Q&A: Dallas’ Hinojosa says districts can’t be ‘wishy-washy’ on closures, reopening

Dallas Independent School District was just recovering from a tornado when Michael Hinojosa saw the news. 

In his 25 years of being an educator, “this virus was different from anything” he’d experienced before. Prior to other closures, the Dallas superintendent would usually get some clues from the media about what’s going to happen next and how to proceed. 

But as word rolled out about the coronavirus, “the data started changing so fast and so significantly.”

“It would be within a matter of two hours, we would have new information that was much more stark than what I had heard two hours ago,” he said. “From then I realized we didn’t know what we didn’t know, and that this thing was different.” 

Other districts and states, meanwhile, closed on an incremental basis — closing for a few weeks, and then continuously extending those closures a few more weeks at a time. 

But because of the rapid and unique nature of the virus, Hinojosa decided to close indefinitely. In his words, he “saw it coming” before official state orders were announced. 

We recently caught up with Hinojosa to learn more about how that foresight continues to help his district navigate the pandemic, and what best practices can be pulled from his approach.

Editor’s note: The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

EDUCATION DIVE: How has closing indefinitely impacted your decision-making process, and how is it continuing to impact that process now? 

MICHAEL HINOJOSA: I think it gave us more flexibility. If you go back and look, the CDC said you can’t reopen anything until you have X amount of consecutive days when you have a downward trend. Well, nobody’s following those rules! And now they’re just shelving that rule.

So by being indefinite, you don’t have to declare and make a hard and fast rule of “this is when we’re going to open.” 

I’m going to wait and see what the rules of engagement are by the state, the feds and the locals, and then I’m going to make a decision. You don’t have to go back and unannounce something you’ve already announced. 

How did the community respond to your choice to shut down indefinitely when the governor still hadn’t given any official word? 

HINOJOSA: A lot of the [other] superintendents followed the lead of the governor and the commissioner. I had a one-on-one talk with the commissioner of education, and he said actually this decision is probably the most reasonable.

The community asked questions [like], “Why are you going indefinitely [when] everybody else is going for a couple of weeks?” And I had to explain myself to the media. 

Later, a couple of our other districts went indefinitely, and then several of them [did] instead of changing the date. Then the commissioner started recommending that to everybody, saying, “Go ahead, we’re probably not coming back.” 

At first everyone was confused, but then they said, “OK, that makes sense.” Let’s not keep giving people dates and giving people false hope. 

When will indefinite become definite? 

HINOJOSA: We start in August. Plan A is business as usual. I doubt that’s going to happen. Plan B is to continue as we are in August. I doubt that’s going to happen. Plan C is when we restart and indefinite is over.

Right now, we have at least four different variations of plan C. A lot of [it] depends on what the rules of engagement are: What are we going to do about PPE? What are we going to do about social distancing? All of that impacts every other decision, and which [plan] we choose. 

There’s also a law that we’ve stumbled into in Texas, that if you leave a student that is under the age of 11 at home by themselves, you can be charged with child endangerment. If we decide to open schools and not everybody wants to send their kid to school, how are we going to handle that? We don’t want to endanger our families.

So part of it is do we bring all of our elementary kids to school and spread [students] out in the secondary schools? Because right now, we can only get 17 students in a classroom under the current social distancing schools.

So we need to be ready to pivot depending on what the rules of engagement are, [decided] first by our local health officials and secondly by the state of Texas. 

When you do reopen, or don’t, what will you do if state guidelines don’t align with your decision?

HINOJOSA: I think about that all the time. I have certain authority, but people can overrule my authority. My authority is how I’m going to handle Dallas ISD based on the best information we have, and I will make that decision.

However, it’s been made very clear to us that I can be overruled by the mayor, I can be overruled by the county judge in Texas (or the head of the county), I can be overruled by the commissioner, by the governor and obviously the president of the United States. 

But then how we execute their ruling is really up to me. That’s why I have multiple plans in case my decision gets overruled. 

At this stage, when many places have already made incremental delays, do you think it’s still practical for districts to close indefinitely instead? 

HINOJOSA: I would actually recommend it because we’re going to get a lot more information. Even though I say “We don’t know what we don’t know,” in two weeks we’ll know a lot more. In a month, we’ll know a lot more.

My projected timeline in my head — I haven’t put this in writing anywhere — is by mid-June, which would be June 15, we’re going to have to make a decision about what we’re going to do in August. People need to know. 

But that buys me four weeks to gather information, of things becoming more clear. We’re just in mid-May.

I would recommend other districts go indefinite, because you really don’t know what’s going to happen. A lot of districts and a lot of the country don’t start until after Labor Day [or] in the first week of August. It depends on the local context, but by having an indefinite designation, it gives you a lot more flexibility of when and how you start back up. 

If a district moves in that direction, how should its superintendent communicate that to the community? 

HINOJOSA: You need to follow [your decision] with two to three brief statements of why. If you start giving more than three reasons, people start getting confused. If you don’t give three reasons, people think it’s just a knee-jerk reaction. 

I think you say: “It gives us flexibility, we don’t really know the information, and the information keeps changing. And so it’s impossible for me to give you a specific date if I don’t have good information to make decisions.” 

And if [superintendents] decide to [close indefinitely], they need to think it through with their teams as to why they’re doing it. But it’s very easy to come up with three very specific quick bullets about why you’ve gone in this direction. 

Do you have any words of advice to superintendents making similar reopening decisions? 

HINOJOSA: As you make these big, important decisions that a lot of people are depending on you for, you have to realize that you’re at a different stage than everybody else. First, people are angry, then they’re in denial, then they grieve, and then they accept.

So what happens is when you’re making these decisions, you’re probably already at acceptance.

But a lot of people are at different stages — they’re just now getting angry, they’re just now going into denial. So you’ve got to take that into consideration. 

No matter what you do, you’re going to get criticized. So you need to think about what’s in the best interest of your students, your families, your staff, your community. Realize you’re going to take some heat. That’s the cost of doing business when you’re the CEO of a public entity like this. But you’ve got to be able to empathize that people are in different stages of [processing].

And then you can’t be wishy-washy. Normally, you can be overturned by the school board and by the mayor. But at some point, people are looking to you for leadership. And that’s the penalty of leadership: You sometimes have to make a tough call when you’re out there by yourself.

But you have a lot more information than everybody else has as they’re starting to process everything that’s about to happen to them. 

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