Children learn perhaps the most fundamental lessons of life by observing how the adults in their lives react in times of crisis. By this measure, above all else that has happened in recent weeks, our public schools have exceeded all expectations. Whether through the receipt of school lunches being provided by the schools from door to door, phone calls home from teachers and administrators, or emergency board approval of increased technology spending to ensure connectivity and access, the message to students was clear: You are important, and we are here for you.
Our nation’s public schools went to great lengths to reach all students, including those with special needs, financial hardships, and difficult home situations. While most of our schools were forced to modify their educational programming, I believe that this fundamental lesson of the worth and importance of every child far transcended any curricular shortcomings. It is evident, now more than ever, that this message embodies our nation’s public school systems.
As a school attorney, these past few months have taught me some other valuable lessons, too. I believe that these recent events have proven that our K-12 public school system is strong and capable of adapting to and even rising above incredible challenges.
Throughout this rapidly changing ordeal, despite school closures, staffing issues, and extreme financial distress, public schools remain steadfast in their dedication to their students. From board members to administrators, teachers to counselors and school nurses, bus drivers to cafeteria staff, and everyone in between, there has been an inspiringly unified, intense focus on the well-being of the students.
The tireless hours that I have witnessed being spent by individuals at all levels of the school systems during this time of crisis have given me immeasurable hope. I have received countless calls from board members and school leaders over the last few weeks, often beginning early in the morning and continuing late into the night.
I have learned that, through the dedication of many, our nation’s schools have not merely adapted to the challenges. They have thrived in the face of this unexpected adversity, meeting those challenges head-on with awe-inspiring determination, persistence, and ingenuity. It has truly been wonderful to behold, and I consider myself blessed to be able to work alongside so many amazing people who are so dedicated to the students they serve.
Like our public schools themselves, NSBA and our state school boards associations have similarly risen to the challenge, providing guidance and support to member districts while fiercely advocating before lawmakers for crucial financial and legislative assistance. They not only have kept up with the changes and assisted schools in understanding them, but they also have been in front of the legislation, helping to bring attention and solutions to the problems presented to schools.
In addition, through my involvement in NSBA’s Council of School Attorneys (COSA), I also have been privy to the reality of the world of school attorneys. Like our school leaders, they have been working almost around-the-clock, analyzing and interpreting hundreds of pages of new federal and state legislation and researching applications of existing law to unique legal issues presented. They have been collaborating with one another through hundreds of rapid-fire COSA message-board discussion posts at all hours of the night and day. They have been taking the information that they learned and relaying it to client schools through memos, model forms, and recommended procedures.
This group of amazing attorneys, over 3,000 members strong, also has provided specific recommendations to NSBA’s legislative team and made formal requests to federal agencies for specific guidance. If you haven’t done so recently, send a note of thanks and appreciation to your schools’ attorneys. They deserve it. While our schools were exemplary in responding to the initial crisis, I also firmly believe that our educational system is now in a position where it has the potential to become even stronger as a result of this experience. We must move quickly to do so. The crisis is not over. This spring’s pandemic posed unprecedented, sweeping, and often highly complicated problems for schools. Schools were forced to make minute-by-minute decisions, some of which would have far-reaching implications for the students, staff, and community.
Some strategies worked, some did not, but all were doing the best that they could with the resources and knowledge that was available. Yet, now that the problems have become visible, and we have had time to understand, at least somewhat, their short- and longer-term implications, it is possible to address them prophylactically and for each school to develop a system and process—uniquely tailored to the school’s size, location, community, organizational structure, etc.—that enables it to handle future pandemic-related struggles uniformly and effectively.
We must remain vigilant and immediately turn our attention to the next steps of the process. During these few precious summer weeks, schools must develop and put into place policies, protocols, administrative regulations, training tools, and other necessary items that will help them weather potential future pandemic-related issues, whether they occur this fall or further into the future.
The past few months have expanded our collective knowledge and understanding of a number of very important issues related to handling a wide-scale pandemic that we will very likely need to face again, including: communicating with staff, students, and families during a time of crisis; flexible instruction options and limitations; technology strengths, needs, and shortcomings; potential employment issues; school closure decisions; school cleaning/disinfecting; proactively spotting illness among students and staff members; and many more.
Global, national, and state-level awareness and information have also grown. The body of federal and state guidance that has been issued at such a rapid pace this spring will continue to increase, and we will continue to better understand the medical aspects of pandemic exposure. Schools must use the next weeks efficiently, using this vast expansion of our knowledge and awareness of these issues to establish a long-term vision and plan.
Although it would be easy for school leaders to take a well-deserved rest as the school year comes to a close, it is more important now than ever that each school system double-down and digest the “teachable moments” of the spring, incorporating all of the information and knowledge we have gleaned into the development of effective, thoughtful, and proactive processes and procedures that address future needs. If schools are able to remain vigilant and refocus their efforts on the long term with renewed strength and clarity, I believe that our schools will be able to handle whatever the future holds with this pandemic.
I would like to thank public school board members, administrators, educators, and staff members across the country. Our public school systems have truly been a lifeline for our nation’s families during this crisis. Because of your efforts, despite potentially insurmountable challenges and in the face of unprecedented adversity, our schools and our school communities have emerged stronger than ever. It is easy to become anxious about what the future holds, but based upon what I have witnessed over the last few months, our public schools will be able to handle whatever comes. You are a source of inspiration and hope for your students and your communities. Thank you for your dedication; we are all better for it.
Erin D. Gilsbach (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the executive director of EdLaw Interactive and an attorney with the Steckel and Stopp law firm, Slatington, Pennsylvania.