In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic not only forced school buildings to shut their doors—it also changed the way public education advocates conducted business. Meeting in person with congressional staff at the U.S. Capitol was no longer an option, so we quickly shifted our advocacy to virtual Zoom meetings instead. The policies we were advocating for also changed rapidly to reflect the immediate concerns of school leaders. Chief among them was ensuring the physical safety, emotional well-being, and teaching and learning needs of students and staff.
It quickly became apparent that school budgets would be hit hard and that economic recovery would depend on school buildings being open for in-person learning. However, in order to reopen safely, schools would need to purchase cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment for students and staff, and they would need to reconfigure space for social distancing—all expensive steps.
To address these needs quickly, NASSP formed a coalition with other leading national education organizations and called on Congress to allocate an unprecedented $175 billion in emergency relief funding for K–12 schools. We reinforced this message in letters and meetings with House and Senate leadership staff, and we mobilized our members and other stakeholders to contact their members of Congress as well. Between March 2020 and February 2021, we led multiple calls to action, which resulted in 12,785 advocates engaging in NASSP campaigns to send messages to representatives and senators on Capitol Hill.
Finding Economic Relief for Schools
The hard work of so many school leaders across the country paid off, with over $190 billion allocated to the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Education Relief (ESSER) Fund between the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act, and the American Rescue Plan—all of which were passed in response to the COVID-19 crisis. Schools can now use these funds to address immediate needs such as safely reopening buildings, providing critical mental health supports to students and staff, and addressing inequities exacerbated by disrupted instructional time.
Another policy victory was the more than $7.1 billion that Congress allocated for the Emergency Connectivity Fund, a new program run by the Federal Communications Commission to help schools purchase laptops, tablets, and Wi-Fi hotspots and expand broadband connectivity for students and school staff. School leaders have long been familiar with the “homework gap,” but the pandemic opened legislators’ eyes to the lack of adequate internet access for many families across the country. We heard countless heartbreaking stories from NASSP members about missing students and those struggling to keep up without adequate connectivity. Among those sharing their stories was the 2021 NASSP Advocacy Champion of the Year, Principal Derrick Lawson of Indio High School in Indio, CA.1 Lawson was recognized in May for his relentless efforts to track down the growing number of students missing from distance learning and ensure that they could fully participate online.
The pandemic’s myriad challenges also necessitated that we broaden our advocacy for school leaders beyond the halls of Congress. Amid an unfortunate lack of federal guidance on school reopening decisions in the summer of 2020, NASSP partnered with the Infectious Diseases Society of America to help fill the void. Together, we hosted a town hall 2 meeting where educators heard directly from physicians about COVID-19, its impact on various student age groups, and what mitigation measures should be in place to ensure the health and safety of the entire school community.
In the fall of 2020, NASSP also spearheaded a project with Professor Emily Oster of Brown University to create the National COVID-19 School Response Dashboard.3 At the time, no federal agency was collecting national data on infection rates in K–12 schools or sharing evidence-based best practices for schools to reopen safely.
In schools where students did return in the fall of 2020 for full-time, in-person learning or in a hybrid model, principals told us how their new COVID-19 management responsibilities consumed their time. Since only about half of the nation’s schools have a full-time nurse, principals were the ones managing contact tracing when a student or staff member became ill, often personally going into each classroom to measure the distance between desks and making the difficult phone calls to families about mandatory quarantines. Principals and assistant principals also covered classes when staff were ill or exposed—due to a shortage of substitute teachers—leaving little time for instructional leadership and teacher supervision and support. To find solutions and provide relief, NASSP joined the COVID Collaborative Infection Control in Schools Task Force 4 and informed the publication of resources the task force released in the spring of 2021. These resources aided districts in partnering with community health providers to ensure schools would have the resources and staffing to keep transmission low, even with community spread of the virus taking place outside the building.
NASSP principals also know the importance of showing their elected officials and other policymakers firsthand the impact COVID-19 has had on schools. That’s why Principal Chris LeGrande of Guthrie High School in Guthrie, OK, had Gov. Kevin Stitt visit his school shortly after reopening for in-person learning in September 2020. Principal Brandon Mowinkel of Milford Junior/Senior High School in Milford, NE, did the same with U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry. Dozens of other school leaders safely hosted similar “shadowing visits” in 2020, ensuring that lawmakers knew beyond any doubt what the needs of K–12 schools were and where principals stood on the issues.
As the 2021–22 school year begins, we celebrate our advocacy victories and look forward to identifying new ways that NASSP can best support school leaders in the future. Principal engagement is key to continued advocacy success. You know best what your schools need in order to ensure that students reach their full potential. For policymakers in Washington, D.C., legislators in state capitals, and local officials in your towns and cities to heed your expertise, you must make your voices heard.
Amanda Karhuse is the director of the NASSP Policy & Advocacy Center. She coordinates all federal policy and advocacy efforts for NASSP, which include lobbying congressional staff, monitoring legislation affecting school leaders, and participating in coalition-building activities with other national education organizations.
Sidebar: NASSP Advocacy Efforts
Join in NASSP’s advocacy efforts and make a difference for your students and school:
- Invite a federal or state legislator to shadow you at your school during National Principals Month in October. (www.principalsmonth.org/shadowing-visits)
- Urge your members of Congress to support increased federal funding for K–12 schools by taking action on the FY 2022 appropriations bills under consideration.
- Reach out to your state coordinator to find out how you can support state-level advocacy initiatives. (www.nassp.org/state-advocates)
- Provide feedback on new position statements under consideration by the NASSP Board of Directors. (www.nassp.org/position-statements)
- Attend the NASSP Advocacy Conference in Washington, D.C., February 28–March 2, 2022. (www.nassp.org/nassp-advocacy-conference)