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Lessons on Leading During COVID

D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Lewis Ferebee shares how the pandemic has affected the way in which he leads the district.
Lewis Ferebee

D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Lewis Ferebee has managed unprecedented challenges leading a large urban school district during COVID.

Before the pandemic, D.C. schools were making academic gains, growing enrollments and taking steps toward the positive environment for students. Then COVID happened, shutting school doors for more than a year. Now, with D.C. schools reopening, Ferebee shares some of the ways he is facing the next phases of the pandemic with an eye on student and family supports.

“I think the one thing that we wanted to ensure is, when it's time for students to come to school, whether they're in school now or next year, we don't just push them back into school and act as if the last year didn't happen, and not acknowledge the loss and the discomfort and trauma associated with the health emergency,” Ferebee says.

In this episode of the EdCast, Ferebee shares some of the ways they’ve changed to face COVID challenges, and what has worked and what hasn’t.


  • Be prepared to change plans. While D.C. started with a one-size-fits-all approach to bringing students back to school, Ferebee admits that with feedback they realized that it needed to be done differently. Instead, they created customized approach for each school to build their own reopening plan based on a set of guidance and parameters set forth by the district.
  • Develop a system to provide supports where they are most needed. Using a multi-tiered system of supports, the district is tracking how universal support goes to each student and family and where it is needed most. For instance, similar to healthcare, each student is “triaged” for academic and social-emotional support. “You determine who needs to see primary care, who needs to see a specialist, who needs more intensive care,” Ferebee says. “We are looking at that both from a lens of academic support and also social-emotional support for those experiencing trauma. And then we're also looking at it from a lens of equity.”
  • See the opportunity where there is challenge. Many students had yet to set foot in the school building or actually meet their teachers face-to-face. But instead of seeing that as solely negative, reframe it in a way that it’s positive. Ferebee notes how it’s a rare chance to start anew, get to know your students and develop relationships, and reground engagement.


Jill Anderson: I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast.

DC Public School Chancellor Lewis Ferebee was making strides on student academic gains, growing enrollments and creating the positive environment that he wanted for the nearly 50,000 students in the district. Then COVID happened. Like many education leaders, he faced unprecedented challenges to deliver distance learning, properly ventilate school buildings, extend supports and reopen schools. When he came into the role in 2018, he had 20 years experience working in education. Some people wondered whether it was enough and he would be ready to take on the complexities of the district. Back then no one could have anticipated a global pandemic that would shut down schools for over a year. I wondered what it's been like for him to lead a large district during such uncertainty and with everyone watching.

Lewis Ferebee: It's definitely been a phenomenal experience, one that I never could have prepared for. I don't think any of us could have. And what's fascinating is, early on we all thought, two weeks, maybe a month and we're back to normal, right? And so I think as things begin to shape, and I realize that this is bigger than what we anticipated and what we initially thought. I quickly started to anchor in this idea that I was shaping history as the school leader for the public school system in the nation's capital.

And how we did our work, what we did, would be documented, well documented. And I wanted it to be something that I could always refer back to and be proud of and celebrate and be a leader for this public health emergency in the trying times that we're in. So that's the way that I approached it. The history books will definitely have lots to say about 2020 and 2021, there'll be a chapter on COVID.

Jill Anderson: Right.

Lewis Ferebee: This is the first time in decades that we've closed school for most students for a year or more. That's where my head space is around this particular time period that we're in.

Jill Anderson: So you mentioned the elephant in the room, I think, for a lot of districts right now is getting their schools open, especially up here in Boston. That's all over the news. And I know it's a contentious issue in a lot of districts around the country right now. DC handled that over the past couple months. How did you navigate the return to in-person school, especially in light of the many complex players and layers?

Lewis Ferebee: Well, I think the first thing I tried to do is just to understand the different levels of trauma, access and what our families were experiencing was very different. The levels of loss, the level of need vary by family and community. We wanted to first ensure that basic needs were taken care of, every student has a device to learn at home, every student has access to high internet access, high speed. And from there, we then started to shift to health and safety protocols. How can we ensure that our buildings were ready to receive students and families?

So we've updated our HVAC systems. We invested in HEPA units to be in every classroom and every space. We purchased PPE. And you recall, getting PPE was quite challenging in the early months of the health emergency.

Jill Anderson: Right.

Lewis Ferebee: So we worked really hard on those elements before we started to invite students back in our school. And we took an elevator ramp approach in that we started with smaller groups of students in numbers, and then gradually increased them over time. The one learning that we gathered from this process is we started with a one size fits all approach that everybody has to bring students back in this way. And we quickly pivoted once we got feedback that the needs again was just so different by each community, that we established a customized approach for each school to build their own reopening plan based on a set of guidance and parameters that we provided for all of our schools.

Jill Anderson: So now we have probably a couple months left of school. How are you going to maximize those remaining months with kids? You already mentioned some of the issues of trauma. I mean, kids have been through a lot. And then on top of that, you've got racial tensions and presumably, just because of COVID, kids dealing with a lot of loss. So there's so many layers to this beyond just academics.

