WCPSS Response to COVID-19 An Example of Masterful Leadership

The response by Wake County Public School System to the COVID-19 pandemic is a masterclass in leadership by example in using the 4 C’s: Collaboration, Communication, Critical Thinking and Creativity.

A prevailing axiom emerged in the 2010s that employers were forever searching for people who “know what to do when they didn’t know what to do.” In other words, these were independent problem solvers who could react accordingly when there wasn’t a procedure manual in place. That’s exactly what is happening as WCPSS is moving along on simultaneously on separate tracks of service to students and staff.

First, when faced with calls to close the entire 162,000-student system, the immediate concern was for students who don’t have stable access to food. Once the decision was made to close all 191 schools, in mid-March, the school system had a plan for food distribution sites to set up across the county within hours. Hours, not days. As of last Friday, March 27 just two weeks into the effort, the schools had served more than 75,000 meals at 29 sites, according to Superintendent Cathy Moore. They are now up to 35 sites.

If the school system only did food distribution it would require a tremendous amount of interdepartmental and interagency collaboration and communication to organize and execute. But getting there also took some amazing creativity and critical thinking. Despite having industrial kitchens designed to serve hundreds or thousands of students in every school each day, an under-responsive or overwrought bureaucracy might have sat idle for days or weeks before marshalling these resources.

Ensuring that all students have enough food is not easy, and yet that may not be the biggest challenge. With schools closed through at least May 15, school leaders, principals, and teachers are working together to set up a value-added online learning system for all 162,000 students.

Less than a week after schools were closed, the district had built a comprehensive website full of learning resources. Teachers and building administrators were in touch with their students and parents to set up lines of communication and keep learning going. Kids from K-12 were using online video conferencing tools with their teachers to stay in touch.

This plan is still evolving, but what may be the most critical part is a district-wide assessment of students’ access to the internet and connected devices. WCPSS is creating avenues to give all students access to the many existing technology resources. This includes accelerating a plan, from a few months to a few days, to use funds from the 2018 school bond referendum to replace thousands of teacher laptops and repurposing the old ones for students who don’t have devices at home. WCPSS is also providing WiFi hotspots to some students without reliable internet access at home.

In the coming days, the school system will be completely virtual with classroom teachers delivering instruction online in real time and asynchronously. Everyone in the school system knows this can’t replace in-person classroom instruction, but WCPSS is making the best effort it can to keep learning going while school is closed.

Many questions remain, especially about high school graduation requirements, report cards, state mandates for End of Grade and End of Course testing in grades 3-12, and school calendar, among others. Those can only be answered by the state, and most likely through legislation. WakeEd is advocating for continued and uninterrupted pay and benefits for all school system employees until normal operations resume and for greater flexibility from state-mandates which cannot be met under the circumstances.

The way WCPSS has dynamically responded to the pandemic with such speed is an example of the type of leadership that exists in WCPSS under normal circumstances. In other words, they know what to do when they don’t know what to do. There’s no policy and procedure manual for responding to an extended school shutdown with such restrictions on person-to-person contact like this.

The school district’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic is so well orchestrated because the district had these structures, workflow processes, and procedures in place well in advance. Crisis leadership started well before the crisis. WCPSS showed how to do that by its example, and this work is masterful.

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