Across the nation, education leaders are preparing to reopen schools in the fall. Similar to the spring when there was no playbook for response, there are more questions than answers. Addressing learning loss, setting expectations for what an instructional day should look like, and tending to the social and emotional needs of students and educators will require innovative solutions.

As the SCORE team continues learning from school districts who are leading the way on COVID-19 response, we have followed the work of Clarksville-Montgomery County School System’s (CMCSS) Communicable Disease Team (CDT), which is providing responsive leadership for the district’s 35,000 students and 2,300 educators. This task force did not just weigh information and produce a report — they are developing the framework by which students will continue to receive the education they deserve.

Bring The Right People To The Table

Recognizing the rapidly changing nature of COVID-19 in February, CMCSS district leaders included a diverse set of perspectives on the CDT. Given the grave nature of the health crisis, county public health officials were brought to the table, along with senior district leaders with strategic authority to carry out plans. Each provided critical insights that helped the district become the first to close schools and implement a remote learning and operations plan — a decision that may have seemed aggressive at the time but in hindsight was prescient. District leaders attribute this to a culture of shared leadership and recognizing that decisions should not be made in isolation.

Create Space For Insight To Shine

With the right people at the table, the director of schools empowered members to speak up. No one individual was an expert on the whole picture, creating a culture of learning through problem solving. This was important in March as Tennessee reported its first COVID-19 cases. The district cancelled out-of-district student trips and imposed social distancing on district functions as it implemented disease mitigation steps. When one elementary school reported a possible COVID-19 case, school leaders shared that they “could see the fear in everyone’s eyes.” Realized the scale of the challenges ahead, the district was able to shift from mitigation to preparing for closure.

One Challenge, Many Voices

Discussion and planning can seem like an intellectual exercise while responding to a pandemic, but the team’s experience with launching remote learning shows the value of planning. Across the country, districts struggled to launch remote learning plans because of the digital divide and lack of educator readiness. While CMCSS benefited from having one device per student in grades 4-12, much work remained to ensure lessons were ready for educators and student internet access was addressed.

Some task force members were ready to launch remote learning immediately after spring break ended; others voiced concerns around readiness. A suggestion to use the district’s stockpiled school closure days gave them the time they needed to work out key operational issues (creating school bus routes to deliver materials/meals, preparing educators for remote learning) before launch. If their response had been driven by the academic perspective alone, students may have had a less coherent learning experience. Multiple perspectives at the table enables better problem solving. As a district leader put it, “You are subject to your own blind spots.”

Continuing To Look Forward

Drawing from more than three months of collaboration, Clarksville leaders are leaning on the task force to plan school reopening and stay ahead of problems that may arise. The district is working through four reopening scenarios, prioritizing a hybrid scenario where some students physically attend school and others are remote (a more resilient and adaptable plan). A survey is underway to assess family perspectives on school reopening as there is emerging evidence that some parents may not feel safe sending students to school before a vaccine is widely available.

While we all seek a relatively normal return to school in the fall, experts suggest that some degree of school disruption is likely in the coming months. No one in recent memory has navigated a pandemic of such scale and duration, making this a moment that requires innovative problem solving. The work in CMCSS serves as a model for how education leaders can navigate a situation with many unknowns while keeping the focus on students. By prioritizing “how do we do this” over “this won’t work,” the task force helps district leaders figure out next steps in an uncertain environment. Tennessee students need this kind of proactive leadership in the months and years ahead.

Peter Tang is SCORE’s director of research.