
The trajectory of national education politics has affected the environment, too. Years of distrust if not open hostility between U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and many education leaders had already drained away goodwill DeVos might have drawn on during a crisis. That wariness has grown due to a few factors, including DeVos' dictates that schools should reopen or put their full federal funding at risk if they don't.
DeVos has encouraged educators to reach out to the department without addressing in detail how she's made a consistent effort to reach out to educators, and cited one district and one charter school network she says can be role models. And the administration has highlighted money already made available by Congress, which, DeVos has pointedly observed, schools haven't spent much of.
But mostly, DeVos has stressed that it's educators' job to reopen schools safely and not rounded the sharp edges off her demands that are in virtual lock step with those from President Donald Trump that "SCHOOLS MUST OPEN."
"There has to be a posture of doing something, of action, of getting things going," DeVos told Fox News' Chris Wallace on July 12. Implicit in that comment was that educators have not demonstrated enough urgency. And her department stepped up the pressure earlier this week by declaring on Twitter: "It is safe for schools to reopen."
Watching DeVos' remarks about schools losing federal aid, Liz Garden, an elementary school principal in Holden, Mass., wondered incredulously, "Is this reverse psychology?"
"The damage being done by just that one bullying statement—if you're not going to get kids back in school, we're not going to give you money—now we're being threatened?" Garden said. "It would be great to have some more guidance and some more understanding."
Angela L. Morabito, an Education Department spokeswoman, said DeVos "regularly communicates with and continues to speak with governors and other education leaders about ways schools can deliver a full-time education to students in the fall," citing more than 50 calls with state superintendents and commissioners by early June.
As for guidance, Morabito said, "the administration is committed to a locally-driven, federally-supported approach to helping schools and local districts reopen safely in the fall." And she insisted that DeVos "has great working relationships with many state and local leaders, and education leaders from across the country."
But DeVos isn't the only target for unease over leadership. Disputes between state leaders are destabilizing the situation too. And a growing number of districts have decided to start the year with remote-only instruction. That's precisely what educators and officials say they'd prefer not to happen.
"We get different messages from different times from those state and federal agencies. And we're expected to open schools in five weeks. The CDC says this, then the state interprets it one way, then another way," said Michael Hinojosa, the superintendent of the Dallas district. "Now some of the things we thought we could pull off are no longer feasible."
School leaders want to be able to tell the public that they must stick to clear requirements and guardrails about things like face masks, social distancing, and what to do if a child seems ill, and that the health and safety of the community depends on adhering to them. Josh Starr, a former superintendent who is the CEO of PDK International, a professional educators' group, put his view bluntly: School officials are looking for political cover so they can do key parts of their jobs, and states need to step up because DeVos isn't.
"People are desperate for leadership. And part of it is, educators are exhausted," Starr said.
In Education Week survey results from the early period of the pandemic, 54 percent of teachers' opinions of their governors rose by "a lot" or "somewhat" as a result of how they handled the virus. Yet these teachers also said they knew that harder times were to come. They were right.
The disagreements and lack of cohesive leadership don't just cross state, local, and federal boundaries, but can affect work within those levels of government.
In a July 7 letter to North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson, a Republican, wrote that he was "concerned about inconsistent health guidelines" from the state health department about reopening schools.
Touching on concerns he had about how schools would deal with face coverings and social distancing on buses, and stating that his omission from previous discussions "has resulted in a confusing and inconsistent policy," Johnson said. "I am writing with the hope that the science supporting new guidelines might be explained and to present a possible resolution to avoid unnecessary confusion at the local level."
Despite that squabbling, Miller of the Greene County district said the state chief has provided helpful and constantly updated resources to help schools prepare, and that state leaders have clearly been working hard to address his concerns.
But he's hopeful for more emergency aid. And when the governor announced that the state would pay for five masks for each student and staff member, he appreciated it but also regretted the timing. "I wish I had known that earlier, because I had already ordered masks ... I could have used that $17,000 that I spent for something else," Miller said. "I never realized how much hand sanitizer cost until I had to buy 500 cases."
Despite his best efforts, after 13 years as the superintendent, Miller said he's fearful that if his district's budget isn't in the black at the end of the year, "I'll potentially lose my job. That's just something that I just have to wrestle with. And I'm not alone."
Other examples of such division aren't hard to find; in fact, there's one next door. South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, a Republican, held a press conference July 15 demanding that schools reopen five days a week for face-to-face classes. But state Superintendent Molly Spearman, a fellow elected Republican, did not join him at the event and later said she disagreed with McMaster. Montana's governor and superintendent have also clashed.
When Susan Enfield, the superintendent of the Highline district in Washington state, looks at what she's gotten from the constellation of leadership above her, she feels a mixture of appreciation and vexation. (Enfield is a member of the board for Editorial Projects in Education, the nonprofit entity that publishes Education Week.)
She appreciates the weekly calls from state Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal with district leaders and his quick action to do things like cancelling the state assessment in the spring. And she acknowledges that he and other officials are operating in a "quicksand landscape" of constantly changing information.
Yet Enfield also wishes Reykdal would get districts and teachers' unions to agree to some "high-level" stipulations about the nature of instruction and other matters, instead of fragmented local negotiating. And she criticized what she's seen as a lack of coordination between the state health and education departments about certain rules.
"You have multiple agencies trying to communicate things that impact schools. It's just another example of trying to do the best we can and having the rug pulled out from under us," Enfield said.
In response to Enfield, the state education department spokeswoman, Katy Payne, said that while the state's guidance "gives districts significant flexibility" to design various learning models next year, "There is no legal mechanism in the state of Washington for statewide bargaining for educators or even 'high-level' agreements" to bind local officials.
