Last month, the senior leaders of the nation’s three largest school districts convened to talk about the impact of COVID-19 on their operations, the lessons they’ve learned thus far, and how they are preparing for the future. The convening—which was orchestrated by Harvard University’s Public Education Leadership Project (PELP)—highlights the value of interdistrict collaboration during these difficult times and puts a spotlight on issues that policymakers must pay attention to in the coming months as school districts, and society at large, seek to regain their footing.

Amidst all the chaos, confusion, and uncertainty that the pandemic has brought, there is a near universal optimism among school and district leaders that there is an opportunity to make the education system better than it was before the crisis, as a result of the hardships currently being endured throughout the country. If districts and schools are, in fact, to realize this ambition of making a better system, it is critical that they are able to surface issues now so that they and the political leaders they depend on can better prepare for the future that lies ahead. The issues at hand range from the minutiae of what reopenings look like, to bigger picture questions about staffing, budgets, and pedagogical models.

The Meeting

The New York City Department of Education, Chicago Public Schools, and Los Angeles Unified School District are all participants of Harvard’s PELP, which convenes superintendents and their senior leaders from the largest school districts in the country every summer to collaborate on the latest management best practices with professors from the Harvard Business School and Harvard Graduate School of Education and work through problems of practice they are experiencing in the field. Along with the Council of the Great City Schools (CGCS), PELP is one of the principal conveners of top school district leaders in the country.

Recognizing their role in fostering collaboration and realizing the import of the moment, the leaders of PELP organized structured virtual dialogues with their partner districts to ensure leaders had a candid venue to talk to and learn from one another about how they were dealing with COVID-19. “We heard from our district partners that they did not want to face the challenges posed by COVID-19 in isolation. They wanted to do so together, seeking insight and ideas that would foster common sense solutions and ingenuity with an eye toward equity,” said PELP co-chair and former superintendent of Madison Metropolitan School District Jen Cheatham.

On a Tuesday last month, Chancellor Richard Carranza (New York City) and CEO Janice Jackson (Chicago) logged onto their devices along with their senior leaders and leaders from Los Angeles Unified School District and discussed the challenges, successes, fears, and hopes that have arisen in the past few months.

The Response

The incredible efforts of our nation’s health care workers, veritable heroes in this crisis, have been well-documented over the past few months. Much less attention has been paid to the herculean efforts of school districts, who are often maligned for their glacial pace of change, yet so many districts have pulled off amazing operational feats in the face of crisis.

Between the New York City Department of Education, Los Angeles Unified School District, and Chicago Public Schools, these districts have served a combined 28 million meals to their students as of early May. Each district has a strategy that utilizes existing school buildings as distribution hubs.

New York City and Chicago combined have handed out more than half a million devices needed for distance learning. Both districts prioritized students in need, as New York City’s distribution began with students in homeless shelters and was responsive to a request survey they disseminated, and Chicago relied on principals to identify students with the greatest needs based on a hardship index.

Finally, all of the districts have mounted distance learning efforts in very short order, and while implementation has been variable, all of the districts have implemented sophisticated tracking systems that allow them to track participation rates and progress toward learning goals. None of the districts had plans to reopen this school year, but they are all aggressively planning for the future.

Takeaways from The Big Three on What Has Worked Well

Despite their varied geographies, leaders from all three districts shared a lot in common about what has been working well in their responses to the COVID-19 crisis. These strengths varied from communication to instructional practices.

Overcommunication. Districts have employed new ways of communicating with district and school staff due to the restrictions of COVID-19, and the result has been extremely positive. In New York City, senior leaders communicate with teachers and leaders in the field on a daily basis to provide guidance and updates; the chancellor also has regular “Staying Connected with Chancellor Carranza” virtual sessions for principals. In Chicago, senior leaders have established virtual office hours, which give staff access to their leaders and the opportunities to ask questions they may have. Los Angeles utilizes the platform “schoology” to allow job-alike role groups to maintain regular communication and share resources across the district.

Innovative Practices in Special Education. Districts have found innovative ways to meet students with disabilities’ needs, even from a distance. In Los Angeles, related service providers have found innovative ways of maintaining specialized services to students who rely on speech pathology services, occupational therapy, and physical therapy by using new web-based platforms and partnering closely with individuals in students’ homes. New York City has had success with teletherapy, enabling students to seamlessly continue therapy and counseling sessions they would normally receive in school. Chicago has systematized a way to hold virtual IEP meetings and conduct virtual evaluations, so that students continue to receive the services they need.

Community Engagement. Districts have found ways to maintain contact with families and community members in new ways. New York City has taken advantage of the accessibility and cost-effectiveness of online platforms and hosted virtual communities to disseminate information related to COVID, including virtual communities in other languages. This way, New York City plans to involve parent leaders in decisions about changes to admissions policies for the upcoming year. In Chicago, local school councils have continued regular business meetings via online platforms.

