Mordecai’s challenge to Esther should be on the minds of school leaders of faith during the COVID-19 pandemic: “Who knows but that you have come to your royal (in Esther’s case) position for such a time as this?” he asked her. During this uncertain period caused by the pandemic, school board leaders must remember the vision and goals they set for their school and adhere to their commitment to walk by faith, not by the headlines in the nightly news.
As board members accept Mordecai’s call, we should also be compelled to embrace still another charge from scripture, one that leaders will need to remind ourselves of regularly in the weeks ahead. In Psalm 10, the psalmist writes that as we follow God, we must make room in our thoughts for Him—or as Paul says in 2 Corinthians, take every thought captive to Christ. With critical decisions piling up before the school leaders we have chosen, school board members should leave room for God in our own minds when confronted with questions for which we do not have immediate answers.
The challenges before heads of school may seem insurmountable—and unending. As board members, we must recognize that our heads of school make crucial decisions for their teachers, families, and students every day, and in times of crisis such responsibilities only intensify. They are facing the enormous challenge of shepherding families while also operating a business. To add another degree of difficulty, many brick-and-mortar schools are moving instruction online in order to maintain some sense of continuity for students. School board members owe it to our school communities to act carefully. We must thoughtfully consider the factors involved in responding to any crisis, and be prepared to limit our involvement when educators are in direct contact with parents and students while re-inventing their schools during the pandemic.
Leading with Compassion
Federal and state lawmakers are appropriately considering the options for public schools while families are quarantined. Over the last week, federal and some state officials issued guidance that should encourage schools to think creatively and not fear they will violate regulations when delivering instruction online. These technical directions are essential, but the first response from Christian schools to their communities should be more than practical advice.
Our first action in the midst of a storm must be to deliver compassion. Stephen Reel, Ph.D., former ACSI Interim President and head of the school for which I am serving as board chair, Mitchell Road Christian Academy, says school leaders should be encouraged to respond in this way. “As administrators, we must realize that teachers are families during this coronavirus crisis, too,” Reel says. “We’ve got to have almost an extra measure of grace, and then the message even to the families is ‘let’s all give each other grace right now,’” he says.
Marc Stout, Ph.D., head of Gaston Christian School in Gaston, North Carolina, agrees. “I think that one of the things that ought to be a benchmark of our organization is compassion and love,” he says. “How can we capture this situation and use it to display the truth for families? I want don’t want them to see something else,” he says. Board members have a unique opportunity during social distancing to aid administrators by remembering the spiritual needs of families who are stuck at home. “Prayer in the midst of crisis is when we tend to go to our prayer closet the most,” Stout says.
Boards also play an essential role by resisting the urge to attack every problem that presents itself to a school leader and consider the families in their school and church community who are confronting unique challenges. Many parents are now out of work, while the teachers that students, families, and heads of school depend on are often parents themselves who are managing a household all day, every day during the quarantine. These teachers are also trying to maintain contact with their students. As heads of school extend compassion to their teachers and families, board members should make sure their school leaders are not in short supply.
Leading with Ideas
All educators are concerned about losing the rest of the school year. Public schools have closed around the country. Kansas has closed schools for the remainder of the academic year, while North Carolina public schools are closed at least until May 15. South Carolina schools are closed at least until the end of April. In Michigan, schools are closed and, as of March 21, public school students cannot earn instructional time through online coursework.
Here is where practical—and flexible—solutions are desperately needed. Since the start of the pandemic, online education providers have created resources for all schools to use. Virtual schools such as K12, Inc. and Connections, along with state-based online schools like VirtualSC and the Florida Virtual School have posted webinars and other videos to help train teachers. E-reading companies such as Epic! have made subscriptions free for teachers and families that access the site through a teacher’s account during the crisis. Schools do not have to create completed e-learning platforms from scratch. Families will appreciate any efforts to engage children, even if teachers and students experience technical difficulties at first.
Board members should be inspired by this innovation, despite what may be imperfect attempts. To be sure, heads of school will be the first hear about any problems. While content delivery may not be flawless during the first few weeks of virtual schooling, regular contact with teachers can provide stability and consistency for students. Board members should watch how schools adjust and prepare to update a school’s goals and policies after the pandemic is over to make their schools more responsive in the future.
Some of the rapid responses will fail, while others may stick and help schools serve more students with special needs who are homebound or families that are forced to travel regularly or re-locate due to employment changes—a likely scenario in the coming months. The instructional approaches that succeed during the current crisis could be the solutions to any number of problems schools may face in the years ahead.
Leading with Courage
The virus has ushered in a trying time for everyone—from board members to heads of school to teachers to parents and students. School leaders must show courage because that behavior will be hard to find elsewhere. “The first thought that comes to my mind is quelling fear. This is a scary situation for everybody, and students, teachers, families, they all have a varying level of fear,” Reel says. “I’m trying to create stability so that fear can be balanced or mitigated with faith.”
Through the spring and into the summer, school leaders will make difficult choices about dealing with the potential of a smaller enrollment next year and managing a tighter budget. School leaders must recognize that they will not be alone—on earth or Above—in answering questions that may not have easy answers. Now, more than ever, it is essential for school leaders and board members alike to demonstrate faith, modeling it for those around them, while applying faith to their leadership decisions each day. By making room in our minds for God when board members quickly find our own limitations, God will bridge the gap between our needs and our abilities.
About the Author
Jonathan Butcher serves as senior policy analyst in the Center for Education Policy at the Heritage Foundation and serves as the chair of the Mitchell Road Christian Academy school board. He has researched and testified on education policy and school choice programs around the U.S., and his work has appeared in journals such as Education Next and the Georgetown Journal of Law and Public Policy. He has appeared on local and national TV and radio outlets, including C-SPAN, Fox News, and HBO’s Vice News Tonight. His commentary has appeared nationally in places such as the Wall Street Journal, Education Week, National Review Online, and Forbes.com, along with newspapers around the country. Follow him on Twitter @JM_Butcher.