Leading through coronavirus: 4 administrators share how they’re navigating pandemic upheaval

As the coronavirus pandemic blindsided the nation at large in early March, school districts were suddenly faced with an unprecedented upheaval of the academic calendar. Nearly halfway through the backend of the school year, most would shut down and transition, as best they could, to a remote learning environment while navigating a variety of other needs their students and families may have.

For most administrators, this period has tested their resolve and leadership more so than any other they’ve faced before. These four profiles represent just a small sample of the trials they now face.

Susan Enfield, superintendent
Highline Public Schools, Washington

For about a week, Superintendent Susan Enfield lived in limbo between “knowing and not knowing” the school district she leads was going to close in an effort to stop the spread of the new coronavirus.

Adjacent to Seattle, the 18,000-student Highline Public Schools is in one of the regions of the country that first felt the gravity of the disease. When Washington Gov. Jay Inslee ordered schools closed in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties on March 12, Enfield’s top priority was alleviating any of the fears students might be feeling.

“I had to get the word to my elementary schools at 12:30 that day to talk with the kids,” she says. “[For] so many of our kids, school is their home, and their teacher is that one adult connection.”

Not knowing what students might hear when they got home, she didn’t want to “leave it to chance.”

In leading a school district through this time, three words stick in Enfield’s mind — responsible, responsive and calm. 

She feels responsible for “keeping my people safe.” But with that, she’s also concerned about the ongoing need to staff meal distribution sites when the state is under a stay-at-home order. “I can’t compel people to come in.” 

It’s important to stay responsive to the changing guidance from federal, state and local authorities, she says, and to be mindful of those in the district who are trying to do their jobs with children at home.

Finally, she aims to convey a sense of calm, for students and staff members — as well as for the new superintendents that she supports as part of the AASA National Superintendent Certification Program. While she’s supposed to meet with them in person in July, she’s already wondering if that gathering will happen.

“They can’t wait for July,” she says. “They are going to so desperately need to come together.”

School superintendents are often at the center of relief and recovery efforts when disasters happen, but this time is different, Enfield says. In a natural disaster, “there is an incident, and the incident ends,” she says. Now, “we are dealing with the incident and the aftermath simultaneously, because the incident doesn’t stop.”

Highline Public Schools Superintendent Susan Enfield, right, helps out at a meal distribution site.

Susan Enfield


J. Alvin Wilbanks, superintendent

Gwinnett County Public Schools, Georgia

Even 55 years in the education field hasn’t prepared J. Alvin Wilbanks — one of the longest-serving superintendents in the U.S. — for a moment when his district’s more than 180,000 students would be learning from home.

J. Alvin Wilbanks, superintendent of the Gwinnett County Public Schools, joins Hopkins Elementary School Principal Gabriel Zaragoza, who dressed as Captain America to thank the “heroes” preparing and delivering meals to students while schools are closed.

Gwinnett County Public Schools


“It’s a strange and almost fearful time,” says Wilbanks, who became superintendent of Georgia’s largest district in 1996. But the award-winning district near Atlanta is known for being well managed, for planning ahead and for adapting to the changing needs of students and families.

“You’ve got to depend on the structures you have,” says Wilbanks. “Structures, processes and people are really what get you through the good times, but more important, through the bad times.”

In recent years, the district has implemented remote learning on “inclement weather days,” which has helped teachers, principals and other instructional staff members to make this shift. Curriculum directors, with expertise in online instruction, are also working as content curators to support lesson planning — especially for the 2,000 new teachers who have been thrust into a distance-learning arrangement as they still adjusting to being teachers. 

“We have built the foundation and the framework to be able to do this,” he says. “But we never thought we’d be doing it under these circumstances. I think this is going to tax us.”

Over spring break, the district gave staff members a relief from boxing up and delivering meals to bus stops throughout the district, and worked with a nonprofit organization to keep the distribution of roughly 30,000 meals a day running. 

Wilbanks says it’s also important for leaders to think beyond these circumstances and plan for when students return — whenever that is.

