Second only to the impact of classroom instruction, decades of educational research has demonstrated the important role school leaders play in supporting student success (Robinson, 2011). Leading for equity, however, often requires a different way of thinking about student success; one that recognizes that diverse contexts require decolonized and socially just approaches (Lopez, 2016). And so, leading schools is a socially complex and adaptive process, even in the “best” of times. The pandemic, coupled with social uprisings and a reckoning with our colonial past, has added additional layers of complexity that many school leaders are struggling to balance.
On the one hand, the pandemic has created a firestorm as school leaders grapple with new roles as “the other first responders” of the pandemic (Osmond-Johnson et al., 2020). Workload intensification and work-life balance have been an ongoing challenge for school-based leaders (Pollock et al., 2017). COVID-19 has exacerbated these issues, creating new accountability expectations around health and safety protocols that school leaders had little to no input in creating.
On the other hand, COVID-19 has also laid bare long-existing racial inequities that school leaders are compelled to address. Originally thought to be “the great equalizer,” according to McKenzie (2020), COVID-19 actually exploits differences between communities, using the existing “cracks in our system to get in, take hold and maintain its position.” In school reopenings, we have seen the continued proliferation of systemic inequities. A recent analysis of registrations in the Toronto District School Board, for instance, found that parents from low-income neighbourhoods comprised a much larger share of those opting for online learning. These neighbourhoods were also found to have a higher incidence of positive COVID-19 cases, larger populations of racialized families, and a higher percentage of multi-generational homes. So, while some can pay for personal in-home teaching and tutoring, “others who are fearful of sending their children back to school but cannot pay for private help are becoming test subjects for a new realm of online learning” (Bascaramurty & Alphonso, 2020).
White supremacy does not go away just because there is a pandemic. Rather, fault lines in an educational system that had been comfortably managing the status quo have been further exposed. In this sense, school leaders must understand the challenges and see the opportunities to ensure systems of white supremacy are challenged and dismantled. Complacency and wilful ignorance will no longer suffice.
Grounding leadership in equitable practices
If school-based leaders are to focus on equity, wellness, and dismantling systemic racism amid the complexities and challenges of leading during a pandemic, how can they operationalize that focus to ensure the needs of their students and teachers are being met?
First, school leaders must remain laser-focused, keeping equity at the forefront of their practice – not as something they do if they have time, but the lens through which they plan and engage in leading (Lopez, 2016). During COVID-19 this might include additional attention to pedagogy, particularly in the online environment. For instance, some students may not have spaces for online learning they want to share with others, and may not want to turn their cameras on. Educators should be mindful to not act on their own stereotypes and biases in such an instance, with school leaders supporting teachers in these endeavours.
Second, enabling the focus on equity necessitates a solid plan to deal with the most challenging aspect of leading at this critical juncture: the pace at which information, expectations, and directives are constantly changing. Within this context, a desire to plan with equity in mind is easily scuttled by the need to just survive the onslaught of new and often conflicting information. Developing a school-based communication plan as part of a distributed leadership model can help navigate the seemingly endless amount of “crucial” and “urgent” information leaders are tasked with addressing. This might include allocating specific responsibilities around various aspects of COVID communications to administrative support personnel and formal and informal teacher leaders within the school. Knowing when to defer to advice from public health officials is also important. This kind of distributed approach creates space for school-based leaders to also focus on the difficult work of addressing the systemic racism, educational inequities, and oppressive practices that have been made even more visible as a result of COVID-19.
Third, it is important that school leaders ask themselves what kind of spaces they are creating for teachers, students, and their families to dialogue about equity issues. This journey of change cannot be viewed as a series of tasks to be completed at the direction of a school district. Dismantling systemic inequities can’t be “workshopped” or managed with tips, tricks, and strategies. School leaders must explain the purpose of the work, connect it to a shared set of values articulated by the collective, and clarify the vision for moving the work forward. They must build a critical mass of support, encourage and empower those looking for opportunities to lead, and remain resilient and focused when challenged by those resistant to change. The moment we are currently in also provides school leaders with a great opportunity to build deep, lasting and respectful relationships with communities as a pathway to exploring the ways that white supremacy has been manifested by COVID-19 and to challenge the devastating effects the pandemic has on racialized students.
Finally, and perhaps most crucially of all, school leaders must honour the time, effort, and resilience required to engage in this work. Any leader who is prepared to invest time, energy, and resources into sustainable change knows that leading anti-racist work requires a focused and persistent long-range plan, driven by our students’ expectations for an education worthy of their desire to be academically challenged and socially engaged. It is important, then, that school leaders also engage in self-care to ensure they have the emotional and physical health to challenge white supremacy and its impact on their practice and their schools.
While it may seem safety protocols are the only thing school leaders have time for at the moment, it must be understood that wellness and equity are intrinsically linked. In this sense, school leaders must be prepared to centre equity as they lead through COVID-19; as Gaymes and San Vicente (2020) recently stated, “A crisis does not negate such responsibilities. It only enhances them.”
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Bascaramurty, D., & Alphonso, C. (2020, September 5). How race, income, and ‘opportunity hoarding’ will shape Canada’s back-to-school season. The Globe and Mail.
Gaymes, A., & San Vicente, R. (2020, March 27). Schooling for equity during and beyond COVID-19. Behind the Numbers. https://behindthenumbers.ca/2020/03/27/schooling-for-equity-during-covid-19/
Lopez, A. E. (2016). Culturally responsive and socially just leadership: From theory to action. Palgrave MacMillan.
McKenzie, K. (2020, August 13). Toronto and Peel have reported race-based and demographic-based data – now we need action. Wellesley Institute. www.wellesleyinstitute.com/healthy-communities/toronto-and-peel-have-reported-race-based-and-socio-demographic-data-now-we-need-action/
Osmond-Johnson, P., Campbell, C., & Pollock, K. (May, 2020). Moving forward in the COVID-19 era: Reflections for Canadian education. EdCan Network.
Pollock, K., Wang, F., & Hauseman, C. (2019). Proactively mitigating school leaders’ emotionally draining situations. Canadian Journal of Educational Administration and Policy 190, 40–48.
Robinson, V. (2011). Student-centered leadership (1st ed.). Jossey-Bass.