Relationships among the most valuable tools in districts’ early COVID response

Strong relationships among leadership and stakeholders helped districts navigate challenges caused by COVID-19, the politicization of the pandemic and divided political beliefs, according to a new report from the Policy Analysis for California Education.

Conducted during the first 14 months of the COVID-19 pandemic, “Crisis Response in California School Districts: Leadership, Partnership, and Community” focuses on seven school districts with reputations for having strong relationships among community, labor groups and/or the school board. The districts represent variation in size, geographic location, urbanicity and grade span.

Researchers found that institutional and community relationships contributed positively to districts’ ability to stay nimble in their decision-making as the pandemic progressed.

“Public education today faces a troubling set of challenges. Almost daily, media headlines draw attention to students struggling academically and emotionally from interrupted learning; high student absenteeism; declining enrollment; teacher and leader burnout; staffing shortages; leadership turnover; polarized communities; and school boards at the center of broader political debates over masks, vaccines, and teaching about racism,” the report states. “System leaders were under tremendous pressure to make decisions quickly based on little and often conflicting information as well as lack of agreement within and across stakeholder groups, such as parents and teachers. We found cases where relationships with key stakeholders, some developed over a long period of time, contributed significantly to districts’ ability to make organizational decisions during this unique time. In fact, when asked to reflect on the events of the past year and what they had learned, individuals across our case study districts consistently expressed this exact point: Relationships matter in times of crisis.”

Relationships differ across groups

School board members were essential in maintaining relationships, even as many temporarily delegated some decision-making powers to the district superintendent in order to act quickly on ever-changing information and guidance, researchers found. It was board members’ close community ties that proved invaluable in helping local educational agencies better understand the needs and concerns of students and families and informing how to respond to community requests, according to interviews with superintendents.

Administrators highlighted the importance of communicating openly and often among leadership. They also noted that although board members’ personal politics were divided surrounding timelines to return to in-person instruction or whether masks should be required of students and school personnel, boards maintained near unanimity when making COVID-19 decisions regardless of members’ personal politics — at least early in the pandemic.

Even among the participating districts, ties between districts and their teacher unions and unions representing classified employees were strained by COVID-19. Two common challenges were found to have threatened labor–management relations and the stability of the teaching and classified-employee workforce: the politicization of COVID-19 and teacher/staff burnout.

In two of the districts, however, collaborating to overcome the challenges of the pandemic appeared to contribute to improved labor–management relations. The most robust relationships were characterized by open lines of communication between the district and unions, purposeful union engagement in critical district decisions and a collaborative focus on student needs, the report states.

Districts became critical sources of information for parents, teachers, administrators, staff and students, devising a range of communication strategies and in some cases leveraging partnerships with community-based organizations (CBOs) to extend supports for students and families.

Three case study districts partnered with local organizations, such as the YMCA, to establish centers early into the pandemic that provided on-site supervision for learning — particularly for children of essential workers. In one district, a local parent organizing group helped communicate and support student and family needs throughout the pandemic. “These partnerships provided direct support and outreach beyond what the district could do on its own. One representative of a community organization explained how these partnerships added value by assisting families in ways the school districts simply could not,” researchers wrote in the report brief.

Building and sustaining relationships through leadership

The report highlighted several conditions that appeared to help build and sustain relationships during this time of crisis and disruption, including local context, external funding and partners, and leadership practices. Leaders across stakeholder groups played a pivotal role in building relationships, with several leadership practices standing out as noteworthy:

  • Proactive and consistent communication was necessary as an intentional, long-term relationship-building strategy — particularly for board–superintendent relationships.
  • Intentional and formal relationship-building was also crucial. In one case study district, the superintendent reported regularly bringing school board members into district trainings to purposefully build closer ties.
  • Culturally responsive leadership was critical in some cases, especially for community–district and board–superintendent relations. For example, one district board member advocated to host a vaccine town hall in multiple languages and anticipated concerns from undocumented families, building trust in the district among the community.
  • Adaptation and learning from prior crises appeared to inform and strengthen relationships and pandemic response. A school leader in one district reported that having systems set up for substitutes and working asynchronously due to recent wildfires was helpful in preparing their district for remote learning and responding to more staff calling in sick during the pandemic.
  • Building relationships within the central office was another deliberate practice that assisted leaders with pandemic response. In one district, administrators reported the horizontal management structures facilitated quick, informed action while everyone felt their voice was valued.