Collaboration with Unions. Districts have found ways to work with their labor partners in new ways. New York City and Los Angeles have increased the frequency of communication with unions to daily or weekly, which has resulted in quick solutions to novel problems and led to a spirit of collective effort on behalf of students.

Creative Supplements to Instruction. Districts are employing creative solutions to common obstacles students might face to getting high-quality instruction remotely. Los Angeles has partnered with local television stations to broadcast educational programming and lessons. Chicago has disseminated trade books to students across the city, provided biweekly supplemental non-digital options for students, and expanded virtual library access to students in all schools.

Common Challenges Facing the Big Three

Despite the best intentions of educators across the big three districts, COVID-19 has forced them to deal with financial issues, trauma, disruptions to the most vulnerable students, and uncertainty.

Budget. Looming state and district budget crises will force extremely difficult decisions in all school districts. New York City’s Department of Education is facing a cumulative budgetary impact of $827 million, with a $185 million cut for the current fiscal year and a $642 million cut for fiscal year 2021. These cuts have already resulted in reductions to certain programs, such as “Civics for All” and “College Access for All,” and a hiring freeze for non-COVID related employees.

Addressing Trauma. Administrators, teachers, and staff will need to be prepared for and consider trauma caused by the effects of COVID-19, whether due to loss of life or serious illness on the part of students or their families, or economic uncertainty, once students return to physical school buildings.

Learning loss and compensatory services. Districts are attempting to make plans for how to make up hours of lost learning, which has disproportionately impacted students who were already behind to begin with. Moreover, districts must plan for how to provide compensatory services to students with IEPs whose services could not be fully administered virtually, and reach and attend to students who are English Language Learners.

Uncertainty. Districts are all faced with a lack of certainty around key questions that impede proper planning without concrete answers. When should students be allowed to come back to school and under what conditions? While many districts are planning for re-opening in the fall, an uptick in COVID-19 cases in states across the country might mean they will need to continue to engage in remote learning in the fall. How will state budgets be impacted and when will leaders know how to financially prepare for the coming months and years? The predictions thus far are dire and districts are already scrambling to make cuts, but the truth is, there are likely more cuts around the corner.

Implications for Policy Makers

There are several implications for policy makers on all levels to keep in mind as they seek to support schools, school systems, and educators in the short and long term.

The money situation in K–12 education is dire. School districts will need large investments of money to offset the lost revenue from state and local revenue. In particular, districts will need money earmarked for low-income students, as these students have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19; students with disabilities, many of whom have lost out on services while learning from home; and English Language Learners, who have faced greater challenges in accessing learning materials under distance learning. The Council of Great City Schools has written a letter to Congress outlining some of the needs and a recent post from The Century Foundation gives concrete recommendations to Congress.

Students who receive specialized services as a result of a documented disability have had major disruptions to their learning. School districts will need flexibility in meeting federal special education requirements, but will also need to be held to certain standards to ensure students get as much support as is practicable in the current circumstances, as well as support in providing compensatory services once it is safe to return to school buildings. They will also need support ensuring that there is robust summer programming to make up for lost time since March and address growing inequalities.

As state and localities make decisions in response to COVID-19 data, school districts will need clarity around reopening guidelines and timelines, testing procedures, and the indicators that will trigger a return to virtual conditions; although the landscape in most states is rapidly shifting, some basic predictability will be needed for districts to be able to adequately plan for basic operations.

With the digital divide now fully exposed, state and federal resources must continue to be allocated for expanded access to devices and wireless connectivity. Despite the best efforts of school districts, many students are still without access to the tools that will enable them to learn from home.

Some superintendents will require special emergency powers delegated to them by their local governing body in order to enable them to make rapid decisions in response to the ever-changing conditions. The past few months have shown that leaders who have been able take swift action have been the most successful.

Finally, states and localities will need permission to think creatively and expansively about what the return to school looks like, as they weigh the desire to provide universal coverage with the need for social distancing, and consider how to provide instruction to students who need it the most in ways that do not promote tracking or segregation.

The challenges facing the big three school districts are certainly vast in scope and scale. However, districts of all shapes and sizes across the country will require continued ingenuity and flexibility by their leaders and also foresight and planning on the part of supportive policymakers and governance bodies. Additionally, there is a key role to be played by conveners such as PELP, who can create spaces for intentional collaboration among school districts.

In closing out the meeting, Harvard Business School professor and PELP co-chair John J-H Kim stated, “One of the things we hold true at our school (HBS) and that you’ve demonstrated here, is that we learn much more together when we share our different points of view and experiences. Thank you all for making the time and best of luck moving forward.”