Page 80 - Volume 6 - Issue 1 - DBU Journal for K-12 Educational Leadership

78 level administrator in the small, rural setting characterized by geographic separation, superintendents can sometimes feel isolated as leaders (Forner et al., 2012). To alleviate the sense of isolation, available professional networks range from statewide organizations to regional service centers to informal groups among neighboring districts and serve as sources of leadership support for superintendents. Research indicates that the reasons superintendents elect to engage with professional networks include access to information and resources, connection with individuals who help with career advancement, and interaction within a group of peers who are familiar with the complexities of the executive position (Trefalt, 2014). Barber (2010) found that superintendents relied on professional networks for information and guidance regarding broad level educational or professional issues as well as more specific and detailed matters that arise in daily operations. While the motivation and frequency of interactions with professional networks varies according to need, accessibility, and relevance, superintendents highly value the relationships established through their professional networks. They develop trust among colleagues and gain fellowship among empathetic colleagues who provide support, particularly when addressing new or unusual challenges (Fette, 2018). The emergence of COVID-19 in March of 2020 triggered a plethora of such challenges as superintendents navigated local circumstances amid widespread crisis response measures and mandates imposed at the state and federal levels. Legislative actions mobilized necessary equipment and supplies to treat the virus and prevent further spread (Siripurapu, 2021) and expanded social programs to help protect more people from the negative economic consequences of the pandemic. Agencies governing health services and disease control monitored infection data and offered recommendations for leaders, lawmakers, and the public at large about appropriate responses (Greer et al., 2021). Among the most significant response measures for the local education agencies in Texas was the executive order issued by the Governor to temporarily close businesses and schools throughout the state (Exec. Order No. GA-08, 2020). Superintendents were suddenly in the position of making high stakes decisions within a climate of considerable public concern and uncertainty to maintain key district functions such as instructional delivery, food service, and extra-curricular events. Questions about the pandemic’s impact to school finance and human resources as well as new cybersecurity considerations added complexity and broadened leadership responsibilities in districts of all sizes (Texas Education Agency, 2020). With fewer personnel and resources than their colleagues in larger districts, superintendents in small, rural districts experienced no fewer responsibilities for implementing innovative strategies to overcome obstacles, elevating the importance of professional networks. Summary of the Study The purpose of the current study was to explore the manner in which superintendents in small, rural districts in Texas utilized the various resources of professional networks to navigate leadership during the crisis caused by COVID-19. Thirteen superintendents in five counties who participate in the Superintendent Leadership Academy (SLA) at the Region 12 Education Service Center (ESC) participated in the study. All participants actively led throughout the crisis in districts with enrollment of 1,000 or fewer students. Qualitative data was collected by conducting in-depth interviews using a guided approach with a written protocol prior to the scheduled meeting (Johnson & Christensen, 2017). The interview guide provided structure to the interview and ensured consistency in the discussions with all participants but allowed flexibility to gain clarity and greater depth of understanding about each individual’s unique experience through follow up questions. The researcher for the current study held a comparable position to that of participants, actively serving as superintendent in a small, rural school district before, during, and after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. The researcher relied on collaboration through a variety of professional networks to lead, some of which included previous interaction with participants of the study. These experiences equipped the researcher to approach interviews with insight and engage with participants empathetically. Conversely, the same experiences could Mickie Jackson, EdD