School Board Leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic: Dr. Scott Mickelsen, Topeka USD 501

No one ran for school board thinking they would be helping govern their district through our nation’s worst health crisis in more than a century. Debates over wearing masks, playing football, or even whether and how to open schools have kept school board meetings going late into many nights and filled the email boxes of school board members. During this time, we think it is important for board members to share their experiences with each other and the public so that we all may learn how to face this challenge before us.

Dr. Scott Mickelsen, has served on the Topeka USD 501 board since 2013 and is currently board president.

When did you realize that the COVID-19 pandemic was going to be a huge issue affecting schools and what were your immediate thoughts and responses? 

I don’t think you are able to print my immediate reaction when I learned about COVID-19!  Like most districts, we realized early on that this was going to be problematic and would disrupt how teaching and learning has traditionally happened. There was initially a huge lack of knowledge as well as disinformation about the virus, so we tried to focus on obtaining fact-based information in order to formulate a measured response.

From a school board member’s perspective, what are the most important actions you and the board have taken during the pandemic? 
We have wonderfully talented, hard-working and smart educational leaders throughout our district who deal with all of the many details associated with the pandemic. I think my role has been to assure my board colleagues and I are properly informed while letting our district teams do their jobs. Decisions regarding district management during the pandemic can’t always wait for our board meetings every other Thursday night and so we have empowered our Superintendent to continue to provide strong leadership. Other than the magnitude and complexity associated with COVID-19, I hope our organizational structure has not changed significantly compared to how we would manage any other district issue.
What has been the most difficult problem to deal with during the pandemic?
Successfully being able to pivot from a traditional, in-classroom model of instruction to a remote method of teaching.  Obviously, this was new for almost all of our students, faculty, staff and parents.
What kind of interactions or communications have you had with the public; any memorable moments?
Most of it has been positive. I do get more emails than normal but most of our patrons understand the need to be flexible and resilient. We all share a common objective of educating our students and staying safe.
Have you had to diffuse any situations, and if so, how did you accomplish that?
Nothing of real significance. We delayed the start of our football season for a few weeks longer than most other districts and that caused a few more calls and emails than normal but at the end of the day, we all just want to provide a safe and full educational experience for our students.
What has this past year taught you when it comes to your school district and community?
I am incredibly proud of Topeka Public School’s administration, faculty, staff and students for their adaptability, vision, hard work and resilience. We have developed strong relationships with public health experts to help us make fact-based decisions in areas where we lack that expertise. In any district, but especially in a large district like TPS, clear, concise, and timely communication with all of the different groups is critical.
What are your concerns or hopes or both for the future of public education in your district and in Kansas?
A strong public education system is a pillar to all thriving modern societies and is vital to move our state forward. I have been pleased with Governor Laura Kelly’s leadership and support of public education and anticipate it will continue even given the economic impact COVID-19 has caused to Kansas. We are all in this together and have similar goals of educating our students to provide them bright futures.
What is the top goal you have this year for your local board?
The mission of Topeka Public Schools is to engage students in the highest quality of learning; prepare students for responsible, productive citizenship; and inspire excellence for a lifetime. This mission guides all of our actions.  Obviously, doing this safely during COVID-19 is foremost in our plans.
Do you have any advice for your fellow board members across Kansas?
No advice, just thanks for all of your hard work. Nobody could have predicted what has occurred in the past year and the extra effort required from everyone associated with public education to continue to make it successful in Kansas.
Here is a link to KASB board leadership lessons.

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