My School of Thought on…Returning to School during a Pandemic

The last time I wrote a blog, we were entering into the unknown at the end of March. Schools across the country closed, then remained closed until the end of the school year. Dr. Battle and the entire MNPS team responded quickly by delivering food, and other essential supplies. But our pivot to remote learning fell short in terms of instructional content and delivery.  We reflected on our response in the spring, and moved quickly to build a more sustainable and thoughtful plan for parents who would choose to keep their children home this fall. The district moved into high gear in order to offer families the option of in-person and remote learning in August. Every single day was critical this summer as teams across the district continued to deliver food and vital supports, but also planned for every potential scenario and challenge in the fall.

We hoped that national and state leaders would offer a unified and serious plan for testing, tracing, isolating, and treatment until a vaccine was ready for wide distribution. Then, instead of transmission rates going down in June and July, they skyrocketed, with Tennessee – and Nashville in particular – breaking its own records on infections and hospitalizations week after week. A serious national response to this pandemic has never materialized, and any efforts to mitigate spread, like mask-wearing, have not been mandated or even practiced by many national and state leaders, sending mixed messages on their necessity.

We knew by the end of June that we would be forced to rethink our opening plans. MNPS was one of the first large districts to call for an all-virtual opening, primarily because Tennessee has some of the earliest start dates in the country. Soon many other districts were forced to make the same impossible decision. According to Education Week, “By late August, 39 of the 50 largest school districts are choosing remote learning only as their back-to-school instructional model, affecting over 6.1 million students”.

Starting the Year with Remote Learning

Given the state of the public health risk, our School Board was unified in support of the decision to start virtually, understanding that many of our students live in multi-generational households, and have family members that are at high risk. The same is true for our staff. We saw early on that Black and Latino families in Nashville were disproportionately impacted by the virus, with most not able to work from home. This pandemic has affected very single person in Nashville, but the data is clear that communities of color, low-income families, and the elderly, are bearing the largest burden in terms of illness and deaths.

We have watched as ongoing research in the U.S. and across the country was published about the role of children in spreading the virus. There has been conflicting data, with differing reports on how much children over and under ten years of age can carry the disease. Countries like Israel and South Korea have opened schools when they had much lower transmission rates that in the US, but then had to quickly close.

Post-Labor Day Plans

More recently, as we approached our self-imposed deadline of August 25th to announce our plans after Labor Day, we did not see numbers drop to levels that matched our in-person reopening goal of 10 cases per 100,000 residents (we were at 17 as of yesterday). To be certain, we have finally started to see improvements and the numbers are going in the right direction. With this in mind, Dr. Battle and her team developed a comprehensive plan for a phased-in return, prioritizing our students with disabilities, and our youngest learners first.

I have heard from many parents in my district, the vast majority of them with children in the earliest grades. They are struggling to make remote learning work for their children, and are truly exasperated. I know they are trying to juggle work, remote learning, and much more, and I hear and understand the anguish in their voices. We are faced with choices none of us would ever want to have to make. At the same time, we are trying to make decisions for over 80,000 students and 160+ schools. Let’s face it, we don’t have the luxury of private schools who can manage this process at a much smaller scale, with far fewer of the complexities that public schools have.

Many of the folks who are reaching out to me are citing recommendations from national groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics. While their guidance favors in person learning, there is nuance if you dig into the specific language of these reports, which also state in their current guidance:  In many places in the United States at the present time, opening schools to in-person learning for all students is likely not feasible because of widespread community transmission and high levels of positivity in testing. Even in these communities, though, in-person learning should still be the goal and may be feasible as the epidemiology improves. Countries that have been able to successfully open schools have had low rates of community SARS-CoV-2 circulation. While we may want to be in the place where Nashville has low rates of circulation, we just aren’t there yet.

