Three men angry about COVID-19 rules seek to “arrest” a principal at her Tucson, Ariz., school using zip ties. As parents shout encouragement, students in Manchester, Mich., brush aside a school employee and enter a high school without masks in defiance of a local mandate. A judge issues an injunction to prevent protests and rallies that “disrupt educational services” following unrest at a Vancouver, Wash., school over a mask requirement.
The stress caused by the pandemic in a third consecutive school year has affected educators up and down the organizational chart. But principals are often bearing the brunt of conflicts over evolving and controversial decisions dealing with masks, quarantines, vaccines, and other highly charged issues.
From outside their school walls, they’re an easy target of discontent that can disrupt their work. Inside, they face an overwhelming host of concerns covering everything from pandemic-driven teacher absences and jumbled schedules, to the impact of quarantines on student well-being and learning.
For many principals, the hope that this year would be dramatically less challenging is gone or rapidly fading.
Aaron Eyler, the principal of Matawan Regional High School, in Aberdeen, N.J., where an indoor universal masking rule and quarantine policies are in place, must help students who spent all of last year in remote learning adjust to the new mitigation measures. Simultaneously, students and staff who were in buildings last year have a different but necessary adjustment period of their own.
Such varied considerations can weigh heavily on school leaders.
“There are parents and guardians who are very frustrated when they find out about quarantine, when they find out about masking,” Eyler said. “But it’s an endless conversation, and something that is not going to be solved right now. It’s probably not going to be solved in the next year.”
Eyler said he’s never felt physically in danger during encounters with parents. But the pandemic, and the associated confusing and frequently changing guidelines, have increased the frequency of conversations with frustrated parents.
- Communicate clearly. It’s important that districts message clearly to parents how rules around mask mandates and quarantine procedures are developed and who is crafting them, such as the district school board or superintendent, or state or federal authorities. “It shows that these are...decisions that are made based on information, science, and collaboration,” said Jorge Garcia, the executive director of the Dade Association of School Administrators, in Florida.
- Create a venue for parents to be heard: Parents should know how to seek redress and to whom they should direct questions and concerns. Scott Crisp, the principal of Jackson Hole High School, in Jackson, Wyo., has had conversations with parents about masks because parents are aware that those decisions were made at a higher level, and they know to take their concerns to the school board. “That’s actually the first layer that’s been helpful for schools—to have that kind of structure in place that our community feels like they are heard.”
- Ensure physical security. Garcia thinks security measures that were put in place to address school shootings already provide some level of protection and reassurance to school leaders. Also, restrictive entrance policies during the pandemic, with electronic screening access for employees, add another buffer against outside threats.
- Assure principals have support. Principals need to know that the districts will come to their aid if they run into opposition when implementing COVID-19 mitigation policies and other safety measures. “It’s critical that districts provide backup for principals when they are correctly applying the policies, and not leave them hanging out there, twisting in the wind,” said Lance Fusarelli, an educational leadership and policy professor at NC State College of Education.
Superintendents can support COVID-19 protocols, and school boards can adopt policies like universal masking or implement those mandated by the state or recommended by local health authorities. But the pandemic has emphasized a fundamental truth in schools that can be easily overlooked: Principals are the educators who must implement policies adopted by their district-level superiors.
“I know there’s a lot of talk about how everyone in school is a leader, and leadership is distributed. It’s true in some ways. But ultimately, if you’re looking at the school and you have a complaint, you’re thinking about the principal,” said Paul Manna, a College of William and Mary professor who studies education policy and leadership.
Eyler said facing community concerns or even anger is nothing new. He views it as part of his job. He also sympathizes with frustrated parents; his own children had to go into quarantine several times last year, and his 7th grader missed weeks of in-person schooling. And he’s unsure whether his message is resonating broadly among parents: “I don’t know that they are buying it from me, to be honest with you.”
Nevertheless, if parents must vent, Eyler would prefer to be the target.
