Letter from Maggie Favretti: Resilient Communities are Resilient Because of Trust

Maggie in the gardenMaggie FavrettiThis letter was written by formere SHS teacher Maggie Favretti:

Help With Emergency Education
You didn't ask for my advice, but if you have 3 or 4 minutes, I might be able to offer some guidance from my resilient communities and "crisis education" learning and work.

I began my teaching career in Scarsdale in 1985. In 87 I went to VT, and returned in 1995. I retired in 2018, after one of the most positive professional and community experiences I could have imagined. A big part of that experience is the very teachers who spoke the other night in an unprecedented and powerful way. Reading the summary of their comments made me weep.

When people used to ask me why "everyone" wanted to teach in Scarsdale, I never hesitated to answer, and in one word. Trust. Parents entrusted their children to me, and I trusted the community to sustain an ecosystem of support for the teachers, the school, and for other people's children. I am grieving right now, along with my former colleagues, parents, and lifelong friends.

Since before I retired, I have been studying and working in "emergency education," or, resilient education in times of crisis. Resilient communities are resilient because of trust. That trust drives people to turn toward each other in disaster, and to stay focused on gathering expertise from all ages and sectors to develop consensus solutions. In her book, A Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit describes how oftentimes disasters activate our better natures, driving us toward each other in neighborly compassion. Resilience is relational.

After working with superintendents, principals, teachers and families from school districts that have experienced all kinds of crises from tornados to landslides to fires, floods, suicides, water/air poisoning, hurricanes, earthquakes, starvation, extreme heat and COVID, I can say with certainty that you have the hardest and most essential job of all. Leadership plays a critical role in sustaining trust and unity. This trust in turn sustains you and makes it possible to succeed. The job of the leader in crisis is to ensure safety, facilitate consensus, bring people together with open listening, and build clarity of purpose. To protect the consensus by inspiring participation in a transparent process. To avoid giving in to the crush of urgency. To stay focused on the consensus (in this case) you spent the summer building, by working with the Restart Committees to address the remaining unmet needs and making the consensus plan be the best it could possibly be. Without this, trust is lost, and so is direction. If you lose both, trust and direction, you drown along with the community in urgency, fear and frustration, loss and pain.

Here are some recommendations, begging your forgiveness if you are already following these protocols:

1. Throw out the recent parent survey. That "binding decision" language is born from (your very natural) inclination to manage the situation, but raises anxiety in a time of crisis. This is particularly the case with well-meaning people who want to do what you ask but don't have enough information to begin to understand the implications of the options. Many parents opted for "in person" because they thought it would be easier for the district if they changed their minds to virtual at the last minute or once they understood the level of risk, but they have little appetite for endangering the teachers. After the remarks the other night, they are in a panic because they value the trusting relationship they have/had with teachers. Ossining asked for parental choice but also assured people they would be able to change their minds as the situation unfolded, and also asked parents to contribute ideas for addressing concerns about virtual and hybrid instruction. Things seem calmer there.

2. Be clear about what the District is realistically able to do with regard to "best practices" in safety. Enter that information into your risk matrix, with clear eyes about HVAC systems, available PPE, available funding, staffing realities and new needs (hall monitors?), adolescent psychology and behavior.

3. Listen to what teachers know and support them. They ARE the school. First, they need to know you take their safety and mental health seriously. Second, they need to be supported to do their job (which they love doing!) as well as they can under the circumstances. Online and in person instruction cannot take place simultaneously. And both socially distanced and virtual are novel methodologies for teachers and require significantly more time to plan. As you know, students take their cues about resilience and anxiety from their teachers as well as from their parents.

4. Be clear with parents about what the Restart Committee's plan is/was, as well as the current plan(s), and run them both (all?) through a standard decision matrix to determine both how well each meets the priorities of the community/District constituencies.

5. Establish clear and realistic (not aspirational) likelihoods and matrices about risk. To discern risk tolerance, consider predictable situations, in table-top exercises (if you haven't already). For example, some students will be vectors. Not all students will wear masks or social distance properly. Some teachers may be vectors. What will happen when...table-top exercises (simulations) also help to uncover what additional staff or expenses might be needed to keep people safe, and participation should be open to the public.

6. Stay focused on making the safest plan also the best and most equitable, as the safety of everyone should be the top priority. If the safest plan is to have students stay home, then we should spend the next weeks addressing the issues for the students and families for whom that creates hardship.

The anxiety around the "binding" parent survey, and the last-minute changes plunging the teachers and the community into an even deeper world of uncertainty and risk are compounding the already challenging mental health situation. This is a time when teachers and parents BOTH need compassion and clarity, and so do you. Choose the path safest for everyone and focus on keeping people together to create an equitable and inclusive implementation plan.

With deep regard,
Maggie Favretti