I want to be completely candid. The lack of an evidence-based, science-centered national plan, and the politicization of return to school has created unnecessary tension and stress for school leaders.  Governor Lee has faced backlash from all sides as he tries to respond to the virus. As a result, there is an extraordinary amount of pressure placed on superintendents and school boards in Tennessee, and across the country. We are at a point now where the recovery of our economy and a “return to normal” often rests on the shoulders of superintendents instead of federal, state and city leaders. We see the pressure on school boards to ignore science, and to push back on directives for students to wear masks, which can trigger a recall of board members. I have received regular requests for a return to school with no mask mandates, and been accused of making decisions to spite the President. I assure you that my decisions are 100% focused on the health and safety of our students, staff, and community.

I am grateful that Dr. Battle has been clear and decisive, and that our board has supported her. For the first time in my memory, the MNPS family is unified, and rowing in the same direction. We are also collaborating with our charter schools, who support remaining in a virtual setting until October. Mayor Cooper has helped us get laptops and hotspots into the hands of every student who needs one. I recognize that remote learning is not a substitute for in-person learning, and never will be.

Not all parents support our decision. As we navigate this pandemic we know there are no good choices and that no plan that will get enthusiastic support from all quarters. I see the dissonance it creates when other counties and private schools are returning to school and playing sports. But we have seen increases in cases among sports teams in Tennessee, and have had teams in MNPS pause training this summer due to outbreaks. Dr. Battle is listening, and carrying the load for all of us. She is trying to balance the safety of students and staff with the immense pressure from many to return to school.

My commitment is to continue to listen, to push Dr. Battle and her team to adapt and improve the remote learning tools we are using, to execute well on our plans for in-person learning, and to ensure we are doing all we can for our students who are most at-risk. I urge Nashville to stay focused on the critical task of getting our numbers down, and on working together to ensure that we can safely return to in-person learning as soon as possible.

Opening Remarks re: MNPS Budget @ Metro Council Meeting 5.21.2020

Greetings Vice Mayor Shulman, Chairman Mendes and Honorable Councilmembers,

On behalf of my board colleagues, I would like to thank you for the opportunity to present our budget. These are, undoubtedly, uncertain times. The pandemic has presented all of us with unforeseen challenges, not least for our students, families and schools.

We come to you today with a budget that received unanimous approval from our board earlier this week and one that reflects our belief that MNPS must share in the sacrifice that is required at this time.  But our central goal is to prioritize our students, and what they will need when they return to us in the fall.

And once students and educators are back our classrooms, we must be prepared to fund their futures. We spent the early part of this year hosting community meetings to share our goals for the budget and to get feedback. Many council members joined us in those meetings. We heard from parents, staff and community members that we must prioritize paying our educators well, and to provide them with the tools and resources necessary to support student success.

Our board has had to make difficult tradeoffs in this budget, choosing to prioritize our students by protecting school budgets so that we may continue to focus on instruction and to support our students’ developmental needs and social-emotional well-being.

MNPS directs 72% of our funding to our schools, giving principals the autonomy and discretion to invest their dollars in staff, programs and materials that best serve their unique student population. Our budget protects that priority, and does not ask principals and schools to make cuts at this time.

Our board recognizes that we can be better stewards of funds, and based on multiple years of study and thorough consideration, the board unanimously voted to close four schools in order increase efficiency and to better leverage staff, programs and supports for students. This was not an easy decision to make, but we understand that these are difficult times.

Some have asked us to look at cutting funds that to go to charter schools. It’s important to note that we recently declined to approve five new charter schools. But we also have a legal obligation to fund existing charters, and know that allocation will gradually increase as more grades are added to existing charter schools.

The budget we bring to you today does not include funds to buy the textbooks and materials for our recent English and Language Arts adoption for grades K-12, which was an important priority for our board and school community this year. We know that this will have a direct impact on student learning. We have made additional cuts into our budget by 10 million in order to address inflationary pressures, including increases in water and insurance costs.

We believe we must not go backward. We are bringing you a budget that includes the 3% cost of living increase we gave to staff this year. That increase included an authorization from Council the use of our fund balance to cover the cost when it became apparent that the original funding mechanism of MDHA funds would not be available. We will honor that increase, but respectfully request that you help us to honor the commitment we all made to the teachers of MNPS by funding the cost-of-living-adjustment that already went into effect.