"Our guidance for school districts about reopening in the fall was shaped by enormous amounts of feedback from management and labor, but not through formal agreements," Payne wrote.
Enfield doesn't have black-and-white views about DeVos.
Many of Enfield's peers "do not believe that she is an advocate for public education" and doesn't have the relevant experience working in schools to provide motivation and understanding in the pandemic. But Enfield also questions what help DeVos is getting from White House officials, and says a lack of cohesion or planning at that level trickles down to officials Enfield deals with directly.
"We would appreciate clearer guidance. We would appreciate, in some cases, some directives and mandates," she said.
Sitting between federal and local education leaders, Rhode Island Commissioner of Education Angélica Infante-Green said she's taken a "whole-state approach" to planning for the upcoming year.
One of the state's key decisions was to ensure that everyone has been put on the same school calendar. That took close coordination with Infante-Green and her office, state health officials, teachers' unions, local private schools, and Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo. If schools must shut down again, there won't be a fragmented or confused response from local leaders.
"It directly impacts everyone," Infante-Green said of the pandemic. "In education we're used to being siloed. This has taught us the hard way to partner with private schools in a way that we've never done before."
Infante-Green said she's had a couple of calls with DeVos' team about school reopenings, and that more of those discussions would be helpful. She also participates in a weekly call with other state education commissioners organized by the Council of Chief State School Officers, as well as separate, regular meetings with state K-12 leaders in the Northeastern states. But she says she hears from colleagues elsewhere who are "planning all this on their own in a vacuum. I have information they don't have."
"Right now, we can't go by the same rules we had in the past," Infante-Green added. "We need a little more flexibility, we need a little more guidance. But I don't think that threats help us at this moment."
Yet the state's work hasn't been immune from criticism. District leaders said they were caught off guard by Rhode Island's plan to reopen schools with in-person attendance on Aug. 31, the Providence Journal reported. Infante-Green, whose agency released school reopening guidelines in mid-June, said such confusion about reopening has since been cleared up.
Anxiety is palpable at the local level. A survey conducted by the National Association of Secondary School Principals that was released July 8 found that just one out of three principals believe they could ensure the health of students and staff if schools reopen in the fall. In responding to that survey, one principal said his "fear is that the public will be looking at each measure as a political statement."
That's a sentiment district leaders must take into account, Starr of PDK International said.
In some states or in areas where local school boards are deeply split, he said, "there's a real challenge there for a superintendent to try to make decisions about trying to get kids back in schools and keep them safe, given the politics of it."
Echoing Infante-Green, Hinojosa of the Dallas district said he's found some of the most helpful information from his fellow big-city superintendents, in part through regular calls that the Council of the Great City Schools has helped arrange.
"We're more alike than anybody else that I deal with," he said. "It's made us more efficient."
Part of his strategy, Hinojosa said, is to do media interviews whenever he can, even if it annoys his board members. But not everyone is so inclined. In response to a request for an interview with St. Paul, Minn., schools Superintendent Joe Gothard, a spokesman for the district noted that state guidelines for school reopenings aren't due until the week of July 27 and added, "Until that time it would be premature for Dr. Gothard to discuss decision-making."
Education leaders are frank about what they believe would demonstrate leadership: more money from the federal government.
Enfield says the reaction she's looking for from the nation's capital is essentially: "Here are the steps you have to take, and here are the dollars that we will allocate to support that. I mean, it's pretty basic."
Infante-Green said bluntly of DeVos: "I need her to advocate for more dollars."
And Hinojosa expressed his support for a House-passed bill that contains $58 billion in direct coronavirus aid for schools, and stressed that as far as his community and Texas are concerned, "The crisis doesn't seem to be dissipating. It seems to be expanding."
Policies in the Lone Star State continue to be a moving target. On July 15, the state education department said districts could conduct remote learning full-time without losing state aid—but only if local health authorities signed off on it, the Texas Tribune reported.
But not everyone observing the situation takes the same view on lack of leadership-or the central role of money-when it comes to the needs of the needs of students and parents.
In the spring, Ginny Gentles watched the Arlington, Va., district's response to the pandemic and to her children's education with deep frustration over what she saw as the lack of robust academic options offered remotely. The experience has led her to focus her demand for leadership on her local district and others: "Make wise commitments and visions. And make a commitment to educating children and serving families well."
A visiting fellow at the right-leaning Independent Women's Forum, who worked on Capitol Hill and in the Education Department under President George W. Bush, she said what Trump and DeVos have communicated represents "clear direction" regardless of whether local K-12 leaders like it. And a new federal aid package, she said, won't provide concrete help to schools by the time they start the 2020-21 year.
"This isn't Betsy DeVos' fault that this is going to be a challenging school year," she said. "What she says or what President Trump says does not ultimately impact local decisions." At the same time, the Education Department, she said, should serve as more of a "repository for success stories" and "sharing what works well."
As Garden, the Holden, Mass., principal, prepares for the upcoming school year, she has a not-dissimilar desire for the federal government to release recommendations that draw on good plans beyond the one "flashy" district DeVos singled out for praise recently (the Miami-Dade district). But she expressed little optimism that would take place.
Instead, Garden is watching the local budget-cutting process unfold. She's had to let two teachers and a paraprofessional go and an assistant principal leave without being certain she can hire a replacement. And she's changing course so that she now views her role as principal of an "urgent care facility." The focus, she said bluntly, is not on teaching and learning, but on health and welfare.
"I'm like: Oh, sure, now we're in the public eye," Garden said. "I do feel like it's resting on our shoulders. It's a lot of weight to carry, a lot of stress, and a lot of worry."