6 Ways Central Office Can Help Principals Lead Through the COVID-19 Crisis

By Denisa R. Superville — September 25, 2020 6 min read
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Leading schools during normal times often feels like a lonely job. Running schools during a pandemic can magnify that.

But the central office, especially principal supervisors, are essential to helping principals lead through this current crisis, particularly as school leaders’ role as the bridge between the district and students, staff, and parents has become even more vital.

This is a moment for principal supervisors to step up, said Ellen Goldring, a professor of educational policy and leadership at Vanderbilt University, who has researched the expanding role of principal supervisors in large urban school districts.

Principal supervisors generally work with a group of principals whose schools are selected based on geography, grade levels, demographic characteristics, or similar reasons. And those networks can be important professional learning communities right now to help principals set an agenda, solve problems together, and share ideas that are working. The principal supervisor can be an important convener for that kind of collaboration, which can provide both technical and moral support for principals, Goldring said.

“It is crucial at this time to use that PLC network to set the agenda and work through longer-term challenges, so each principal is not feeling that they are on their own,” Goldring said.

With that virtual network continuing to function, principals don’t have to feel like they are interpreting guidance from central office in a vacuum or that they are singularly trying to solve problems as they crop up.

Creating those collaborative opportunities is important because there are fewer spontaneous encounters to swap ideas because of the pandemic: “People are not bumping into each other in a central office meeting,” Goldring said.

Meisha Ross-Porter, an executive superintendent for the Bronx in the New York City school system, puts it this way: It’s a moment that calls for central office staffers to “wrap ourselves” around principals in deep, supportive partnerships beyond what they have done in the past.

Here are six ways principal supervisors—and central offices—can help support their principals in the crisis:

Keep Principals Informed

Ensure principals have timely and useful information to make the best decisions for their schools and communities.

Information changes rapidly during the pandemic, but it’s important that supervisors help principals access the most current information as well as the reasons behind any changes in policies. That kind of transparency puts principals in a much better position to face their staff, students, and parents, and allows them to maintain their credibility with those stakeholders.

“There are some things we can’t answer right away,” Ross-Porter said. “But I think in this moment, if people just know why—if people know why something is happening or why there isn’t an answer—" that’s preferable to being left unmoored in a sea of uncertainty.

“One of the things we have to accept in this moment—with grace—is the unknown,” Ross-Porter said. “There are just things that we can’t know because we are operating in a space in which we’ve never operated before. Much of what principals and superintendents are looking for are answers to questions that help them solve those programming and instructional problems that they are trying to grapple with.”

Give Principals Resources and Flexibility

Principals are being asked to run online schools in a lot of cases, but many of their staff and students don’t have everything they need. Many students still don’t have reliable internet access, despite efforts by districts and nonprofits to provide mobile hot-spots for students.

Many students don’t have devices or they are sharing devices with parents and siblings. In some places, teachers also have connectivity issues. Supervisors should be getting that type of crucial, detailed information from principals and taking it to the central office so student and staff needs are met.

Supervisors should be making sure principals with in-person instruction are getting adequate supplies of masks, cleaning products, and other materials to keep students and staff members safe.

It’s not always about advocating up or asking central office for more, Goldring said. The principal may already have the resources at their school. The supervisor’s role here could be helping them figure out how to best use particular dollars or a particular staffer (a guidance counselor, instructional coach, reading specialist, or a school nurse, for example) in this new learning environment.

Help Principals Use Data to Make Decisions

The spring shutdown meant that many districts did not collect the kinds of data on student performance and student progress they would have amassed in a normal school year.

Principals must think creatively to determine where students are academically and how to develop learning goals for them—all without the datasets they are used to relying on, Goldring said.

Supervisors can help principals—especially those in network of similar schools—devise ways to use the data they do have to make the best decisions.

They can also help principals figure out the best data to collect going forward, including information that is troublesome for a lot of districts: tracking student attendance during remote and hybrid learning.

Set Up Training and Professional Support

Supervisors can help principals broker training for themselves and for teachers who are operating in a new education environment.

How do principals work with teachers to understand new curriculum and deliver that curriculum in a new format? How do you deliver high-quality professional development remotely? Which teachers and principals need instructional coaches? How to deploy guidance counselors and other social-emotional supports that students would have had access to had they been in school five days a week?

These are questions that principal supervisors and central office staff can help principals work through. In New York City, for example, education offices in the boroughs have “remote e-learning champions,” whose job it is to provide professional support on remote learning to teachers and principals.

Offer Principals Emotional Support, Too

Principals are attuned to the social-emotional needs of their staff and students. But they also experienced the trauma of the last six months and may have lost family members and friends to COVID-19. They also need emotional support. Supervisors and central office should make sure principals have access to help for their own social-emotional well-being.

“I think this is a moment we as a system need to think about how we are taking care of our leaders as well,” Ross-Porter said.

And that support needs to be extended to new principals, who may be entering new schools where they do not have long-standing relationships with the staff and community. Districts also need to rethink how they are providing professional support (including mentoring opportunities) for new principals, Ross-Porter said.

Be Open to Change

Not all districts have principal supervisors, but during the crisis, it’s essential that districts assign someone to work exclusively with principals, Goldring said.

While some districts may use the disruption of the pandemic to make sweeping central office overhaul, Goldring cautions against that.

It is, however, a good time to question long-held assumptions (such as the accepted student-to-teacher ratio and the need for every child to be in school five days a week), record the answers, and keep meticulous notes and data so that when the pandemic is over and things have settled down, school and district officials can review their experiences and make changes.

It’s also an opportune time for experimentation, Goldring said. And districts should publicize successes.

“It’s an opportunity to rethink how we’ve always done things,” she said.

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.