Date of Award

Spring 2021

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Educational Foundations & Leadership


Educational Leadership

Committee Director

Karen L. Sanzo

Committee Member

Jonna Bobzien

Committee Member

Charles Daniels


During the COVID-19 pandemic, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam required all schools to close their doors from March 13, 2020, through the remainder of the school year, causing districts in the Commonwealth to create distance learning plans for PreK-12 education within a matter of weeks. The continued fluctuation of COVID-19 positive case numbers throughout the spring and summer led to several school districts choosing to open the 2020-2021 school year using a 100% virtual model for all students. This qualitative, grounded theory study sought to determine how superintendents understood the influences on the design of their district’s 100% virtual learning plans. Fifteen superintendents were interviewed using semi-structured interviews that each lasted 30-60 minutes. Data was iteratively collected, analyzed, and coded to reveal major categories regarding superintendents’ understanding of influences. Findings showed that districts sought to plan equitable virtual learning experiences for all students based on unintentional influences and the district’s intentional responses. The Influence and Response Complex Emergence (IRCE) Theory explains that, during an educational crisis, learning plans emerge as a result of the feedback between unintentional influences (politics, availability of resources, and needs of stakeholders) and district leaders’ intentional responses (leveraging relationships, communicating purposefully, and reinforcing the educational mission). A major implication of this study is a better understanding of how learning designs are developed during long-term crisis.