5 ways superintendents’ roles have changed for good because of COVID-19

There is no longer a one-size-fits-all definition of the position that once could be summarized as leader of a school district
By: | September 22, 2021
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Once a job that, for the most part, could be done during the typical Monday-to-Friday work week, the superintendent role has now become, in the words of Tina McCoy, former Superintendent of Schools in Raymond, N.H., a “24/7” gig. “I need a break that a vacation cannot give,” she said, discussing her reasons for leaving with the school board.

McCoy is certainly not the only one who felt that way over the past 18 months, since COVID upended life as we knew it. But in districts where superintendents exited, new superintendents have been installed—and many incumbents battled through the first year of the pandemic and stayed the course. Those leaders had no choice but to adapt to disruptions and difficulties, accepting the fact that an already fraught profession was becoming more so.

The ones most likely to succeed long-term are those who can do the following, in addition to carrying out the traditional responsibilities of the job:

1. Master a continually shifting environment. New demands are emerging all the time, forcing districts to create new alliances with social service agencies, task their staffs with jobs that they’re often unfamiliar with, and deal with conflicting points of view about whether to keep schools open, enforce mask mandates, continue with remote learning, and more. “The role has shifted more to being a ringmaster…where you’re just constantly juggling day-to-day needs as well as trying to oversee the instructional leadership that’s at the heart of the mission and vision of every school district,” noted Sandra Sherwood, Superintendent of Herkimer-Fulton-Hamilton-Otsego BOCES (Boards of Cooperative Educational Services) in an online forum with WKTV News where superintendents from around the country participated. Madison-Oneida BOCES District Superintendent Scott Budelmann adds that superintendents now must make decisions on the best way to deliver services while keeping education and safety as their top priorities. “Our supervisory focus has really shifted toward outcomes instead of just time on task,” he says.

2. Make critical decisions that affect the health of the staff as well as the students. “Prior to COVID-19, my job was primarily educationally focused,” Allan Cameron, superintendent of schools in Wrentham, Mass., told Salon.com. Since the pandemic, however, he says his job has “taken on a new public health dimension where I have to work with people to make decisions regarding aspects of operating a school or a district that I wasn’t trained to do.” Those decisions can—and often do—cause an uproar, even resulting in violence, when they don’t meet the approval of school boards or the community. Cameron notes the importance of relying on experts, not his own personal ideas or opinions, to do what is in the best interest of the students. “I am not an epidemiologist. I am not a pediatrician,” he points out. “I am recommending we follow [the experts’] guidance in this.”

3. Be extra judicious about spending. While districts have benefited from the state and federal aid they’ve received, that money is finite and must be spent carefully on programs and plans that have the most positive and permanent impact. “It’s important for us as leaders to remember that eventually that money’s not going to be there,” cautioned New York state’s Rome City Schools Superintendent Peter Blake, in the same online conference. “So, anything we do implement with [it], we need to make sure that down the road we can sustain that with our own general funds as to not have to make budget cuts someday when that federal money is not there.”

4. Support teachers unflinchingly. Teachers have not only had to learn new ways to teach and communicate with their students; they have had to learn new technology to do so—many while dealing with their own children were attending school online. One way California’s Redlands Unified School District Superintendent Mauricio Arellano showed his support, he says, is by reminding his teachers they have permission to make mistakes. “This is not the time to seek perfection,” he said. “Things are going to fail and that’s OK. It’s OK to try new things and not fear. We have to find the little victories, and let people know we see and appreciate them.”

5. Continue to build on the systems now in place that will enhance students’ educations going forward. First and foremost, that means technology. Socorro ISD Texas Superintendent José Espinoza told the El Paso Times that technology has played a key role in helping his district prepare students for college, careers and life—and it was a crucial part of the curricula in his district for years even before the pandemic arrived. “When the pandemic hit, we were able to transition to remote learning with the strong foundation we already had with blended learning, digital learning and technology in our classrooms,” he said. “The pandemic transformed how education is delivered overnight and we will capitalize on the good that has come out of it to prepare our students for a new world that is still being reinvented every day.”

“The pandemic was a crisis that we cannot let go to waste,” Fort Worth ISD Superintendent Dr. Kent Scribner told NBC News Dallas-Fort Worth this week. “It disrupted our system. It allowed us to reflect. It allowed us to understand the importance of an extended school day, extended school year, of technology. We also recognize that, with the additional dollars that we have all received from the pandemic, those need to go to the students in the greatest need.”

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