Lewis Ferebee: Well, for the health and safety side of the work, we're still working on vaccination with our teachers. We want every educator, every partner, every staff member to be vaccinated. Here in the District of Columbia, we partner with Children's National Hospital and the DC health department to get mass vaccination efforts stood up across the city. And we're educating families on the benefits. We believe that vaccination is a key part of how we get back to more students in the building. We also are allowing schools to create customized plans for the spring and summer for academic acceleration, for those students who need more time with our educators.

And then we are leaning into what we call a Multi-Tiered System of Support, also known as MTSS. The MTSS protocols allowed us to tier students on need for academic and social- emotional support. So there's tier one, which is the universal support for all students. And then there's tier two with more targeted support. And then tier three is high intensity. So it's very similar to the healthcare professional. You determine who needs to see primary care, who needs to see a specialist, who needs more intensive care. And we are looking at that both from a lens of academic support and also social-emotional support for those experiencing trauma. And then we're also looking at it from a lens of equity as well.

Jill Anderson: You mentioned the customized plans. I'm really intrigued by that because I was wanting to know a little bit more about summer. I think a lot of districts are probably trying to figure out how they can maybe use summer to make up for lost time if it's possible at all. And I want to know a little bit about your summer acceleration academies as a way to kind of recover some of those COVID-19 learning slides. Who are those for? Is it for everybody?

Lewis Ferebee: Yeah. I'm glad you asked. I thought you were going to use a term that we try not to use, and that's learning loss, because it's so deficit minded. So thank you. Because we have had time, the reality is we have had time, we just had to use it in a different way with learning remotely. So what we learned is, we had this hybrid approach, every elementary school, two days a week, each student. And then what we found is, some school's like, "Hey, we want am, pm. We want A week, B week. We want to have a smaller group of students five days a week. We're going to have two days a week for this group of students." So because of their various needs in their school community, and a demand for in-person learning is different by community. And so what we learned from that is, schools have local contacts, they know their families, they know their needs.

And so we're asking schools to use this Multi-Tiered System of Supports framework to identify the universal supports that will go to every student and family. And then we're utilizing the terminology, academic acceleration academies, that is the targeted. So that's about 15 to one ratio on standards where students need additional support. And then there's the high dose tutoring. Now the high dose tutoring is either one-to-one or up to three to one. And this is very focused on the skillset for that particular student. And so we are designing that type of programming to occur over the spring and summer. Well, I want to be clear though, what we're not doing is asking every student to give up their summer, every staff member to give up their summer and have school full day for everyone who wanted to be a very targeted approach for summer.

Jill Anderson: Right. So it's only a certain percent of population that you'll identify.

Lewis Ferebee: Right. So a good example would be, and we gave schools dollars to do this, a school will offer to all of their students what we're calling summer play dates for our pre-K students. And that's an opportunity for them to build social skills, right? Everybody come, they interact. But then 20% of the student population, we would ask them to come in small groups for early literacy skills. And then that same school would then ask even a smaller group, maybe 5% of their population to come in for one-on-one tutoring over the summer.

And so there's this tiered approach of universal where everyone receives, then there's the targeted small group, and then there's the high intensity, which includes the high dose tutoring. And all of that is being organized at the school level.

Jill Anderson: Wow.

Lewis Ferebee: The schools have really welcomed this because they want students to feel success. Obviously we want students who haven't seen their peers or adults to be comfortable. I think the one thing that we wanted to ensure is, when it's time for students to come to school, whether they're in school now or next year, we don't just push them back into school and act as if the last year didn't happen, and not acknowledge the loss and the discomfort and trauma associated with the health emergency.

Jill Anderson: Right. I mean, we were just talking about that on our team this morning about next year and what that's going to look like and how weird it might be for some kids, especially some of the younger kids who have never been in the school building before, or maybe didn't get in this year.

Lewis Ferebee: Exactly. It can't be, "Okay, open your books up and let's turn to page two," right? We can't start that way. We won't start that way. We have to re norm. And it's interesting. I'll tell you two fascinating anecdotal notes that I have. So one of my teachers in our teacher advisory reminded me that their class this year that they're teaching, that for the majority students in their class, that teacher has never seen in person. Think about that for a moment. You're a classroom teacher, you've been teaching all year to a group of students that you've never met in person. And so imagine the year after that, you're going back into school, that's a amazing opportunity for us to reground in engagement and getting to know each other and relationships. When students get a chance to go to school, they get excited. And my other note is, we had a parent of a second grader, seven year old, and it was his time to go back to school, parents said he woke up at 3:00 AM. They didn't have the courage to even tell him to get some more sleep. School [inaudible 00:12:21] eight o'clock.

They just waited it out until school came because he was so excited about school. And so we hope, and we believe that for the students that haven't been in school, when they do come, they will come with renewed excitement. And we want to capitalize on that to ensure that it's a great learning experience for them.

