July/August 2020

Leadership Letter: Facing the Challenges Ahead

By Thomas E. Bertrand

Illinois’ public schools face historic challenges and uncertainty while preparing for the opening of the 2020-2021 school year. The theme of this month’s Journal, Social and Emotional Learning, is timely. In the midst of a pandemic and resulting unemployment that disproportionately impacts black and Latinx communities, uncertainty about whether students will return to in-person learning, and historic civil unrest, schools must be prepared to care for children impacted by what is happening in their world. While all of us are concerned about learning loss and bridging gaps resulting from the loss of in-person education, the emotional impact of these events on our children can not be overstated. 

In May IASB issued guidance to help school boards frame conversations about all of the issues surrounding in-person and remote learning, and student safety. It is critical that any School Reopening Plan include a social-emotional component. Some examples include: 
  • Establish and train a crisis management team or activate crisis management teams to address psychological and emotional concerns in conjunction with local mental health services, including post-traumatic stress syndrome counseling.
  • Select locations appropriate to confidentially administer psychological and emotional aid.
  • Prepare and revise lists of professional mental health services, particularly those willing to provide services via telehealth.
  • Develop a process for screening students for mental health or trauma and ensure that appropriate district staff are trained to implement the process.
  • Review what actions to take when a student screens positive for a mental health crisis.
  • Review the district’s suicide awareness and prevention policy and ensure an appropriate number of staff members have been trained to respond to an incident and screen high-risk students. 
  • Plan re-engagement activities to get parents and students comfortable with a return to the school building. 
  • Review registration fees and school supply lists to ensure only necessary fees and supplies are included.
  • Provide families multiple opportunities to apply for the free and reduced-price lunch program.
  • If there has been a loss of a student, staff member, or a member of the school community, plan appropriate messaging to the school community and include the availability of appropriate resources to support students and staff. 
IASB will continue to support your important work on behalf of the nearly 2 million children attending public schools. Now more than ever, our public schools require steady leadership that is dedicated to facing the challenges ahead. 

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” 
— James Baldwin.

Thomas E. Bertrand, Ph.D., is Executive Director of the Illinois Association of School Boards. IASB’s guidance regarding in-person and remote learning can be accessed via bit.ly/JA20JRes