So, while our board has reached consensus on this budget and its priorities on our students and schools, we recognize that the sacrifices and tradeoffs we are making today will adversely impact our district. Our students will return during a time of great uncertainty, and we have a collective responsibility to ensure that our schools are ready welcome and support them so that they can return to learning.

COVID19 and Schools

I hope this post finds every one of you safe and healthy in this time of uncertainty. I have really struggled this past week with weight of school closures, impending budget cuts, and worries about my own family, making it hard to concentrate on the work at hand. Eddie and I are so fortunate that we can work easily from home, and that our jobs are not in jeopardy. I have taken comfort in phone calls and Zoom gatherings with family, friends, and co—workers near and far.

I can’t overstate how terribly challenging this school closure is, and will be, for students and their families. This is a challenge of unique proportions, and without question the biggest one of my career. The impact and implications of closing schools are more urgent and far-reaching to our school system than to perhaps any other institution in our city. If there is one silver lining to all of this, it is that we have all been reminded of a truism about schools: they are an absolute necessity for the functioning of daily life, serving as the centers of our communities, providing indispensable services to students and families, and teaching and caring for children while their parents work. There is no precedent for closing schools (and at the same time child care centers, libraries, and community centers, etc.) at this scale, and the impending budget cuts will make our ability to recover and respond to student needs difficult at best.

It goes without saying that the longstanding achievement gaps between students– by income, race, zip code, parent education levels, disability or home language – will widen as a result of these closures. Our equity gaps will now come under the microscope, and I hope we can use this seismic change to institute some ambitious and bold changes to address them. There is ample research on the impact of chronic absenteeism, trauma, or poverty on student learning. We know that summer learning loss is real, and measurable. COVID19 has created a sudden interruption in schooling, but also in the economic stability of many families, creating stress on children across this city. That, more than anything else, keeps me up at night. I think about children in foster care, in homeless shelters, in unstable or unsafe home environments, who rely on schools for so much more than instruction. Schools provide routine, safety, comfort, meals, and connection to a range of adults who want to help them succeed.

Our priorities as a district are two-fold. Our first response has been to distribute food, using pick-up sites as well as school buses to deliver meals to our communities with the highest concentrations of poverty. Our current and urgent priority has been to develop a plan for a range of student academic needs: helping seniors stay on track to graduate on time; identifying the gaps in access to technology and internet for our students; providing direction and support to staff on communicating with students and families; and determining what is possible in terms of digital learning for our students.

We cannot, much to the disappointment of many parents, flip a switch and move schooling to an online format. Our teachers were not equipped to rapidly implement online learning, which is a learned skill that requires some training and planning under the best of circumstances. Virtual learning is not a substitute for school, and is not effective for many students, even under the best of circumstances. I can say with absolute certainty that the leadership team at MNPS is working tirelessly to identify and implement a coherent plan for remote learning at home, but it is clear that assigning grades and holding students accountable for homework and assignments should not happen at this time. We will provide a range of supports and avenues to address learning at home, but like districts across the country, we will make mistakes, hit roadblocks, but do our very best to maximize the resources at our disposal.

As chair of Metro Schools’ Budget and Finance Committee I now have the daunting task of facing a dramatically different budget process for the 2020 2021 school year. Indeed, we may have to make cuts in this current academic school year. Our reliance on sales taxes and low property taxes have placed us in a very precarious position. A serious economic downturn will have a profound impact on our ability to return to schooling as we knew it mere weeks ago. We will learn in the coming days about the funding from the recent federal stimulus bills, and how much that will fill our impending holes in our budget. This is when I’m thankful that we have a strong partnership between the Mayor, Metro Council and the School Board.

