Magee: ‘We Have Seen Agility We Have Never Seen in Our History’ — Florida Ed Leaders on Meeting COVID-19 Challenges & What Needs to Be Done Moving Forward

Clockwise, from top left: Marie Izquierdo, Donald Fennoy, Eric Hall & Barbara Jenkins (YouTube)

Florida recently surpassed a grim milestone: 1 million cases of COVID-19 since March. As the pandemic wears on, school districts in the state, like those across the nation, have had to adapt. It has been far from easy, but Florida’s education leaders are developing new ways to give families and teachers the support and flexibility they need.

The superintendents and senior educators in some of the state’s largest systems are a part of the bipartisan network of education leaders Chiefs for Change, where I serve as CEO. Recently, I partnered with Impact Florida and the University of Florida Lastinger Center for a discussion of how systems are responding to the pandemic. Our panel included Chiefs for Change members Barbara Jenkins, superintendent of Orange County Public Schools in Orlando, and Donald Fennoy, superintendent of The School District of Palm Beach County. It also featured two educators from the Future Chiefs leadership development program, which is designed for those who are one or two steps away from becoming a chief: Marie Izquierdo, chief academic officer of Miami-Dade County Public Schools, and Eric Hall, senior chancellor of the Florida Department of Education.

One key theme that emerged during our conversation is that the effects of COVID-19 will be felt for years to come.

Despite the challenges, these leaders see opportunities to redesign education in ways that can benefit students now and into the future. They are creating stronger connections with school communities; implementing new instructional models and supports; and taking steps to ensure all children have the technology and home internet access they need.

Stronger connections 

Fennoy explained that the pandemic shed new light on the challenges children face. As he said, “Our eyes got opened very big.” Educators and families have had to rely on each other in ways they never had to before. With school taking place in the living room or at the kitchen table, parents and caregivers had a new window into what their children were learning, and teachers gained additional insight into the stress kids are under. Though buildings were closed, schools became an even greater source of stability in the immediate crisis, meeting families’ basic needs, connecting them with local services and helping them cope with the effects of the virus, including illness and grief. “People are losing family members,” Fennoy said. “I wasn’t excluded from that harsh reality.”

Educators in Palm Beach began starting their day with morning exercises and affirmations to help everyone process what is going on in their lives. The district also incorporated new components of social-emotional learning into its curriculum and emphasized that students and staff have a network of support. Palm Beach placed a greater focus on mental health and visited children in need at home. But Fennoy, like so many other leaders, is troubled by the number of students who have simply disappeared. He said the district launched an intense effort to find those kids, including children from undocumented families and those whose parents are migrant workers. Part of the effort has involved connecting with faith leaders and other trusted people in the community who are helping to reach families and convey the importance of returning to school.

New instructional models and supports

Education leaders found that families and school staff required new flexibility and assistance to continue learning and working. Many students live in multi-generational homes and needed the option to attend school virtually, even after some buildings reopened, to avoid exposing older or at-risk relatives to the virus. Families are also facing extreme financial distress as a result of the pandemic’s economic fallout. Parents and caregivers have taken on second and third jobs, forcing children to assume greater responsibilities at home. Many older children went to work themselves to help out. Given these new realities and to help mitigate the spread of the virus, Orange County, like other districts, made changes that allowed students to attend school in person, online or at night. Jenkins believes families will continue to want these options even after the pandemic is behind us.

She also said it was important not to let COVID-19 derail students’ goals for life after high school. “We said every student, every graduate, needs to have a plan. [They] shouldn’t be leaving [Orange County Public Schools] without a plan for what the future is going to look like…. We make sure that they have some certification in their high school years to make certain that they have possibilities. Because what we want our children to see is that even in the midst of COVID-19, they have vast possibilities, multiple pathways, if you will, to success.” As such, the district took its college and career counseling operation online and reached out to high school students via text, webinars and social media. It also held a drive-through college fair, so seniors could learn about various schools, majors and financial aid, as well as drive-through commencement ceremonies to celebrate graduates’ achievements.

To prevent students from falling behind and accelerate their learning, systems worked to provide intensive academic support. In Palm Beach, Fennoy used the transition to distance learning as an opportunity to realign human capital so the strongest educators teach the most vulnerable students. “We need our best teachers at some of our alternative education sites and hard-to-staff schools,” he said. In addition, by having some remote instruction, more students have been able to take advanced coursework because there is now a variety of resources to support it.

At the Florida Department of Education, Hall believes it is important to not just react to the current circumstances, but to seize opportunities to address existing gaps. One major area of focus is ensuring all students know how to read. During the pandemic, the state hired additional regional literacy directors to help districts implement early-stage literacy interventions. The department is also partnering with the Lastinger Center on efforts to train and certify more teachers in evidence-based reading instruction.

Miami-Dade County developed new ways to support teachers and families in handling the pressures they are facing at work and at home. Knowing that educators could fall ill or have to take time off to care for loved ones, Izquierdo said, the district cultivated a robust corps of substitute teachers to help ensure adequate coverage for classrooms. Miami-Dade also trained both teachers and subs in social-emotional learning practices and effective use of technology. For families tasked with managing their child’s online schooling, the district’s Parent Academy offered modules in three languages to teach adults how to navigate platforms and help their children. Miami-Dade also provided digital tools, therapies and additional paraprofessionals to support students with special needs.

Technology and home internet access 

Universally, panelists stressed the importance of ensuring all children have the computers, laptops and broadband access they need to learn at home, noting that these resources are essential in today’s 21st century world — pandemic or not. At the state level, Hall said the Department of Education reprioritized funds to get more than 30,000 devices to children from low-income families. The state also developed a partnership with T-Mobile in which the provider will give 600,000 families free internet access for five years. Fennoy said his district is working with the county government and local business community to connect up to 36,000 students, nearly two-thirds of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, using a new municipal Wi-Fi network. The partnership leverages county-owned fiber-optic cables and school radio towers to provide internet to neighborhoods surrounding a number of campuses. Students in need will receive Wi-Fi extenders for continuous internet access at no ongoing cost.

Even with the promising news of a COVID-19 vaccine on the horizon, educators know the pandemic’s impacts will not end anytime soon. Leaders at the senior levels of Florida’s education systems are not only adapting to immediate challenges, but driving changes that will benefit the children and families in their communities over the long term. As Hall told the group, “We have seen agility we have never seen in our history.” He and the other leaders on the panel are meeting the needs of the moment and working to build a stronger, more innovative system that is responsive to the realities of the world we live in.

Mike Magee is CEO of Chiefs for Change, a bipartisan network of state and district education leaders. 

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