COVID Response Roundtable: Front-Line Insights on K-12 Pandemic Response

When the history books look back on the 2020-2021 school year, they’ll paint a picture of an education sector in crisis: triaging remote learning with efforts to re-open schools and classrooms safely, battling widening opportunity gaps for students of color, and navigating the emergence of a vaccine that is still not approved for youth.

Throughout this unprecedented year, EP’s exclusive cohort of 24 COVID Response Fellows have been on the front lines of 23 school systems’ responses. Primarily funded through philanthropy to benefit school systems at no additional cost, these senior-level Fellows provided superintendents, chiefs, and other senior-level leaders with invaluable flexible capacity to tackle their most pressing needs. Last week, four Fellows shared their experiences and insights during a virtual “roundtable” for the EP community. The event was moderated by Andrea Wolfe (2016 Alum).

COVID Response Fellows helped their school systems navigate emergent pandemic priorities. For example: 

  • From November – June, Tirza Buelto managed Providence Public SchoolsVirtual Learning Academy, the district’s response to students and families who weren’t ready to return to in-person learning. Approximately 6,500 students opted into a distant or hybrid learning option.
  • Karmin-Tia Greer works across The SEED Foundation’s national network to facilitate multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS) for 900 SEED students participating in the network’s college-prep boarding school model. 80% of SEED graduates will be first-generation college-bound students. Karmin-Tia created resources and tools to help school leaders & teachers support the whole child during COVID.
  • In a complex DC education ecosystem, Charlotte Nugent is helping the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) coordinate continuous improvement plans for DC’s 70 school districts & charter networks, serving DC’s 95,000 students — 88% of whom identify as students of color. Charlotte helped school systems answer an essential question, “How will we address COVID and accelerate student learning?,” and then helped ensure LEAs’ plans aligned with ESSER funding.

With K-12 facing extensive multi-year recovery efforts, Fellows are also leading strategic long-term efforts that prioritize educational equity. For example:

  • At the nation’s oldest school district, Kenneth Walk is playing a critical oversight role for Boston Public Schoolsfive-year strategic plan, creating infrastructure to ensure and monitor how initiatives across 125 schools improve student outcomes and educational equity, especially in the age of COVID. He reports directly to the district’s Chief of Equity and Strategy.
  • Tirza Buelto is now stepping into an interim deputy chief of staff role at Providence Public Schools, playing an important coordination role for the district’s five-year turnaround action plan which she began in March. With the Rhode Island Department of Education having taken over the district in 2019, this work is critical.

Playing a critical leadership role during a national crisis has pushed and challenged our Fellows. Lessons are emerging from their first 6-8 months in the field, including: 

  • The need for new ways of working and planning. In DC, Charlotte found herself surprised by the effort needed to coordinate the influx of ESSER and ARPA funds. While OSSE and other school systems can typically anticipate their budgets years in advance, this was new and overwhelming. “In education, we’re very comfortable with the annual planning cycles,” Charlotte reflects. “We’ve all had to respond in a much more flexible way.”
  • The importance of persistence, even amidst change. In Providence, Tirza experienced her superintendent stepping down in May — a nationwide trend during COVID times. Tirza reports that the news required time for adjustment, especially with the introduction of interim leadership. But it was critical that the team press on:  “Just because there is a transition, the work doesn’t stop.”
  • The importance of an outcome orientation. Kenneth reports that he thought he’d be putting out more fires during a Fellowship in the midst of a global pandemic — but his role at Boston Public Schools is about keeping focused on equity and opportunity gap outcomes. Says Kenneth, “There will always be emergencies, but it’s also important to keep eye on the strategic, long-term student outcomes.”

COVID Response Fellows will stay embedded with their school system placements through early in the 2021-2022 school year, wrapping up 12-month placements that began last fall. Each of them are acutely aware of what still lies ahead:

  • Says Charlotte Nugent, “This is still a crisis and there is no roadmap. No one knows what it will take to recover learning at this scale […] It will take new and creative ideas from all of us.”


Kenneth, Karmin-Tia, Charlotte, and Tirza are just four of our COVID Response Fellows across the country. Here’s a sampling of other work Fellows led this year:

  • Caitlin Paul helped launch multi-site testing and vaccination operations at LA Unified School District, the nation’s second largest district. As project manager, Caitlin stood up the nation’s largest vaccination site dedicated totally to school staff and scaled mobile testing plans to make sure all PK-5 staff and students were tested before schools reopened.
  • In the nation’s largest school district, Johntel Greene was focused on materials management and supply chain for the NYC Department of Education. Her urgent work included procurement, emergency management of materials, finance oversight of custodial budgets, and engagement with vendors — ultimately bringing PPE, cleaning supplies, and other critical materials into schools throughout New York City.
  • In Texas, Damon Hoyle helped lead Texas Education Agency’s efforts on COVID testing — coordinating cross-agency data collection on COVID in the state’s 1,200 school districts, learning best practices from districts across the state for dissemination, and presenting on behalf of the agency.

Want to hear more from EP COVID Response Fellows? Stay tuned for another COVID Response Roundtable in September! 

By Jennifer Chin, August 2, 2021