It’s impossible to overstate the effect the COVID-19 pandemic has had on education. UNESCO reports that at the height of the pandemic, 1.6 billion children — or 94% of the world’s students — were facing school closures.
What does it mean to have almost every student on earth out of school at the same time? A report written by UN Secretary-General António Guterres in August 2020 states that COVID-19 disruptions place 23.8 million students from pre-K to tertiary education at risk for dropping out altogether. In the United States, the pandemic has severed many students from in-person learning and physical school communities. It’s also highlighted the systemic inequalities within the educational system.
Now, educational leaders face a dauting task: helping communities recover from the pandemic and rebuild a more equitable, successful future for all students. As Alma Harris and Michelle Jones noted in an editorial written for the journal School Leadership & Management, “school leaders are caught in the unfavorable position of being the pinch point in the system.” They’re the mediators between guidance from above and changing, challenging daily circumstances at the institutions they lead. Furthermore, they’re responsible for developing and guiding the long-term future of a school community.
However, one benefit is that the pandemic can offer educational leaders an opportunity to reset. Points of crisis naturally create a “before” and “after,” and educational leaders have an opportunity to reinvent the “after” to be more equitable and successful.
What Will Post-COVID Educational Leadership Look Like?
Experts have noted that the world is hardly “post-COVID,” despite fast vaccination efforts in some countries. More research will still be needed to determine the pandemic’s long-term effects on education.
However, some early themes have already emerged. Trust will be an even more critical resource in school communities after the pandemic. That includes trust between administrators and staff, between educators and students, and between families and school staff. Given how quickly pandemic guidance can change, leaders won’t necessarily build trust on consistency. Rather, they will build it based on transparency.
School leadership will also need to address educational equity more directly than before. Dena Simmons in a special report for Educational Leadership, calls COVID-19 an “equity check” for education, “reminding us who we could be if we valued equity as much as we say we do.” Simmons calls for a more deliberate and purposeful orientation toward equity.
Part of the orientation toward equity will come from increased engagement and partnership with students’ families. The pandemic has made families more responsible for and involved with their students’ day-to-day learning process. Educational leaders will need to foster and harness this collaborative spirit even after a return to in-person learning. Simmons connects this family involvement to larger equity goals: Schools must prioritize reaching out to families across linguistic, cultural, and economic barriers.
How Will Educational Leaders Adapt?
When the COVID-19 pandemic began, school leaders found themselves in the unenviable position of crisis managers. Unfortunately, experts believe this role isn’t likely to disappear once the pandemic does. Alma and Jones write that crisis and change management “are now essential skills required of a school leader.” Whether it’s a public health emergency, natural disaster, or community tragedy, ongoing events will test leadership’s level of trust and dialogue with the wider community.
A focus on trust and dialogue will also be a priority among educators and staff themselves. When the pandemic closed schools, it precluded many of the informal, daily interactions that teachers, administrators, and staff enjoyed — catching up in hallways, grabbing coffee in the teacher’s lounge. These interactions build rapport and facilitate the sharing of ideas. Moving forward, they will need to be more intentional and scheduled. Whether virtually or in-person, educational leaders must create dedicated time to solicit feedback and input from their colleagues on specific, pre-communicated topics. Relying on an informal exchange of information may not be sufficient anymore.
Finally, educational leaders will need to turn their attention inward. Self-care has not always been a stated priority for school leaders, but COVID-19 has demonstrated how necessary leaders’ well-being is for the entire school. Alma and Jones call self-care “the main priority and prime concern” for school leaders. Taking one’s wellness seriously enables a leader to respond fully to the emotional and social needs of others and reduces feelings of “burnout.”