Leading Our Jewish Day Schools in the Shadows of Covid-19
An Unprecedented Leadership Challenge
By Dr. Chaim Y. Botwinick
Leadership demands two kinds of courage: The strength to take risks, and the humility to admit when a risk fails”
~Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks
Since the outbreak of the COVID19 pandemic, many of us have been grappling with ways in which to help inspire, encourage and lead our institutions through a never-ending maze of confusion, concern and ambiguity.
Some of our leadership responses are anchored in science, education and best practice; others in religious practice and gut instinct; and yet for others, through a combination of all the above … against a backdrop of uncertainty.
As Heads of Schools, Principals and senior educational leaders entrusted with leading our Jewish Day Schools, we are all struggling to determine the most effective ways to responsibly guide and influence individual, institutional and communal behavior. This includes encouraging families and friends to adhere to strict social distancing guidelines, including the wearing of protective face garb when in public as well as other basic public heath requirements; determining the most effective ways to help students and parents transition from traditional schooling to remote/virtual learning platforms; helping parents whose emotional dispositions and stress levels are reaching a crescendo; providing students with desperately needed academic remediation and counseling; supporting and encouraging teachers and staff (our first educational responders) to stay the course and to help each other encourage and guide student learning while boosting their morale; and, providing Boards and school supporters with positive and forward-thinking about the school’s future.
We move these initiatives forward as we take deep breaths … as the butterflies in our stomachs flutter with waves of uncertainty about the future financial viability of our institutions; as we experience sleepless nights thinking about how we are going to reopen our schools to a “new normal” while keeping everyone safe; and as we experience non-stop thoughts about whether we will even have the resources required to operate our schools effectively – or even close to where we were prior to the pandemic.
As leaders, we must understand that the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic has and will create a new normal for our schools as never before imaginable. The sooner we accept this reality, the sooner we will be able to position ourselves in order to inspire, manage and lead our schools effectively. It will also require leadership skill, grit, patience, and above all, adaptability.
Transcending many of these challenges is our leadership responsibility to “walk the talk.” This includes adhering to social distancing and other important heath guidelines. To this end, parents and students must witness our leaders respecting and championing adherence to these guidelines. Not only do teachers, parents and students respect what they see in their leaders, but, many become disappointed and maybe even fearful to return to school upon reopening, if these practices are not followed and practiced. To be sure, as many of our communities begin to ease restrictions and reopen businesses, we must be mindful of the fact that we are still in the midst of a dangerous pandemic of epic proportion, and that the Covid virus continues its spread at varying rates throughout our communities.
At the end of the day, our role is about modeling appropriate leadership behavior for our communities, and keeping all of us safe and healthy. Parents want to know, want to hear and want to sense in their hearts and minds that when school reopens, they will be entrusting their children (our students) with a cadre of senior school leadership and staff who are totally up-to-speed regarding new regulations and guidelines and who inspire confidence through the words they use and the actions they take. Mistakes or oversights are no longer options.
As we know, it has recently become common-place for the media to focus on the dark side of this horrendous pandemic. There are a growing number of op-eds, articles, essays and posts that focus on the depressing dark side of this pandemic. We get it. And we understand the many unfortunate outcomes and consequences of this global crisis. But the continued proliferation of these media can have a dramatic and paralyzing impact on communities. Therefore, as leaders, we must focus on the positives while being mindful of the frightening realities; we must inspire optimism, hope and promise; and we must create a balanced positive mindset regarding our future. We must also continuously focus on the concept that together we will figure this one out. Will it be difficult? You bet it will. But, when has “difficult” ever stopped real and authentic leadership from leading. It’s not only our job, it’s our mission, calling and responsibility. If there was ever a time in our professional careers to provide parents, students, teachers and supporters with leadership and confidence, it is now!
The following are several suggestions and recommendations as to how Heads of School and Principals can advance their leadership responsibilities in our schools. This writer humbly presents these suggestions in full recognition that one size never fits all. We need to pick and choose our leadership positions and priorities. And, we need to articulate a future path for our schools that inspire confidence and competence, as we promote a more promising future.
Suggestions and Recommendations:
- Clear and ongoing effective communication is paramount. To this end, it is imperative that school leadership communicate with parents and the community on a weekly basis. These communications should focus on the current status of remote class schedules, special programming, as well as zoom programs, special events and ongoing educational announcements – including success stories, school highlights and spotlights, mazal tovs, birthday celebrations, and other uplifting news stories. Parents should also be informed about registration requirements and deadlines, scholarship assistance opportunities and pertinent information relating to their children and the parent body as a whole. They must feel that in spite of the current crisis, the school moves forward in a positive and planful direction.
- Heads of School and Principals must make themselves available and accessible to parents, faculty, staff and Board members on an ongoing basis. It’s a 24/6 leadership imperative;
- The school’s senior executive leadership team needs to contact parents on a continuous (rotating) basis. These “check-ins” are vital for the welfare and wellbeing of our parents and at the same time they provide the Administration with a pulse of what’s going on in our student’s homes, without being intrusive;
- We need to provide teachers with the required platforms, hardware and software needed for effective teaching. Continued Professional Development and technical assistance are paramount. We must also ensure that curricular goals and expectations are realistic and sensitive to time-on-task and virtual/remote learning – especially for elementary level students, many of whom are experiencing and struggling with non-traditional classroom teaching;
- We must provide our teachers with group and individual opportunities and venues to help them share concerns and successes with one another. To this end, Heads of Schools and Principals must be empathetic towards faculty needs. If we do this during normal times, all the more so today when teachers are physically and emotionally stretched like never before.
