Joe Donovan
Founding Partner
The Donovan Group

March 11, 2020. It’s a date many of us will remember as when the pandemic became very real for most of us. While some schools in the United States had already closed, the vast majority at that time were still operating as usual. But on March 11, the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic. 

The rest, of course, is history. 

While we can generally think of March 2020 as when the pandemic began, it has been more difficult for us to point to a date or a set of dates and say: “This was when the pandemic ended.”

We can never take lightly the devastation the pandemic has caused. We all know people—perhaps several—who were lost or severely impacted by COVID-19. Many of our students, especially our most vulnerable, have suffered greatly over the past two years. 

However, for the most part, we can take a breath and say: “We did it. We made it through.”

At this moment, it can be hard to take stock. The past two-plus years have been disorienting, to say the least. It’s fair to look back at March 2020 and the subsequent years and think, “What Just happened?”

Last winter, I fell on the ice while making my way to the car after grocery shopping. It was one of those falls I didn’t see coming. One moment I was walking to my car, thinking about all the things on my to-do list, and the next, I was looking straight up at the cold, blue sky.  

As I lay on the ground, trying to assess my situation, I did something of a systems check. Did I hit my head? Did I break any bones? My hand hurt, but I wasn’t bleeding. As people approached and asked if I was OK, I said, “Yeah, I’m OK.” But in truth, at the moment, I wasn’t quite sure. I was a little stunned.

As we emerge from the pandemic, we may find ourselves in the same disoriented state regarding our schools. While every school and district leader is owed a debt of gratitude from their community for handling the challenges of the pandemic, it is difficult to know where our schools stand with the public. 

This situation is made more difficult because of all the turbulence in the world right now, much of it also brought on by the pandemic itself. 

So…are we OK? 

Taking stock of our situation

While every school district is different, there are many things to be concerned about as we emerge from the pandemic. We hear from school and district leaders that the turbulence from the pandemic has turned into anger on the part of some in the community. This has led to protests and a hardening of positions. We know that our staff is tired and that, like so many of us, school board members are getting more than they could have expected. And, the needs of our students have shifted as the pandemic laid bare some of the inequities we see among children. 

Taken together, one of the simplest ways to describe what we are seeing now is that people are hurting. 

It is in the context of all this turbulence that some recent polling has shed light on this situation. According to Gallup in 2021, 73 percent of parents of school-aged children say they are “satisfied with the quality of education their oldest child is receiving.” Perhaps more interesting is that more parents were more satisfied in 2021 than in 2013 or 2002. 

While this is down from the high point of 82 percent satisfaction in 2019, it is clear that people are generally happy with their schools. 

This is where things get interesting. According to the New York Times and other media outlets, whose reporters went deep into the Gallup data, those who are most intimately engaged in the public schools (notably parents) have strong positive feelings about their schools. Those who do not—specifically, those who do not have children in the schools—are far more negative. 

Overall, considering parents and non-parents together, only 46 percent of Americans are satisfied with schools. This may be surprising on the surface, but in many ways, these data reveal what we have known for years: those who are closest to the schools most often have more positive feelings about our schools than others. 

So, what do we do with this information? 

For many of us, these data give us solace in knowing that what was true before the pandemic is true now. To know schools is to like them. However, we also know that as we pick ourselves up and move forward, much work remains. 

Our work has always been challenging. It’s even more so now. We have an opportunity and an opportunity to provide value through effective communication. 

None of us had a ready-made playbook about how to operate in a post-pandemic world, which means we are now reorienting ourselves. We are catching our breath. We are assessing our situation. But we have a sense that what has worked in the past will continue to work as we move forward.

Always seek the high ground

In all they do, education leaders must seek to be the most professional, reasonable, and thoughtful people in the room. 

Continue to act based on your principles as an educational leader and the principles of your organization. Focus on honesty, transparency, and forthrightness. Understand the responsibility you have in providing stakeholders—including staff, students, parents, other community residents, and area businesses—insights into the outstanding value public schools provide.

Always remember that your ethics, professionalism, and values are your superpowers. Take the high ground. 

Focus on good governance

In all things, show that your school district operates with good governance structures. Maintain transparency and ensure good clear delineation between what is a district communication and what is a school board communication. 

When it is difficult to communicate about specific situations, perhaps because of the need to protect students or staff and their confidentiality, consider speaking instead about what we call the “3Ps”: Policy, process and procedure. 

Finally, continue to recognize that, in most communities, upwards of 80 percent of community residents do not have children in the schools and may not be meaningfully engaged with the school district. Seek ways to connect with those residents, especially during times of turbulence.

Remember, you are not a board member

One of the most difficult situations we face is when people try to leverage board members against the superintendent and other school leaders. This is often done during open board meetings, when board members cannot defend themselves. We find that board members often fail to recognize that their superintendent and other school leaders, despite their skill and experience, do not have a board vote.

With that, we must remember that there will be times when administrators cannot defend themselves. The school board must defend its administrators and the role of the administrators in these situations. 

Explain the ‘why’

Leading requires providing a clear path forward and anticipating and addressing challenges with a commitment to achieve an objective. We must explain the what, how, and when. But we really need to lean into the why. This is especially important now as we come out of the pandemic and school districts continue their efforts to meet the needs of all students, including those most impacted by the pandemic. 

We find that people often debate the what, when, and how, but often find agreement on the why

Tell your story

Much of what I love about working in public education is that I know small miracles take place in classrooms every day. The amazing efforts that school district staff make to meet the needs of students, to kindle that spark of curiosity and to protect students never fail to inspire me. I bet the same is true for you. Tell those stories. 

Remember, if you do not tell those stories about your district’s efforts to meet the needs of students, no one will. Consider making it your daily goal to consider three things that you believe everyone should know about your school district, such as compelling stories of success. Tell those stories to everyone who will listen. Your enthusiasm for your school district is a secret weapon. Use it. 

As we reflect on what has likely been the most difficult two school years of our careers and prepare for a new school year this fall, remember that while our worlds have changed, much of what made us successful as it relates to our communications and community engagement remains. Here’s to a great winter and rest of the year! 

Joe Donovan

Joe is the founding partner of the Donovan Group, a communications firm that services public schools in Minnesota. 

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