When Leaders Fail Us, What's a Parent to Do?

Comorbid with the COVID-19 pandemic is a second pandemic that's exponentially increasing the impact of the first: a failure of leadership. We can see this failure play out daily from the White House to Gracie Mansion. We have a president who won't lead by example or create policies to safeguard even his own supporters, and we have a lameduck mayor scared to stand by his own decisions amid a din of dissenting opinions and seemingly conflicting priorities. De Blasio's failure to decide how and when to lead NYC public schools into some kind of fall reopening has its own fun-house mirror image in the thinking of many private school leaders.

In June, at my first of many crisis-driven Zoom meetings with other New York State private school leaders this summer, I raised my small blue Zoom hand, unmuted myself, and asked, "Where's the science justifying any kind of safe, in-person reopening?" No response. Then leaders of schools far larger and older than Lang – schools with endowments – voiced fears, one after the other, that parents would simply switch schools if their school didn't offer an in-person option. In June, I also had to convince Lang's board that opening in person this fall was the wrong thing to do; I shared facts and consequences, and the board and I agreed.

In July, I announced to the Lang community that our children would be learning online until effective vaccines were available. In the absence of certainty about almost everything, I wanted our community to have at least one thing they could count on and plan for: Lang would be 100% online until it was safe to return in person. Parents were supportive. That said, three families did decide to stay in the country homes they'd decamped to in March, with two placing their kids in local schools with hybrid programs, and one homeschooling. Faculty were relieved, though the school lost a few of them due to the changes the pandemic brought to their families.

All summer, I attended Zoom meetings and read members-only listservs along with 200 other private school leaders in New York and 2,000 around the country. Each leader checked and double checked with their peers about what they were going to do and when when they would announce, how, and with whose input. It wasn't crowdsourcing, though; it was Follow the Leader, with nobody at the lead. It was early August, and only 8 percent of the 200 independent schools that belonged to this particular state-level, accrediting organization had told their parents what they had decided to do in the fall. Lang was the only school that had decided to go remote until a return was safe. By mid August, one, then several, then many schools announced various hybrid plans, including the very schools who'd taught the rest with great authority how to run schools wholly in person only two months earlier. The science hadn't changed, so what had and why?

Parents had changed their minds. The closer we got to the first day of school, the more parents wanted a remote option. Private school leaders weren't making their decisions based on science any more than Trump or De Blasio were. Heads of school were afraid of the impact parent decisions would have on their bottom line. Since they couldn't predict how parents would feel in August, they wouldn't decide and couldn't lead.

Since most schools have now stated a date for reassessing their reopening plans, my question is this: on what basis are school leaders going to make their reopening decisions in October, November, and January? There's no federal requirement to disclose school-linked COVID-19 cases; definitions of an "outbreak" vary from state to state; some states are reporting cases and outbreaks, while others are making nothing public. Last I heard, the CDC isn't tracking COVID cases in schools. As far as I'm aware, there isn't comprehensive tracking of school-based cases and outbreaks in the countries that opened their schools earlier than we, either. Without these new fact patterns, that means new science won't be guiding school leaders' decisions about reopening later this school year, either. Which leaves parents (and what their children want) in charge.

It was precisely this kind of indecision, an absence of what I believed to be informed and responsible school leadership in gifted and special education, that drove me to create a school in the first place. I feel lucky that in this exceptionally uncertain time, I get to be "a decider" at Lang, a position I embrace no matter how lonely it gets. My decision-making process is to gather the necessary information, gather the conclusions of those I trust to disagree with me, and make a decision based on fact patterns and reason. I don't think you can lead if you need people to approve of you or agree with you. Right now, as parents we're lucky to have the power to pressure leaders to do right by our children, and by our friends' and neighbors' children – to do right by the next generation. So we need show up, stand up, and make ourselves heard. We need to publicly insist that facts and stats be collected from all of the state's schools via the NYC and NYS Departments of Health, and to pressure our local, state, and congressional leaders to ensure that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention do something with those facts and stats and be transparent about the results. As Matt Damon's character says in The Martian, "[We're] going to have to science the shit out of this." Let's make science-based decisionmaking unavoidable. Otherwise, we'll be leading with hope, nostalgia, and cabin fever this spring, and that's not just not good enough for our kids. We need to lead with the truth.

Best regards,


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