- Heads of School and Principals are in a unique position to have a calming effect on many of the stresses and strains within the home. It’s obvious that there is so much pain that parents are experiencing – from losing jobs to worry about their children’s wellbeing exacerbated health concerns of relatives in isolation. But, as leaders, we can also refer parents to appropriate professionals who can help them cope with these stressful circumstances. This reality reinforces the need for parent “check-ins” as just described;
- Volunteerism during this trying time is paramount. Schools that already have PTA’s or PTO’s are fortunate. But for those schools that do not, school leadership may want to invite parents to form parent volunteer leadership groups who could help expand the circle of lay human resources required to move the school forward. Several assignments may include: coordinating teacher appreciation activities, promoting family celebrations; helping coordinate student breakfast and lunch pick-ups; chesed projects, and the list goes. The role of the School Administrative Team is to help these volunteers and guide them through their processes.
- Students with special learning needs and challenges must be accorded very serious attention. Student learning deficits that existed prior to the pandemic are now exacerbated by non-traditional learning platforms. It is therefore imperative that Heads of Schools and Principals in consultation with teachers continuously collect, collate and analyze data about these children. In turn, the school should provide remedial services either in small groups or through one-on-one tutoring. Keeping track of these students and providing them with remedial academic support as well as social and emotional support are all critical; This is one area that requires a serious and planful triage mindset and approach;
- The evolving role and responsibility of the School’s senior leadership and management team is also one of the most critically important functions of the school during this pandemic, for the foreseeable future – irrespective of when and how our schools reopen.
To this end, the Executive Management Team must operate and function at maximum, all “hands-on-deck” speed and capacity. This requires seamless planning and execution of all plans, projects and operational protocols; it means thinking smart, strategic and collaborative; and, it means that the roles and responsibilities of every Team member are clear and transparent. It is imperative that the Head of School/Principal do everything in their power to ensure the smooth and effective functioning of Team members, with no exception.
- All members of the Executive Management Team, (Head of School, Principals, Admissions Officer, Financial Manager, Physical Plant Manager, Marketing as well as PR/Marketing and Development Coordinators) must have clear assignments and specific work-plans; It is suggested the this Team meet via Zoom, on a daily basis – first thing in the morning for up to an hour as needed, in order to assure alignment of the days anticipated activities and to continue to coordinate short and mid-range plans. These meetings will become even more crucial as schools begin to address the wide array of challenges relating to the reopening of schools;
- Finally, the reopening of schools will present a wide range of leadership challenges – on both the professional and Board levels. Although there are no definitive State or Federal guidelines for reopening schools (at the time of this writing), there are several professional and Board leadership action-steps for consideration: They may include, but not be limited to:
- The creation of an ad-hoc school-based Operational Task Force on School Reopening comprised of the school’s management team, select Board members, parent representatives, health professionals and clergy. The mandate of the Task Force is to monitor all aspects of school reopening considerations; the collation and collation of local data and the creation of simulations in order to determine potential plans, different scenarios and simulations for school opening.
- The comprehensive review of all financial considerations and anticipated budgetary exigencies impacting the school. This process should include a strategic financial management planning process including: budget simulations, scholarship projections and revenue/expenditure forecasting.
- One of the most critical functions of the Task Force will also be to work closely with Senior Executive staff in order to determine the wide variety of “what if” scenarios. This cuts across, all aspects of finances, fundraising, and operations.
It is important to note that no Head of School and/or Principal can or should go-it-alone. Asking for assistance, input, feedback and suggestions is the hallmark of an effective leader. We must seek the best thinking from smart, experienced and innovative forward thinking professionals and lay leaders who can inform our work and help determine the future direction of our schools. We must listen carefully to the ways in which other schools are solving problems and creating solutions. We must continuously remember that replication is the highest form of flattery. Never waste precious time reinventing wheels. We are part of a global Jewish educational community with amazing experience, ideas and talent. Let’s exploit this reality to the fullest extent possible.
- As Heads of Schools and Principals continue with our educational and operation planning processes, we must help direct and guide our respective Boards. In addition to serving as important ambassadors, school Boards set school policy, oversee the fiscal health of our schools and help insure the schools future viability. To this end, we must do everything in our professional capacity to encourage and inspire our Boards to continue their work in these important areas.
As we respond to the present and plan for the future, we should to be cognizant of the fact that we are all in this together – we are all experiencing the same leadership issues and challenges on a variety of levels. The suggestions and recommendations posited in this post are just a recommended framework and “food for thought.” They are presented with respect, humility and tremendous admiration for all the painstaking herculean efforts now being undertaken by my Jewish Day School leadership friends and colleagues.
Finally, our responsibility is to lead by example – the words we speak, the actions we take and the manner in which we lead are magnified exponentially and will resonate more than we can ever imagine – especially during this time of crisis.
This is a defining moment for all of us as leaders. We must be clear in our thinking and creative in our wisdom … but above all, we must be sensitive to the growing unmet needs of our schools and our families as we navigate this unchartered waters.
This is the time to lead like never before our lives.
With GD’s oversight, may we be blessed with good health, safety and wisdom; and may we be guided to make the best leadership decisions imaginable for our students, our parents, our teachers and our community.
Dr. Chaim Botwinick is Principal of the Hebrew Academy Community Day School, Margate FL., organizational consultant and executive coach. He has served in a variety of senior Jewish educational leadership positions on the local and national levels.