Board members need grace as they navigate pandemic in a pressure cooker

Board members need grace as they navigate pandemic in a pressure cooker

Recently, Commissioner Randy Watson told the Kansas State Board of Education that he’s never seen teachers and school leaders under so much stress in his life. I am going to double down on Dr. Watson’s statement by including parents and school board members. United School Administrator’s Executive Director G. A. Buie wrote an article for the USA journal titled “How Can Every Decision Seem Like the Wrong Decision?” How indeed? 

Watching school board meetings across Kansas these past few weeks has been excruciating for the exact reason G.A. identified- every decision is wrong for someone. In my 40 years in education, the best advice for decision-making was to err on the side of caution. Doing what was best for kids was usually a safety first proposition. That advice has not changed in 2020. What has changed is any sense of clarity over the definition of safety. 

In six months, we have learned that the virus has not magically disappeared and that it is deadly. Children do not seem to be affected as adversely as adults, but we are approaching 200,000 deaths from COVID. Those deaths are disproportionately from the over 55 age group, and 20% of our teachers are over age 55. The first death from COVID in Kansas was a retired school superintendent and former school board member. This week, we learned that a Kansas teacher died from the virus. 

All of those facts contribute to G.A.’s proposition that every decision is wrong. What seems like the right decision today looks wrong tomorrow. What is the right decision for Juan is the wrong decision for Rachel. What is good for Mr. Washington is unfit for Mrs. Jones. #letthemplay #protectourteachers #wereopenwhen #reopennow I am not even going to talk about masks. 

I am reminded of a story my dad likes to tell about riding his horse to Pioneer School for 8th-grade classes. That would have been in the late 1940’s ,so think about all of the advancements in transportation made since then. We went from having grocery stores in every neighborhood, diners in every town and downtown shopping to drive-throughs, superstores, and malls all because of the explosion of the American automobile.   

Over the years since the late 1940s, miles driven by Americans have continually increased.  Over that same time, we have learned to mitigate risk, manage safety, change behavior, improve technology to make driving safer. We still lost 36,560 people to traffic fatalities in 2018, but over the past 100 years, we have slowly made decisions to balance the risk and reward of driving in America. Over those years, Americans made thousands of decisions about risk and reward, from requiring driver’s licenses to requiring driver training, from requiring four-wheel brakes to requiring airbags, from dirt roads to multi-lane highways. All of these decisions and expenses balanced the risks of driving with the necessity and convenience of individual travel.  And the fatalities at stake are 20% of those attributed to COVID in the last six months. 

Take decisions that involve people’s lives, add an ever-changing knowledge base, compress the time needed for decisions from 100 years to 100 days, and have our current political environment.   

Think back to 2019, if you can.  A new safety threat was emerging, and school leaders focused on it quickly – vaping. The CDC reports that as of February 2020, 2,807 Americans were hospitalized with lung injury related to vaping. Over the course of a couple of years, we changed laws, limited access, changed behaviors, and mitigated risk. As of September 9, 2020, 381,926 Americans have been or are currently hospitalized due to COVID.  Thirteen times the scale, in maybe one-third the time.  

In the 1980s a middle school principal was shot and killed in Goddard, Kansas. In the 40 years since then, school shootings across the country have increased, and we have responded by mitigating risk, improving technology, and investing in physical and psychological deterrence.  Safety first has been the mantra as we have improved our systems over those 40 years. None of those decisions were made in the pressure cooker environment of COVID. 

My purpose here is not to compare deaths, benefits, risks, or reward.  It is not to say someone is right, and someone is wrong.  My purpose is to shine a light on the pressure cooker, no the Insta-pot. The compression of time, risk, and reward from years to days makes these decisions impossible. Take the pressure of 100 years of traffic fatalities and automobile safety standards, throw on the gasoline of social media, the oxygen of emotions, the acetylene of uncertainty, and you have what has become a typical Monday night school board meeting in America. 

No one got elected to the board of education because they wanted to manage a pandemic.  Board members are doing their best to balance safety and learning. Every decision made will seem like the wrong decision for someone. Board members will continue to do their best to make good decisions in a bad environment, and they will be second-guessed and criticized.  Until you have had the responsibility of raising your hand, and the accountability of living with the consequences, please give them some grace.