“What Defines Us as Leaders Now?” How District Leaders Wrestle with Equity During the COVID-19 Pandemic
“Every leader in Guilford County Schools—principals, teachers, bus drivers—has anew role based on this COVID-19 pandemic,” a district leader explains. “A lot has changed. We are different people from when we left schools on March 13. What defines us as leaders now?”
Heads nod within tiny Zoom windows. Principal supervisors from Guilford County Schools in central North Carolina have come together for a virtual community of practice session led by New Leaders. These thirteen district leaders support 125 principals and schools in urban, rural and suburban communities across Guilford County.
“We all recognize the systemic inequities,” another principal supervisor adds. “I've been really thinking a lot about what this means and the opportunity in front of us, both as a nation and locally… How can we fix what is broken?” “We know this experience is traumatic,” a third leader echoes. “How can we make sure that all our students and families are doing okay?”
Like educators and leaders across the country, Guilford County Schools is experiencing a heightened awareness of inequity and a renewed commitment to addressing it. District leaders are asking each other hard questions about what equitable access to learning can look like during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.
While there are no definitive answers, they all agree that the way in which they are exploring those questions and responding to the needs is different than what they’ve done before. Some call it the silver lining in this crisis. A reframing of what is possible both now – and moving forward.
In the immediacy of the crisis, daily “grab-and-go” meals are shared with families to ensure children can eat breakfast and lunch. District leaders work to secure daycare for the children of first responders. Colorful lawn signs celebrate the members of the Class of 2020, and car parades allow students to see and engage with their teachers at a safe distance.
Some schools share their morning announcements via YouTube to offer students a sense of normalcy. Piano recitals and Parent Teacher Association talent shows have gone virtual too. Teachers train other teachers on new technology platforms, and principals strive to address the social-emotional aspect of school closures and to meet students’ most pressing needs, academic and otherwise. Over 15,000 devices have been distributed to Guilford families. To further bridge the digital divide, the district advocates for internet connectivity and works with families to remove obstacles to remote learning.
Looking out to the next school year only raises more questions about how district leaders can sustain this deep commitment to preserving community. “The inequities are right in front of us,” a principal supervisor observed. “The data is here. We don’t have to research it anymore. We’re living it every day… Once this crisis is all said and done, we need to remember this experience to make sure we continue to do better for all our children – like we’re having to do now.”
For now, Guilford leaders are recommitting themselves to connecting with their staff and families on a personal and daily basis. Some principal supervisors are joining school team meetings virtually. Others model adaptive leadership and work to ensure communication is clear and concise. Still others help principals set goals for their changing roles and an eventual re-opening.
All of them agree to sit with the questions.
It is these questions that drive leaders to be positive and powerful forces for change. Questions transform our beliefs about what is possible and ask us to rethink how schools and systems are organized.
They remind us that despite the inescapable nature of this pandemic – and the disproportionate impact on Black and brown communities – our students’ capacity for growth, their curiosity and enthusiasm for new ideas, know no bounds.
Perhaps that is the most important silver lining of them all.
Guilford County Schools serves close to 72,000 students from urban, rural and suburban communities in central North Carolina. Like school systems across the country, all 125 schools are closed through the end of the school year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Guilford County Schools partners with New Leaders to develop transformational leaders across the leadership continuum, from teacher leaders to principal supervisors.