A little over two weeks ago the School Board voted to hire Dr. Adrienne Battle as our permanent Director of Schools. It was the right call – and we need her now more than ever. She has asked every employee to lead in this moment, and they are stepping up. Our teachers and staff are worried about their students, and miss them terribly. The stories of generosity and creativity are too many to list here, but we know that they are dropping off food to students living in hotels after the tornado, scheduling morning meetings online, posting videos of reading bedtime stories, calling students and checking on them, emailing activities each morning, and even organizing teacher caravans to drive through neighborhoods to greet their students and families. Teacher teams are meeting online, faculties are collaborating, and Dr. Battle and her team are working around the clock to address this unprecedented challenge. I believe that Nashville will respond in this moment with generosity and courage. But our students will need your support more than ever before – so please reach out with ideas or inspiration to help us get through this together.

My School of Thought…on 2019 and What’s Next

I hope each of you have enjoyed the holidays! If you are like me, you are gearing up for 2020 and all that a new year brings. I thought I would pass along some reflections on 2019 and hopes for the coming year. I remain in awe of the tremendous responsibility of serving on the School Board in Nashville, and thank each of you for your support and encouragement along the way. 

I’ll start by offering some acknowledgments:

  • to the students of MNPS that I have met over the past year – their experiences and aspirations are central to my work and guide every vote I take
  • to our district staff – from the hardworking teachers, staff and principals in schools, to those that take care of our buildings, drive our buses, and lead our district – I salute each of them for the love and care they show the children of Nashville every day
  • to our community partners – their work in our schools makes all the difference in the world
  • to the advocates – the ones that push the Board to face tough issues – advocates like NOAH, neighborhood associations, parents, labor, charter leaders, teachers, and students. I thank you for making your voice heard! 
  • to my board colleagues – the complexity of our task and the difficult and long-lasting decisions we make are not for the faint of heart. We may not agree on every issue, but I committed to collegiality and mutual respect, which have been graciously reciprocated
  • to my family – to Eddie for the eternal support, to my parents for watching the meetings (!), and to my kids who inspire me every day. Gracias to all of you.

2019 brought tumultuous change to MNPS. My first nine months on the board were dominated by the challenges related to Dr. Joseph’s tenure, which made it nearly impossible to build an agenda focused on the most pressing issues in the district. I wrote about the experience in this op-ed for the Tennessean, and am still grappling with the effects that the conflict, both internally and externally, took on the district and the city.

Dr. Joseph’s departure coincided with the budget season for Metro government and the school district. I found our budget process opaque and the negotiations with Mayor Briley and the Metro Council to be challenging at best.  I came out of that difficult process with newfound respect for our teachers who boldly pushed for an increase in pay, and for the leadership of Councilmember Mendes, as well as others on the council, for their efforts to inform the city and ask for an increase in our property taxes to fund the needs of the city. 

We were fortunate that Dr. Adrienne Battle agreed to step up and serve as the interim Director of Schools in April, and her leadership has given us an opportunity to recalibrate and set a new course. She has appointed seasoned leaders to her cabinet and been responsive and thoughtful from the outset. A search for the permanent Director of Schools began in December, and we hope to conclude that process by the end of March. Dr. Battle will throw her hat in the ring, and we know that it will be a competitive process, but one that will allow us to make bold decisions in 2020.

In the meantime, I continue to serve as chair of the Governance Committee, where we routinely examine existing policies, or create new ones to address issues within the district. Additionally, I now serve as Budget and Finance Chair with hopes of building greater understanding of what it means to fully fund our district, and how to best leverage our funding to get greater results. I am concerned about our prospects without a new property tax in 2020. It will be impossible to recruit, retain and support great teachers without a budget increase. And in an environment of budget and resource scarcity (in a thriving city at that) it is our students who suffer the most – with a persistent lack of access to instructional materials, textbooks and technology, as well as a long list of delayed infrastructure improvements that are vital to their learning environment. 

As I look ahead to 2020 I’ll place some important markers in the ground. I will focus my energy the following priorities: helping select a permanent Director of Schools; working with Mayor Cooper and the Council on a bold and transparent budget for our schools, staff and students; leading a conversation on high school start times; digging in on the research on literacy and weighing in where helpful; and aggressively pushing for us to offer a world-class education to each and every one of our students. 

Please continue to reach out to me with thoughts, advice, reading and podcast suggestions, and things I should have on my radar. I commit to staying in touch in 2020. Happy New Year!

