Brian Harris, M.S.Ed. ’91, Ph.D. ’01, had visited the bustling cafeteria of Barrington High School many times before.

District 220 Superintendent Dr. Brian L. Harris M.S.Ed. ’91, Ph.D. ’01 (Photo by Peter Wynn Thompson)

He had never regarded it the way he did March 12, however, through the social-distancing lens of COVID-19.

“We have 650 kids eating lunch in that facility four times a day,” said Harris, superintendent of Barrington Community Unit School District 220 since 2014. “It did not make any sense.”

The next day, Harris announced a decision to close the district’s dozen schools for the week of March 16. Just hours later, he stood with Gov. J.B. Pritzker in Chicago during the televised briefing that declared all Illinois schools shuttered throughout March—an edict later extended throughout the 2019–20 school year.

For Harris, who earned master’s and doctoral degrees in educational administration from the NIU College of Education in 1991 and 2001, respectively, it was validation: “I thought it was important, for at least my community, that I had made the right call, and that the governor obviously saw fit to do it for the entire state.”

Many resources already were in place: All 9,000 students have iPads and internet access, and the district has a robust Distance Learning Plan on the books.

“The good news is that we had done quite a bit of work to prepare for ‘virtual snow days.’ We were prepared to do remote learning,” he said, “but we were prepared for a day or two, not multiple weeks or months.”

Dr. Ehren Jarrett M.S.Ed. ’04, Ed.S. ’06, Ed.D. ’09

Ehren Jarrett, M.S.Ed. ’04, Ed.S. ’06, Ed.D. ’09, meanwhile, took Pritzker’s news as a call to action.

“Our thoughts immediately went to, ‘How are we going to support our 29,000 students and their families, and our 5,000 employees, to keep people safe and minimize exposure?’” said Jarrett, superintendent of Rockford Public School District 205.

Jarrett’s team quickly moved to supply the basic need of food and then tackled the chore of “providing the best possible learning environment.”

Doing so required the creation of phone surveys to determine the need for, and distribution of, 15,000 Google Chromebooks. It also meant training teachers in e-learning and building the platform to deliver those lessons.

Providing Wi-Fi posed the next challenge.

“A lot of families don’t have Wi-Fi access,” said Jarrett, “and in a pandemic like this, you can’t just tell them to use Wi-Fi in public spaces, like ‘Go to the laundromat. Go to Starbucks.’”

Superintendents everywhere are managing COVID-19 in different ways, but all are working to fulfill their core function: education.

It means daily virtual meetings with cabinet-level staff, small groups of school board members, and what Jarrett calls “incident command” to develop and implement operational changes.

It means media interviews and direct and frequent communication with the public.

“I’ve written more newsletters to the community and families over the last four weeks than I have in the last three years,” Harris said in mid-April.

It also means coordinating conference calls with other superintendents who are “trying to figure this out together.”

Lastly, it means planning for uncertain, yet assuredly altered, futures.

Will summer become an “extended learning period” for those students failing classes already or those with socioemotional needs unmet at home? Will the fall require adjustments to accommodate incomplete spring coursework?

“That’s where my brain started to shift as we finished up device deployment,” Jarrett said. “We’re all experiencing something new here.”

COVID-19 is, indeed, a teacher.

“An event like this—a crisis—is going to have a long-lasting impact on public education. I really believe that. I’m not sure what that is yet, but I think it will not be business as usual when we return, whenever that is,” Harris said.

“Some of these virtual experiences are going to hang on and become ‘the new normal.’ Social distancing and personal awareness are going to become their own new curriculum,” he added. “Society is going to evolve, and public schools are a function of society. If society pivots, then schools are going to have to react and pivot, too. I’m going to be paying attention very significantly.”

Jarrett has eyes open as well.

“One of the blessings that comes from a crisis is that it allows you to look at existing structures differently,” he said.

“We’re getting to better know where the digital divide is in our community because we were forced to deploy 15,000 Chromebooks. We will emerge from this with a much stronger sense of how we can, through remote ways, meet the learning needs of our students,” he added.

“But in the short-term, we’re reminded of some of the high-needs students we serve in Rockford. It’s a reminder of how important face-to-face contact is for our students and our community, and we’re missing that. That’s been the toughest piece of this.”

Yet life, and learning, go on.

“It’s a journey right now. It’s a work in progress,” Harris said. “We have provided an excellent virtual experience for our kids. Is it perfect? No. But our kids are engaged, and learning is happening every day, and that’s the key.”