Aleesia Johnson is superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools. In this role, she oversees the strategic direction and operations of the district in achieving its mission to empower and educate all students to think critically, creatively and responsibly, to embrace diversity, and to pursue their dreams with purpose. In October, Aleesia joined ERS Partner David Rosenberg at a webinar to talk about strategic school models in the year of COVID. Check out what she had to say about IPS' reopening plans, biggest challenges, innovative solutions and more.
To view the full webinar, click here.
How did IPS open this year?
We ended up, like many folks, opening fully remote. We were initially scheduled to start school August 5; we delayed our start by two weeks til August 17th because we were still planning and figuring out what we were going to do. Ultimately, while our goal had been to offer some in-person learning from the beginning of the school year, the positivity rates had started to spike back up, so our board made the decision that we would start remote.
Our county health department did take more of a formal role in advising us and giving us the permission to either open in-person or remote or hybrid. Our decision to go fully remote was a little bit more conservative than what the health department told us we had to do...but we have stayed in constant consultation with the county health department, watching the COVID positivity rate and responding to the survey data. We put out a survey to our families around what their desire was, [and we’re] using all those factors to make an ultimate decision.
What has gone well so far? What has been a particular challenge?
As I’ve gone to schools and talked to principals, particularly in elementary grades, [I hear that] our kiddos...have been incredible around mask wearing, understanding there are protocols. We know this about kids — that they’re resilient and flexible and they will get with the program. I think it’s been really affirming to see how well our kids have responded to those new routines and procedures.
We are finding that [with the labor-intensive hybrid models] our teachers are carrying so much right now, and it is its own distinct body of work. It requires its own distinct planning that isn’t a middle ground of remote or in-person. We are in an ever-changing context and it’s been difficult to be thinking, how do we keep teaching and learning at the center of our conversations with our educators?
Given limited resources, what are some trade-offs your principals have made?
We did have some principals who were able to sort out virtual-only teachers and in-person teachers. But the reality is that means changing who their teacher was, and having been two months with their teacher, that’s really hard. That’s a tradeoff, it’s a disruption in relationship building and in the routine and structures that that child of family might have been used to.
On the flip side, for simultaneous instruction, a teacher having to attend to both the students sitting in front of them and the students who are coming in virtually is a considerable lift. Principals are thinking about what are the ways we can, in real time, provide the support needed to teachers who are taking that on and plan for the additional PD necessary for that work to happen more effectively? What’s been interesting is talking with some principals who decided to move forward with simultaneous instruction and are now thinking about okay, are there actually different other ways, a different modality, we might try now?
Every decision you make, you are trading off something for some group of folks. Everything comes with a tradeoff at this point in time, so it’s about naming that and acknowledging that up front and trying to as much as possible proactively plan for how you address that thing you're trading off in this process.
About what proportion of teachers have opted out of in-person instruction? How are you handling those shifts?
About 5% of our teachers requested accommodation and/or leave. We asked the question, what would make you comfortable? We actually had quite a few staff who were able to say “If we did X, then I would be okay to come into school.” So we were able to do that for a good number of teachers and staff members.
For example, we have someone who serves as an instructional coach and was supporting multiple schools, six to eight schools. We were able to say, okay, we’re going to have you support these two schools with some additional PPE. That person felt comfortable with that arrangement and so we were able to make an accommodation that worked for their comfort level.
It hasn’t worked that way in every situation, but we’ve tried to have those clear standards and also be flexible and willing to engage in conversations with folks. We looked to see if there were things we could do that could allow [teachers and staff] to do their jobs, but feel comfortable and safe doing their jobs.
What is one thing you know now about planning for reopening during the pandemic that you didn’t know before?
Trade-offs are inherent in any planning you’re doing. You’ve got to name the brutal facts in order to keep hope and optimism for the future. [It’s important] to name the things that are hard and are challenging up front and be willing to confront those things and to know you won’t be able to solve every single thing.
Finally, I’ll say what I’ve been so encouraged both with my team and also as I’ve watched districts across the country. There’s been this perception that education moves incredibly slow and is not very agile or flexible. The things we’ve been able to do in such a short amount of time to me proves what is possible for us in education. We can actually be agile and flexible, we desire to do that because we want to serve our kids and families well. Everybody is dog-tired all the time, that’s definitely true, but man, people are really responding and trying to do their best. I appreciate this moment in time if for nothing else than that I think we are proving what’s possible.