Navigating the Legal Challenges of Post-COVID Innovation

Topics: Early Career Principals

As COVID recedes, principals are assessing lessons learned and the value of such innovations as flexible staffing and altered class schedules, as seen in NAESP’s new research brief, “Leaders in the Tumult: Schooling Innovations and New Perspectives from a Year Interrupted.” However, staffing and scheduling changes can raise legal issues under state labor or employment laws, especially in states with collective bargaining.

How can you preserve beneficial changes that came from the pandemic? Try these five pointers to navigate potential legal obstacles—real and mythical. Every case is different, but remember that trust helps reduce legal friction.

  1. Find common ground with staff and stakeholders. Identify the potential long-lasting changes that have the critical mass to move forward. Think of it as picking the proverbial “low-hanging fruit”—the changes that many stakeholders appreciated as innovative steps.
  2. Engage with stakeholders in meaningful discussions about what worked. Facilitate conversations about potential changes among staff, parents, and students. Of course, you are the leader charged with making directional decisions, and you should strategically exercise your leadership. But, to find that common ground (see point 1!), you will need to build a dialogue to hear and listen to those impacted.
  3. Use data and facts to support your proposal. “Is this good for kids?” That’s the touchstone question. Data and evidence to support your deliberations come in many forms. Don’t think only about test scores or assessments. Maybe it’s a change that builds teacher morale, and you can demonstrate that your proposal makes your school a happier place. In my mind, that’s good for kids!
  4. Do not be captive to the myths of “we can’t do that.” In my last column, I noted that new and early principals are captive to “lunch room” myths. Too often, ideas are rejected because someone immediately says, “We can’t do that,” whether because of the contract, the “law,” or some policy. Maybe that turns out to be true, but if the idea has support and helps kids, isn’t it worth the time to verify whether it can or cannot be done?
  5. Find the legal channels to effectuate your idea and make a proposal. Now it’s time to formalize your ideas. If your state has collective bargaining and your changes address employee workplace conditions, talk to your administration about language changes in the bargaining agreement. For those without CBAs, this may mean reviewing school board policies. Either way, I strongly suggest you write proposals that you can get into the stream of formal negotiation channels between staff and administration.

As always, remember that the law is not an obstacle to the things you want to do as a school leader. Some ideas still might face too many headwinds to pursue, including those related to the law. But, if you follow some of these steps (and they are by no means exhaustive), you might be pleasantly surprised to find that good things can come out of the pandemic.

Mark Paige is associate professor of public policy at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and a board member at the Education Law Association.