“I would rather them yell at me than yell at my administrative team, yell at the teachers, yell at the nurse, yell at the main office people. I would rather them to be angry and yell at me because, to be realistic about it, if they’re yelling at me that means that my team is able to do their job.”
Schools are in the center of controversy
Schools, of course, have been caught up in or at the center of national political disputes throughout American history. And some principals are dealing with divisions separate from the pandemic, such as the ongoing furor about how teachers should address racism in society.
But policies like mask mandates—particularly in states where districts have opted to implement them or are mandating them in defiance of state prohibitions—are very local, very tangible, and visible. And they don’t always come directly from distant federal and state authorities.
That’s one of the reasons that the response to policies like universal masking may be much more personal, said Lance Fusarelli, an educational leadership and policy professor at NC State College of Education.
“I am sure that there were some principals that probably got some flak from parents about the common core and stuff like that,” Fusarelli said. “But they weren’t showing up with zip ties.”
Annual turnover among principals is about 18 percent, per federal statistics. Yet whether the pandemic has and will trigger mass resignations remains unclear. A National Association of Secondary School Principals survey last year found 45 percent of principals said COVID-19 spurred them to consider leaving their jobs earlier than they had planned. Yet a RAND Corporation survey of superintendents this summer reported that the pandemic hasn’t accelerated principal departures.
That doesn’t mean principals aren’t still feeling the pressure.
“School is hard business anyway, because you are dealing with people, and you are dealing with relationships,” said Jason Leahy, the executive director of the Illinois Principals Association. “As we know as human beings, relationships can be messy at times. But in this environment, when tensions are high and people are not well, and they are hurting because we want to get back to a sense of normalcy that we had prior to the pandemic and really want to make that happen no matter what—this whole confluence of things that’s happening right now drives up stress and tensions.”
The Carmi-White County School District in rural Illinois was one of the few districts in that state to open all year for in-person schooling last year. Amy Dixon, who leads two school sites in the district, Lincoln and Jefferson Attendance centers, said there was general acceptance of COVID-19 mitigation measures like indoor masking in the 2020-21 school year.
I would rather them yell at me than yell at my administrative team, yell at the teachers, yell at the nurse, yell at the main office people.
But patience with such policies eventually wore thin, she said, and foreshadowed the anger at the mask mandate from Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, for the 2021-22 school year. Some parents, she said, have sent their children to school without masks and have filmed the reaction of the principal.
Most parents, Dixon said, aren’t creating such issues. But she’s worried about the tangible and negative impact of the tense environment on students, as well as on new principals. And like many, she’s concerned about the fatigue and exhaustion among staff.
“We definitely have some parents who are just really against the governor or the governor’s mandate or whether or not the governor has the right to mandate and so forth. I just hate that our students are getting dragged into that,” Dixon said. “I wish that the frustrations would be aired at our state capitol, through our representatives and legislators.”
Tension mixed with confusion
Raul Gaston, the principal of Jefferson Middle School in Villa Park, Ill., said he and his staff watch closely for any possible conflicts, especially during student pick-up and drop-off times. He said his interactions with parents about the state’s mask mandate have been minimal, citing one phone call with a concerned parent that was relatively civil.
Yet staff have shared their worries with him about postings on social media that they feared could make their way to the campus, and he’s listened, encouraged them to continue reaching out to him about anxieties, and reported their concerns to the district.
“There’s conflicting information out there that’s not necessarily backed by CDC and by reputable places,” Gaston said. “They are just kind of throwing that stuff out there and believe that it’s true. So we’re competing against that as well.”
The shifting nature of the pandemic and responses to it add to the atmosphere of tension principals face within and outside their schools.
Chase Christensen, the principal of Torrington High School in Torrington, Wyo., said the hope in his community that this school year would represent a return to familiar routines painfully disintegrated after just a few days.
