Mark Schwarz, Superintendent of Madison Public Schools in New Jersey, was amongst the first district leaders to post video messages to his community, and was clear and transparent about the planning process for closures even before the decision was made. As districts start to look ahead to the 20-21 school year, maintaining open lines of communication and building trust with the community is more important than ever. We sat down with Superintendent Schwarz to learn more about how he navigated the COVID crisis, and his plans for the future of Madison Public Schools.
What principles guide your crisis response and transparency initiatives?
One of the questions I’m asked most often is, “What does a superintendent do?” The last few months, no one has asked me that. When things are going smoothly for the district, most of what a superintendent does day-to-day goes unnoticed; when the storm comes, it is the ultimate test of leadership, agility, and transparency.
Staying on top of what is happening elsewhere in the world and trying to anticipate what constraints or opportunities might impact our community is a huge part of my job. I’m a former high school history teacher — reading widely and broadly and monitoring global news stories is an old habit that has served me well during my tenure.
By the end of February, UK schools were talking about closing — even though the problem still seemed distant to us — and I reached out to the Department of Public Education, urging them to set out guidelines for remote learning. I made the decision to train teachers and staff for remote learning and, in consultation with fellow superintendents and health officials, closed our schools before the state made the decision state-wide.
How did you prepare for remote learning during school closures?
Our first priority was to get staff members set-up for remote learning. Initially, we didn’t have strict guidelines in place about what percentage of remote instruction should be live, but our high school went immediately to a live simulation of the regular school day. We saw a lot of positive feedback from our parents — about 90% of high school parents were satisfied with the quality of instruction their kids received.
Eventually, we called a meeting with our teachers, principals, local education associations and union leadership to answer the demand for live instruction and a more standardized system. We wanted to make sure that the quality of instruction was uniform, while also giving teachers time and space to adjust to this new system.
Live instruction for the whole day is great, but it might not necessarily be ideal. With our thought-partners, we established some minimum guidelines that would allow teachers to plan more strategically during the week, with a mix of live classes and asynchronous instruction.
What does transparency look like in Madison?
We added a section to our website labelled “Extended Closure Resources,” aimed at students, parents, and community members. That page includes everything from an FAQ about the ongoing crisis and our response to video conferencing etiquette and standards of practice for parents as well as staff and students.
I record and publish weekly video messages; principals record daily briefings and teachers are required to check-in daily with their students. Originally, my messages were intended to simply provide general information and updates — that messaging is constantly evolving to fit the needs of our district and community. I personally share the videos, and any materials I use in them, on social media as well as our website. We’re fortunate to have a close-knit community here, so news and updates tend to travel fast.
These videos represent a significant investment of time, but it is time well-spent.
How are you preparing for the future?
Right now, we are working actively within the administration, and in consultation with our partners on thinking through the various scenarios for the return of school in the fall. Right now, a central piece of that plan revolves around when we can safely bring students back to school; acknowledging that “safe” means different things to different people.
If the rules for physical and social distancing are relaxed, we may be able to bring most students back, without a massive increase to cost. If not, we need to be prepared for massive staff and student absences. Districts may need to sacrifice high quality instruction so that teachers can manage a hybrid system of remote and in-person learning, or it may require massive additional dollars to hire substitutes and accommodate smaller, safer class sizes.
The goal will always be to recreate as normal a school experience for our students as possible. For any scenario, we will need additional staff, vigilant cleaning protocols and to maintain our online learning environment for the students who remain home.
And finally, how are you approaching financial unknowns?
It’s hard to predict exactly how budgeting and planning will change in the coming years. But it is important to develop a more inclusive and transparent process — our partnership with Allovue will allow us to pursue those goals while also creating a more streamlined and collaborative process. Especially as we navigate reductions to our budget, being able to quickly and easily evaluate spending allows us to determine which cuts will cause the least harm and ultimately put our district in the best possible position in the coming months.