-Gini

P.S. In hopes of simplifying my life a bit, I have closed my Gini for Schools Facebook page. I remain active on Twitter @ginipupo and you can reach me via email at gini@giniforschools.com You can learn more about all things MNPS School Board, including agendas and how to watch or to sign up to speak at a meeting, here

My School of Thought…on 2018 and What’s Next

2018 was an important year for our family, ushering in changes and much to celebrate. Eli entered his senior year at Centre College, Eddie earned a Guggenheim award for his research in Mexican history, and I was elected to the School Board with the help of family, friends and an amazing team. We have a lot to be thankful for, and I know that 2019 will be a year of learning and growth. 

I spent the last four months on a rather steep learning curve as a School Board member, trying to identify and master the “hidden rules”, as we say in the education business. I did my homework before for each meeting or retreat, and asked questions and contributed when I thought it furthered the conversation. I came in with the distinct advantage of having strong relationships with people inside and outside of MNPS, all working hard to help our school system succeed. But I still have a lot to learn about how change is made, how to use my voice, and to measure success or define challenges and solutions in a range of key areas. Thank you for giving me the space to learn this fall, and I am glad to be back with my blog to share some thoughts. Here a just a few of my highlights from 2018:

I met hundreds of amazing people on the campaign trail and since my election, and have learned so much about my hometown and about our commitment to public education.

Once elected, I began to visit District 8 schools, attending celebrations and events, and hearing from principals and staff about their experiences, needs, and aspirations. 

met and heard from many parents, and did my best to provide them with information, and to troubleshoot issues whenever possible. 

visited classrooms and made presentations to students, and I got to see our incredible teachers in action.

I have read countless articles and books on education leadership and policy-making in an effort to inform my thinking.

I was named chair of the Governance Committee, and am learning how to use the position to address key issues, provide clarity, and to examine existing or potential policies that support our work. 

built strong working relationships with the Metro Council members that serve District 8 and am inspired by their dedication and knowledge.

I was able to keep the Stokes building from the auction block as we face significant budget challenges. I believe we must hold on to our assets and not sell them just to cover a one-time shortfall, and I hope to work with community leaders to find a solution for Stokes that benefits the neighborhood.

committed to re-launching an exploration of later start times for our high schools, and look forward to working with parents, staff and students to study this issue. 

And here are some of my priorities and interests for 2019:

I have begun to build my own dashboard, if you will, on a broad range of key data points and information related to the success of MNPS. I will make decisions this year based on the evidence at hand, and will share how I interpret and use it to inform my work on the board, including our upcoming budget process and our mid-year and summative evaluations of the performance of Dr. Joseph. 

I am committed, along with some key allies, to creating a forum for our community to participate in conversations about public education in Nashville.  I hope to create opportunities for dialogue on what research and practice tell us on topics like school turnaround, teacher recruitment and retention, school funding, integration, choice, parent engagement and leadership, instructional practice, school culture, discipline, and more. 

I will remain vigilant on the implementation of the new Sanctuary City bill that passed the state legislature, and push to make sure that our immigrant families and students feel welcomed and safe in every one of our schools. 

hope to participate in efforts to create workforce housing for teachers in Nashville, and to build on the success of other cities that have been able to do so.

I will launch an inclusive and open process to examine later start times for our high schools. 

I will serve as an advocate for our students and schools by working closely with Mayor Briley, Metro Council members, the State Board and Tennessee Department of Education, and state and national legislators to make sure they understand our unique opportunities and challenges, and to ensure that we get the resources and support necessary for our success. 

commit to using my voice as a School Board member to build trust in our ability to lead and to improve outcomes for every student in our city. We must model the behavior that we expect from our students and staff, and honor the hard work that they do every day.

Thank you as always for your support and please continue to reach out to me with ideas and opportunities to engage and help our schools and community. Happy New Year!

  -Gini

P.S. I am using Facebook very rarely now (I’m debating with whether I should keep an account at all), but remain active on Twitter @ginipupo If you want to read previous blog entries you can see them here. You can reach me via email at gini@giniforschools.com