“You’ve got to have a vision of what can be and try to keep working toward that,” he says. “It’s a mistake to totally concentrate your time on now.”

Kim Headrick, principal

Whitwell Middle School, Tennessee 

Principal Kim Headrick knows reaching all 375 students in her grades 5-8 middle school is going to be a challenge, whether that be for instruction or meal distribution. 

Feeding sites scattered across the mountains and valley, where the school is located, just don’t cut it for her students living in remote areas who have no way to get there. “We have no public transportation and we never have,” Headrick says, adding that many families also don’t own cars. She approximates 70% of her students are at an economic disadvantage. 

So Headrick is taking it upon herself to personally deliver meals and instructional packets to those with no way around, even though that means risking her own health to knock on families’ doors and feeling more tired throughout the day.​

“But we know realistically that we’re not getting every single child,” Headrick admitted. “We’re trying to.”

Although teachers are reaching out to families at least once a week, not all families have been responsive. “Let me know and I’ll try to call them from the school,” Headrick told her staff. She’s also leveraging Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and the Remind application to get the message out that support is available and learning should be ongoing.

But Headrick is worried despite her push to get the word out, many won’t be taking learning seriously with closures considering “sometimes education is not as valued as much as it should be” in her community. 

“Not all of our kiddos have educated parents at home,” Headrick said, estimating there are twice as many uneducated parents than those who are. “Sometimes our kids say, ‘That’s ok. My daddy dropped out of high school and he makes good money.'”  

For those students and for the students who haven’t been responsive, Headrick fears widening gaps that could be on the horizon.

In the meantime, Headrick is still trying to set the school culture remotely by recording videos of herself making morning announcements. Sometimes she’ll feature her dogs in the videos or throw in happy birthday wishes, comments on the weather and stories about seeing snakes. And she’ll always make sure to end her announcements with a corny joke, continuing a tradition from before schools closed.

It creates a sense of normalcy and sets that tone because they see me first thing, everyday,” Headrick said. “I’m just trying to be fun, and be real.” 

Kelly Withers, principal

South Rowan High School, North Carolina

When the coronavirus pandemic forced schools to close, North Carolina’s Rowan-Salisbury School System had the benefit of already having six years of experience with 1:1 device programs — but like the rest of the nation’s schools, that doesn’t mean the rural district hasn’t face its share of challenges.

South Rowan High School Principal Kelly Withers said when the news came down that schools would close, they had just a few days to prepare and figure out how to address access for students who lacked home internet.

“We had already [identified who lacked home internet] about a year prior,” Withers said. “We still had kids that had not reported it, but once we figured out and they figured out what was getting ready to happen, they were a little more forthcoming with that information.”

Complicating matters, some families live in areas without nearby cell phone towers for hotspots to work — a common concern for many rural districts. The district has continued to provide encouragement on this front, with Wi-Fi available in parking lots at any district facility if families can get to those, she said. 

But first and foremost, Withers said, the focus has been on meeting the social-emotional needs of students and providing understanding and flexibility. A variety of home factors, like parents working from home or dealing with layoffs, necessitate mindfulness in the approach, as does a recognition that some students “may not have already lived in an environment that was very productive for them.”

Educators and staff have been able to maintain some form of communication with over 90% of students, she said. Assisting on this front is a district meal distribution program — around 50% of South Rowan High School’s 950 students are on free and reduced-price lunch — where bus drivers are able to report back their sense of how families are doing and if they saw a student who maybe hasn’t been heard from in a few days.

Rescheduling graduation is another hurdle. Seniors have been told a ceremony will happen, even if it’s on a weekend in fall or has limits on attendees. Prom, however, has been “effectively canceled,” but Withers hopes to be able to offer a similar event during the summer. 

As with students, the social-emotional needs of teachers are also a primary consideration. Many educators have spouses who may have been laid off or are working at home now, and many also have children in the home. Additionally, she said transitioning from a blended learning classroom approach with tech to one that’s fully remote was a “huge adjustment we’ve worked through with our teachers.”

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