Jill Anderson: Yeah. I hope that seven year old managed to get to the end of the day awake.

Lewis Ferebee: He did. But he was wiped out.

Jill Anderson: I do want to ask you a little bit about planning for next year, but before I get to that, I want to know about something that you feel really great about that you implemented during COVID, that you think worked well, that maybe other school leaders should know about.

Lewis Ferebee: I point back to the 20 million plus that we've invested into our HVAC system. We had an engineer who specializes in the standards for ventilation that would mitigate transmission of COVID. And that investment will allow us to have that benefit and those amenities for years to come. So now we're just in the mode of regularly changing those filters. So I'm proud of that. Also proud of our asymptomatic testing protocols. The ability to test students and staff on a regular basis allowed us to get a sense of the COVID spread in our school community and provide a strong surveillance data for us to utilize, very proud of that. And then lastly, I'm really proud that we, as a part of our efforts for transparency, established a walkthrough process where each school community before they open back up for families, we had a team that would go through the building and do a walkthrough to verify and confirm all of our health and safety commitments were fulfilled.

In many cases, this was recorded so people could watch it on video. And I think this was really critical to confidence building in people seeing that we actually had the spaces designed for social distancing, that there was signage, that we turned off the water fountains and we had water stations. There were isolation rooms for people exhibiting COVID symptoms. You name it. I think having that available to staff and families to come walk through and see is creative. And I don't know if I've seen that in many other school districts and I thought it helped really build confidence in the DC community.

Jill Anderson: What maybe is something that you tried that didn't work out as you had hoped that other people, other educators, leaders listening might be able to take something from?

Lewis Ferebee: We tried to have every school have the same schedule. And I know some schools are doing that and it's working for them, but just didn't work for us. And maybe it's the difference in the social economic makeup of the city. We do have the extremes of wealth and poverty, so maybe that's why. We just found that we couldn't apply a broad stroke to the scheduling of reopening, that it really had to be a tailor made approach. And I took some heat for that until we made that shift. After a lot of critical feedback, I decided that we needed to go in a different direction and I'm glad we did.

Jill Anderson: Right. One of the things I keep thinking about as you talk is that having to pivot in a moment's notice, having to change things, you go in thinking something's going to maybe work and then you rediscover it's not working for your district or specific schools or something and that you really have to change it up. It makes me think about going into the fall, it's still pretty unpredictable. I think a lot of schools are in this position. All of us are really in this position. We don't really know what's going to happen. So how are you planning to move forward with all that unpredictability?

Lewis Ferebee: We can't lose sight that there'll always be a need for the seeable future is to pivot when there is a crisis on the health front. COVID has really taught us that when you need to go remote and virtual, you need to do it quickly and you need to have the technology and resources to make that happen. So that's embedded in our infrastructure. In terms of our planning, we're planning for the default of every student learning in person. And then we've created stop gaps to be nimble, to offer virtual learning for those students who want it or when we need it. So that's the way we're approaching it. So for example, next school year we find, come August that there's a reason to go all virtual, we can do that.

But we're planning for everybody to be in school five days a week. If there's families who've remained virtual, we're creating a virtual option for them to choose, if for whatever reason that option needs to be available. So that's the way we're asking schools to plan. So principals, when they receive their allocation for staffing, they're asked to plan and develop structures to serve all students. And then if we end up serving less or some are included in remote learning options, then that will be a separate structure that we will stand up for families, and we're planning for that as well.

Jill Anderson: If you could go back and tell yourself something a year ago when all this was just happening, what do you think that would be?

Lewis Ferebee: I think when we first pivoted, I remember March 13, 2020, and the Mayor and I announced that schools were going to be closed for two weeks. If I had to do that all over again, I don't think I would have placed a timeline on it. And I think I would have given teachers and families this space to better prepare for a longer period of time of being away. Reflecting back on it, there were signs and indication that this was going to be a big deal for us. And I think none of us wanted to accept that, so we all took the optimistic view that this is just short term.

And it reminds me of the old adage of, you prepare for the worst, and when you prepare for the worst, you are at your best. And I think there were things that we could have done probably better in preparation of thinking, "Okay, this is really bad." And I think in many cases, I know I did and many others they underestimated what COVID would mean for our way of life.

Jill Anderson: Right.

Lewis Ferebee: It's a bittersweet learning. Think if I had to do it all over, that's what I would do, knowing what I know now.

Jill Anderson: Well, I have to imagine that you have a lot of people who feel the same way in education right now. I mean, there's so many people who relate to that. We all just said to ourselves a week ago, "Wow. Remember when we thought this was only going to be two weeks." It happened here as well. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me and share what's happened in DC and your experience as a leader.

Lewis Ferebee: Thank you. I appreciate you including me in the discussion. Hopefully this was helpful.

Jill Anderson: Lewis Ferebee is the chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools. I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast, produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening.


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