Leading during a global pandemic: Lessons learned

I recently retired as a principal leading more than 2,800 students in a high school located in a downtown Las Vegas zip code with one of the highest rates of family poverty in the state. This community during good times is high-needs, and during the “bad times” and continuous crisis of COVID-19 was seriously and directly affected. This coming school year will be another very difficult one as we face a more infectious COVID variant, and as many of our most vulnerable communities are still not yet recovering from economic and personal hardships.

Leadership, I have learned, does matter. As Maxwell Maltz said, “Most crisis situations are opportunities to either advance or stay where you are.” Following are three lessons I recommend our current leaders adopt so our most vulnerable communities and children can advance.

Meet your clients, or students, where they are. Understand the community you serve, create trust, and stand in the shoes of families as they face adversity.

Last spring, I spoke to a single mother of five. Her voice quivered as she shared that her son and sibling each needed Chromebooks. She was worried because her supervisor informed her that her last day of work would be at the end of that week. Her immediate concerns were how would she pay the rent and have enough groceries to feed her children. She left with two Chromebooks under her arm and a look of relief on her face.

For this mother, and for thousands of other families who shared similar conversations, our school had become a key part of her support. We had earned trust, one family at a time, one conversation at a time. This mom understood that school was a sanctuary for her student and her family. 

In this high school, because of Nevada’s Victory funding, we had built “wraparound services,” which allowed us to facilitate access to government and privately provided social services to help families tide things over in times of adversity. During COVID, we collaborated with agencies so parents could more easily apply for unemployment; we helped families fill out applications; we brought in mental health service providers; we partnered with food banks; and we sponsored COVID-19 vaccination and flu shot pop-ups. 

Meeting students and families where they are is more than facilitating services. It means not to judge, to empathize, to create trust so communication flows and to help each student and family problem fight through adversity. During last year’s COVID crisis, our school had to become a lifeline to help our students’ families face the adversity of joblessness, food insecurity, lack of access to technology — providing life-sustaining resources that many of us have the privilege to take for granted.  More importantly, every teacher became adept at trauma-informed practices. 

Our miracle-making staff became trained in trauma-sensitive practices so students could acquire new life-skills to help them cope with adult demands. Our students, who previously worked to pay for the extras, were now working to help put food on the table. Our teachers became part of a support network that boosted students’ confidence, reassured them that it was worth it to stay in school and put in the extra time to help them keep up with curricular demands, and built self-efficacy to not give up on themselves or school. Beyond teaching lessons and completing tests, teachers coached students to become kind and empathetic human beings. Through the crisis, we became a sanctuary for our school community.

Work on focused communication. Be flexible and proactive. 

On March 13, 2020, I had less than 10 minutes’ notice to announce that the school was going to close. We were under a directive to clear the campus immediately. Parents were confused, the questions came like an avalanche, and for the next eight months, the pace never relented. 

During a crisis, standard communication is not enough; focused communication becomes essential. As our staff navigated to teaching online, we used every platform available for communication: email, social media, automated phone call messages, Google meets, personal calls and home visits. The common theme was to be proactive and be fluid like water, because the ebb and flow of communication would change at any given moment.

The amount of stress remote teaching placed on the staff immediately was evident. As a leader, it became my role to buffer staff from these pressures. A supportive atmosphere, where mistakes and frustrations opened doors to honest discussions and rethinking how we did things was what kept us going during that difficult spring. At the same time, as a leader, I had to shift focused communication from “Safety First,” to ensuring that everyone in the school community was taking care of their own mental health and wellness. It was a delicate balance to be able to face both work and wellness challenges.

As the weeks and months passed, we learned that our students were dealing with self-harm, domestic violence, and suicide ideation. Our staff had to add focused communication to their teaching duties. Staff  reviewed weekly and sometimes daily case-by-case crisis situations. Each became familiar with legally mandated reporting protocols regarding, for example, domestic violence or suicide ideation. We became familiar with community resources for specific needs.  

When notification of trauma within a student’s home was shared with law enforcement, social workers and counselors would collaboratively use protocols that maintained safety for the student at the same time providing helpline resources. It was imperative to maintain communication with students and families. Students knew there was someone at the school that knew what happened and cared that they were safe. Focused communication kept staff focused on things that we could control while letting go of those factors that we could not.

Most schools in CCSD have moved beyond brick-and-mortar places that only provide content lessons. Now, schools must also monitor the social emotional learning needs of students and  help staff handle extraordinary stress and demands of situational crises. 

Leaders are everywhere. Let them rise.

I was a member of a collective community of leaders and elected officials who worked together to address the huge challenges that we faced during last year’s COVID-19 crisis. For example, the governor’s COVID-19 Task Force, the Nevada Department of Education, Communities in Schools, The Public Education Foundation and CCSD all worked to remove obstacles to gaining access to more technology and Wi-Fi. This effort, federal monies procured by our congressional delegation, and the cooperation of cable providers was crucial for providing equitable learning for all students. 

Clark County and Las Vegas governments worked tirelessly to make vaccines available  and increase mental health services. Private businesses helped with bags of food, bus passes, and food gift cards. Federal monies were used by CCSD to purchase Chromebooks and wi-fi hot spots. Food services for free and reduced lunch students at CCSD continued all during the crisis.

Understanding that leaders are everywhere in and among your teams is vital to resolving blind spots. In my school community, we patiently addressed each situation.  For example, many conversations were held with the school’s attendance officer, a frontline essential worker, about root causes for students not logging in for remote learning: Was it not having a device, no Wi-Fi, sudden relocation, or other factors impeding student’s motivation to engage? This attendance officer had always been — and again rose — as a leader and forward thinker, as he reimagined the role to deliver services and re-engage students. Among other things, this attendance officer re-equipped his vehicle with makeshift resources for immediate distribution and became an extended lifeline for students and families through this difficult crisis.

At every level, this community has pulled together, but the COVID crisis is not yet over.  Our schools have demonstrated they truly are life lines for our communities. There is  uncertainty as to what this school year may bring. However, leaders will make a difference if they are courageous in their decision-making and adapt to advance education forward to unknown boundaries. This crisis has already shown there are opportunities to find new ways of doing the same thing. Because leadership matters, this is a call to act and to lead based on the lessons we have learned, using an equitable and focused lens so we do not leave any child or family behind.

Ramona Esparza is a senior leadership fellow with The Public Education Foundation.