Cue the bands. From high schools to college campuses across the Natural State, some semblance of normal — from marching bands at football games to crowded halls and quads — is scheduled to resume when classes commence in August.
One veteran Arkansas educational leader is ready for things to look like they did pre-pandemic. In January, Dr. Mike Hernandez assumed the role of executive director for the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators (AAEA), an advocacy group for administrators in state school districts. All while COVID-19 raged and the Arkansas legislature prepared to embark on a new session.
Needless to say, Hernandez hit the ground running. He previously served in various executive roles with the Arkansas Department of Education and is a former principal at Western Yell County High School in Havana and superintendent for the Hot Springs and Danville school districts.
Hernandez recently visited with AMP about his first few months on the job and what the state education landscape looks like post-pandemic.
AMP: When you stepped into this new role with AAEA, there was a lot going on. What was first on your agenda?
Hernandez: The first thing on my agenda was to get through a rather extraordinary legislative session. COVID-19 limited the face-to-face interaction between us and policymakers. It also limited face-to-face interaction with our members. I believe we were successful in keeping our members engaged and informed of pending legislative issues and advocating with legislators in a meaningful way.
Now that the session has recessed, the organization will continue its primary mission of growing leaders through professional development leading to high-quality education for students. Our summers are spent providing training throughout the state for our various constituent groups, including finance training, leadership development, school facilities training and a host of other topics.
AMP: Overall, how did school leaders in Arkansas navigate COVID?
Hernandez: I thought our school leaders, teachers, school support staff, state leaders, parents and students did an outstanding job in dealing with COVID-19. As I speak to my colleagues around the country, we seem to be miles ahead of schools that have just started to open up to on-site instruction.
From the minute the announcement was made to move to online instruction, school leaders began collaborating with teachers to stand up a virtual education system. I cannot say enough about the Arkansas Department of Education’s role in providing guidance and support to schools during this time. The classroom teachers had a heavy lift to ensure that students could have access to learning, whether on-site or virtual.
My kids were quarantined but continued to receive support from their teachers while learning from home. I am proud of the team effort that Arkansans took to keep the education flowing in our state. There were some bumps along the way, but vital educational stakeholders rose to the occasion.
AMP: What is the most important thing school administrators can take away from this past unprecedented year?
Hernandez: To communicate and collaborate with numerous stakeholders. I feel like school leaders did some of the best community engagement that has been done in quite some time. During the past year and a half, it became necessary to ensure that students’ needs were met and parents were supported while at home. I heard countless stories about schools working with community partners to provide internet, deliver meals, tutoring efforts and many other supports.
At AAEA, we alone hosted over 400 Zoom calls this year to aid in the communication and collaboration process between school administrators to ensure that they had a solid network to lean on during the pandemic and get the resources they needed on time. I think this type of engagement by schools and parents should be continued after the pandemic is over.
AMP: What challenges can school administrators expect to face in a post-pandemic landscape?
Hernandez: When the latest round of assessment data comes back, it may show some drops in overall student achievement. I think this will be a challenge for our schools as a whole. However, efforts across our state to promote professional learning communities (PLCs) will be considerable support to mitigate these learning losses.
I have seen many school leaders on fire for building collaborative teams that look at each child and ensure that they are getting equity in their schools. Are we there yet? No, but we are making strides in Arkansas.
Another issue will be responding to enrollment changes. We have seen drastic drops this year, especially in the early grades. Hopefully, these students will return in the fall of 2021, but above-average enrollment numbers in the early grade levels will strain schools to respond. However, I am sure schools would love to see all the extra smiling faces back next year.