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Fear, Facts and the Critical Task of Building Trust

While there are some areas of the country where reopening school buildings presents too much of a risk, there are others—particularly in the Northeast—that are well below the guidelines set by the CDC and other respected health authorities. Yet in school district after school district over the past few weeks, leaders in these areas where the virus is under control have abruptly announced they weren’t going to in-person schooling after all.

What’s going on?

There are undoubtedly many factors contributing to the disconnect between actual risk and school reopening (Reason, Brookings), but perhaps the greatest challenge that some schools and districts are facing—particularly in large districts where decisions are being made by leaders far removed from the school communities they will most impact—is a lack of trust. Or, as Mike Petrilli recently argued, “in too many places, those schools have not built reservoirs of trust with their families or their staff. Now we live with the consequences.”

In order to reopen schools, school leaders—from principals and deans to district and network superintendents—need more than just a clear and manageable health and safety plan grounded in the facts. They also need the trust and support of individual teachers, who need to be willing to show up to work, and of parents who need to be willing to send their children to school. Unfortunately, for too long, too many communities have failed to invest in the trust-building they would need to overcome people’s fears in a time of uncertainty.

As we embark on what’s sure to be a historic school year, where we will face difficult-to-predict challenges, our network, principals, deans, and operations leaders know that the trust we have built will be one of our most precious assets—and one that we cannot take for granted. At Partnership Schools, we gave parents a choice of either in-person or online school this fall, and the majority opted for in-person instruction; in some of our schools, as many as 90% of families have indicated they will do so–a sign in part of the trust they have in us. But that is only a start; we understand that we need to work each day to earn that trust with families and teachers—work that will take constant vigilance, transparency, and care throughout the year.

Right now building and maintaining trust is the most important task for our school and network leaders.

At Partnership Schools, we believe that trust emerges at the intersection of vision, transparency, and competency.


People are more likely to trust and follow you if they know what you believe and where you are leading them. Your root beliefs and a clear plan are essential to cultivate trust, especially in times of fear and uncertainty.

This fall, every family and all educators are going to have to adopt dozens of new routines that leaders ask them to follow. It will probably be exhausting. If this is just about complying with mask wearing, temperature checks, or figuring out online assignments, then any disruption to those steps is likely to undermine parents’ and teachers’ confidence in the whole enterprise. But if leaders galvanize us around shared beliefs and a clear, overarching purpose, then we can move together steadily toward our destination, even when the detours pop up along the way.


Of course, we don’t just need to be clear with our communities about the policies and procedures we are implementing for health and safety. To earn trust, we also need to be clear about what we can’t know for certain, and about the challenges we face.

In 1940, when Britain was at war and struggling in the Battle of France, newly-elected Prime Minister Winston Churchill stood for his first speech before Parliament and famously made them this promise: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”

Churchill strode into the battle for Britons’ hearts and minds with one powerful insight into human nature: people trust those who trust them with the truth, even when that truth is hard to swallow. “What is our aim?” Churchill went on to say. “I can answer in one word: Victory. Victory at all costs—Victory in spite of all terror—Victory, however long and hard the road may be.”

Trusting in science continues to lead us to conclude that in areas like New York City, it is safe to open schools. But we have to be honest about the uncertainties of this moment, and about the adaptations we know we’ll all need to make as the school year progresses and the facts on the ground change. Ongoing frank communication with our families will be essential to sustaining that trust.


In this clip from the movie The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, dwarves who have come together to consider vanquishing the dragon Smaug are searching for confidence that the task can be done. One interjects, “And you forget that we have a wizard in our company! Gandalf will have killed hundreds of dragons in his time.”

This assertion is quickly followed with a test. “How many dragons have you killed? Give us a number!” a dwarf demands.

In this moment his team is seeking for comfort in Gandalf’s experience. But Gandalf doesn’t take the bait. He’s not going to build trust in a false promise of competence. Instead he shifts the conversation to the competencies they will all need to accomplish their task.

At one point he even says, “I do not have the skill to find” the dwarf door, a crucial step on their quest, but he knows how to find the people who do. He then engaged with the different members of the group and reminds them of the crucial roles they are each prepared to play.

Each of our schools has to be really good at implementing public health guidelines and adapting instruction to this fall’s challenges in order to maintain the trust of our families and coworkers. But their competence will come not from superhuman skills or past experience with pandemics; nor will it come from the expertise of the principal alone. Rather, it will be drawn from the collective competence of the entire community—the teachers, operations staff, students, and even the parents. We all play a part in working together, and everyone has been called by name to play their part.


Of course, to trust and be trusted is to be vulnerable. Educational leaders can handle that vulnerability with vision, transparency, and competence—and by having faith in themselves and their teams to figure out problems they haven’t yet solved, or even encountered. And the parents, teachers and leaders who embark on the quest for a healthy school year for our children may not only grow in trust, but in our conviction that The Hobbit suggests: “Some believe it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. It is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay.”