3 superintendents share remote learning, back-to-school prep strategies

Susan Enfield is the superintendent of Highline Public Schools in Washington, Tom Leonard is superintendent of Eanes Independent School District in Texas and Michael Muñoz is superintendent of Rochester Public Schools in Minnesota.

Starting in March, teachers and students across the U.S. experienced a sudden shift to remote learning. In crises like this, people normally go through seven emotional stages:

Shock. Denial. Bargaining. Anger/anxiety. Depression/sadness. Solution seeking. Acceptance.

Not surprisingly, many students and their families spent the COVID-19 lockdown in a state of anger and anxiety. In fact, during March and April, our student safety management solution helped districts throughout the U.S. save the lives of 163 students. That means either someone in our district told the company a life was saved, that what a student wrote included a clear and definitive plan to commit suicide and we were able to intervene, or both.

That marked a 45% increase, up from 114 students during the same time period in 2019. The number of students guarded online by the platform had not increased by that much since last year, so the stay-at-home order was a clear source of emotional distress.

In a webinar, administrators from our three districts — Highline Public Schools, located outside Seattle, Washington; Eanes Independent School District, outside Austin, Texas; and Rochester Public Schools in southeastern Minnesota — discussed how they used a platform to monitor students’ online activities on school-issued devices during the recent remote learning period. 

Even though the students were not in school buildings, our educators were still able to identify harmful situations and intervene. Our districts also made emotional and mental health resources available to students and their families.

Because we had to respond so quickly to shutdown orders, most of our educators didn’t have time to go through the first four emotional stages. In fact, they generally jumped right to the solution-seeking stage because of their responsibility for students. But our educators realized taking care of each other is essential to supporting students.

Additionally, our individual districts had to respond to very specific situations. Here’s how we each supported both students and teachers.

  • Highline Public Schools. When our governor announced the school closures, Highline quickly sent talking points to all teachers and principals. Our educators used the talking points to help students process the sudden change, reducing the trauma somewhat.

    Susan Enfield, superintendent of Highline Public Schools in Washington.

    Susan Enfield


    During the remote learning time period, Highline supported teachers by launching a weekly wellness campaign that shared breathing techniques, mindful movement and guided relaxation tips. Our leadership team also checked in regularly with teachers to see how they were doing and what they needed. In turn, teachers and staff checked in with students on a personal level in addition to delivering instruction online.

    This coming fall, our Highline educators are planning to significantly enhance supports for students and staff using social and emotional learning. Our district is also advocating for policymakers to ensure every student has broadband access at home in case remote learning continues to be part of their educational experience.


  • Eanes Independent School District. Since Eanes Independent School District was a 1:1 district, our administrators were able to tell students to take their school-issued devices home. Only 12 families didn’t have

    Tom Leonard, superintendent of Eanes Independent School District in Texas.

    Tom Leonard


    internet access, and the district quickly provided those families with access.

    Our teachers met virtually with students several times a day, even at the elementary level. They connected at least twice a day via Zoom meetings, and also on the Seesaw learning platform and Google Hangouts. Whenever possible, we had two adults present in every virtual room. That way, if one became ill or encountered a problem, the other could easily step up to help.


  • Rochester Public Schools. Prior to the pandemic, our district formed community partnerships to nurture the mental well-being of its staff, and it continued to provide this support through technology. Each of our building administrators checked in regularly with teachers, focusing on how those teachers were doing and what support

    Michael Muñoz, superintendent of Rochester Public Schools in Minnesota.

    Michael Muñoz


    they needed.

    Teachers now do their professional learning communities virtually, and their conversations often focus on ways to support each other. Schools also set up hotlines so staff members and students could call in for academic or social-emotional support at a moment’s notice.

Moving forward

It’s likely many schools will have to rotate students between physical classrooms and learning from home during the fall semester. Or they could go back to full remote learning if there’s a resurgence of COVID-19.

With that in mind, we all have used our remote learning experience during the Spring semester to plan for the 2020–21 school year. We’ve collected data on what did and didn’t work (special education was a particularly difficult area for remote learning), and we used that information to tailor our recent professional development activities and will do so over the summer, too.

Each of us had the goal of helping staffers be agile enough to adjust to various contingencies as needed — and that will continue in the coming school year.

It’s true that recovering from the academic and psychological impact of the COVID-19 pandemic will likely require a one- to three-year plan. But continually evaluating students’ and staffers’ needs and the resources required will help our districts reach that goal.

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