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Perspective | School culture amid COVID-19: Broadband must improve

Editor’s note: The following is Mary Ann Wolf’s “Final Word” from the Aug. 22, 2020 broadcast of Education Matters – “School Culture in the World of COVID-19.”


As I talked with Drs. Bob Grimesey and Carrie Tulbert and our Vance County students, Ayanna and Jorge, I was struck by the fact that they are not just talking about getting by as we engage in remote and hybrid learning this fall. They are talking about continuing to move forward and to make progress.

In a time when so many people are trying to figure out how to do what we have always done in a new setting or a new way, these leaders – district, school, and student leaders – are each planning how to do much more than survive, but rather to thrive along with and for those around them.

I’ve often realized that I can get a sense of school culture by walking inside the building and spending just a few minutes with students or teachers. You quickly hear, see, and experience whether there is ownership among the people in the building for the educational vision by how the educators think and talk about their students.

You might get a glimpse of what collaboration looks like and whether or not student work encourages agency and voice, rather than remote instruction. You can see how classrooms react when guests and the principal walk into the room – Are they comfortable? Are they nervous? Do they want to interact?

COVID-19 is changing how we build culture and how we even get to understand what a school or district’s culture is like. However, it is only more important now than ever before.  Distance can make people feel less connected and teachers and principals having to learn as if they are new to their roles can make our staff feel even more vulnerable.

As we go into the weeks and months ahead, Dr. Grimesey and Dr. Tulbert’s words are here to remind us that culture is the key and the foundation. Having distributed leadership and ensuring that we seek, hear, and listen to input from our parents, students, community members, and teachers about how we are doing and what we need to consider have never been more important.

School culture is the foundation that ensures that we see social and emotional learning as being important for all of the children AND adults. Effective leaders understand that investing in building an effective culture IS the work, it is critical to innovation, to understanding and respecting all learners, and addressing equity and the opportunity gap.

School is back in session, and our students, staff, and families crave and need a strong culture. We know that there are frustrations and sadness about what is not or what is missed. It takes all of us working with the district and school leaders who strive to meet the needs of every child, every day. 

It takes lawmakers and the business community to act quickly to improve broadband infrastructure. We can do this by being a part of the solution and the community.


Mary Ann Wolf

Mary Ann Wolf, Ph.D. has served as President and Executive Director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina since June 2020, bringing with her more than 20 years of educational policy and leadership working directly with schools and districts across North Carolina to improve equity and build capacity for innovation.