As of early September, roughly 10 percent of students were in quarantine, and the school board adopted a mask mandate after starting the year without one. Christensen said he already cancelled a football game, and the volleyball team had to enter quarantine, things that never happened last year and have added to the emotional deflation and whiplash at his school.
That kind of situation underscores how scheduling things and keeping them on the schedule, however difficult those things are to implement, can be very valuable to principals. But the current environment is one in which COVID exposure can empty classrooms in a flash and where safety protocols are in constant flux, said Meredith Honig, a professor at the University of Washington’s college of education.
“Now they’re dealing with situations where there’s new levels of uncertainty around which staff are available. Will staff become ill or face other situations that affect their attendance? There’s been a lot of uncertainty about which kids will actually return,” Honig said.
And staffing shortages are not just prompted by COVID-19 infection among the teaching staff, but also by the quarantine rules meant to keep students safe.
“It’s way underdiscussed,” said Scott Crisp, the principal of Jackson Hole High School in Jackson, Wyo., where more than 10 staff members have children who are younger than 4. “Preschools are significantly impacted with the ripples of quarantines and positive tests. When that occurs, there is really no option for a lot of our [teachers’] families than to take the day off from school and be with their children. That’s just the reality for families. The educational impact of that is difficult because we lose consistency in the classroom and coupled with shortages of substitute teachers, it has a domino effect on the education learning process. That is a very stressful piece.”
Eyler, the New Jersey principal, agreed that the shifting COVID-19 protocols can raise tensions, in part because that causes confusion among parents. The frequency of the changes—though often dictated by evolving knowledge of COVID-19—can leave the impression that school districts are making it up as they go.
“I think the parents are very upset because it’s almost like changing your grading procedures in the middle of the marking period,” Eyler said. “No one would ever stand for that.”
‘A societal letdown’
Christensen, Eyler, and Gaston all expressed the sentiment in some form that this year is as hard, if not harder, for them to manage in schools than last year.
“I think it is a societal let-down,” said Christensen, who’s in his fourth year as the school principal. “There is kind of a feeling that, if everyone would just get vaccinated, they wouldn’t be a problem. But people on the other side have their own feelings about it.”
Christensen said the rumblings of discontent about masks and quarantines haven’t amounted to much so far beyond a few people trying—but failing—to stir up outrage via Facebook: “Everybody’s stayed pretty calm.” And he’s worked hard to ensure students treat staff with respect.
There’s conflicting information out there that’s not necessarily backed by CDC and by reputable places.
Yet he’s keeping an eye on how local officials respond to such backlash. So far, his biggest concern isn’t parental outrage, but the stress on his school’s teachers. He’s tried to cancel staff meetings whenever possible to give people some breathing room.
As for the public, making sure there are forums for frustrations is one strategy that can produce dividends even if it can highlight conflict in the short term.
“We are really focused on making sure that everybody has a voice and being able to have that communication, because if they don’t communicate it, we don’t know about it,” said Gaston, the principal in Villa Park. “That’s our number one line of defense.”
Honig, of the University of Washington, also stressed that principals should pay close attention to concerns from people from traditionally marginalized communities about things like access to special education services during the pandemic.
“You could call those complaints. But you could also think about it as really good feedback,” she said.
Eyler has tried to be creative. He’s responded to some parents’ concerns about masking students by setting up tables outside for students with special needs so that they can learn outdoors, weather permitting, and unmasked while still following New Jersey rules.
But he also doesn’t want to shy away from the inevitable, difficult conversations.
“I do believe that when it comes down to the principalship we have an incredible responsibility to tell parents and guardians and families the truth about what is taking place,” he said.
Denisa R. Superville, Assistant Editor contributed to this article.
Coverage of principals and school leadership is supported in part by a grant from the Joyce Foundation, at www.joycefdn.org/programs/education-economic. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the September 22, 2021 edition of Education Week as Principals Bear the Brunt of Parental Anger, Staff Fatigue as COVID Drags On