Education associations are still wary about returning to packed convention centers for in-person conferences, after the coronavirus forced nearly all such gatherings to go online over the last year.
But the National Association of Elementary School Principals is bucking that trend with its annual conference scheduled for the Hyatt Regency in Chicago from July 8-10.
The conference—which includes a program heavy on social-emotional learning, improving learning opportunities, and supporting leaders and their well-being —will mark the organization’s 100th anniversary as well as its 50th convention.
The group will also be returning to the city that hosted its first annual convening.
“We are kind of an outlier this year,” said Gracie Branch, the NAESP’s associate executive director for professional learning.
“I would call it a leap of faith,” Branch continued. “I think we have been very fortunate that things worked out the way we hoped they would—with vaccinations becoming available; with people, once they received the vaccination, being comfortable getting back out there to attend in-person events.”
The National Association of Secondary School Principals and the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union, are keeping their conferences online this year.
While the NAESP took a gamble on an in-person conference after cancelling its event in Louisville, Ky., last year, it’s looking like the bet is paying off.
Coronavirus cases in Chicago have plummeted, and the city removed nearly all of its COVID-19 restrictions earlier this month.
Principals, too, are saying they are ready for the kind of in-person interactions, learning, and networking that can’t be fully replicated on computer screens. After more than a year of isolation, “you realize the importance of being connected,” Branch said.
Registration numbers are encouraging
So far, about 1,000 people have registered, which is on par with previous years. (The group has about 17,000 members who are elementary and middle school leaders.)
Attendance generally fluctuates depending on the location. When the group held its convention in Orlando, Fla., in 2018, about 2,000 people attended. A year later, attendance dropped to around 1,200 when it moved to Spokane, Wash.—a harder-to-reach location, said L. Earl Franks, NAESP’s executive director.
“We know it won’t be what we typically bring in, but I think we’ve been really pleased with getting close” to those figures, Branch said.
A big bright spot is that registration for the preconference workshops, which normally feature deep dives with experts and practitioners into common challenges, is higher than some years. This year’s pre-conferences sessions are geared toward helping assistant principals, early-career principals, and veterans excel on the job. The assistant principals, for example, will work with veteran principals Andy Jacks and Jessica Cabeen on topics such as effective time management, student discipline, and coaching to help them get ready for the top school job.
“We are excited about that,” Branch said. “They want to be picked up, they want to be energized, they want to be motivated, and we have some speakers that they know will help make that happen.”
Branch thinks the positive response is in part because principals were among the early groups that were eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
It wasn’t all easy to put together. And it wasn’t clear when COVID-19 cases started spiking again in the winter and COVID-19 vaccination rollout got off to a bumpy start that the organization would be able to pull it off.
The group has also gone back and forth with presenters, some of whom initially agreed to appear in person but have changed their minds as COVID-19 conditions changed. The same has happened with participants who initially planned to attend the conference in-person.
The pandemic continues to shape the agenda
While the conference is fully in-person—with no remote or streaming option for those who can’t make it—some presenters will appear remotely.
Branch gets it.
“Technically, we are still in a pandemic,“ she said.
The setting will reflect that. There will be more lecture-style presentations with chairs in rows and fewer sessions with participants sitting around round tables, she said. Chairs will be spaced, and when tables are used there will have fewer than seven people seated at them, she said.
The conference also will be missing at least one feature that’s been hallmark over the years: a service day, when principals work with a school in the host city on a community project that can include building a park or participating in clean-up activities.
“We tried to look at what was feasible, what we could ask people to do, and what would have been just one more thing” added to their plates, Branch said. The service day will return when the conference moves to Louisville, Ky., next year.
Some of the sessions will focus on best practices, principal self-care, instructional leadership, teacher development and support, and improving learning communities. The agenda is built around the Professional Standards for Educational Leaders and based on feedback from principals. There will also be a special session by the organization’s National Task Force on Race and Equity, which was formed after last year’s social justice protests that were precipitated by the murder of George Floyd.
In addition, the association will formally introduce its Centers for Advancing Leadership—four centers designed to focus on professional development and learning and networking among like-minded and similarly-situated principals. The centers were launched during the pandemic year and will focus on diversity, innovation, middle school leadership, and women in leadership.
“We are committed to helping [principals] to be most successful they can be,” Branch said, “and... continue to inspire them as leaders.”