School & District Management

The Pandemic Upended Principals’ Jobs. Do Professional Leader Standards Reflect the Shift?

By Denisa R. Superville — December 27, 2021 6 min read
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The COVID-19 pandemic and the racial and social justice protests that upended schools in the 2020-21 school year added two major buckets to principals’ plates for which many were ill-prepared: crisis-management and social media and crisis communication.

Those two areas occupied considerable portions of school leaders’ time, and principals told researchers from the American Institutes for Research that they needed additional assistance and support in both in the foreseeable future, according to a new brief by AIR and the National Association of Elementary School Principals based on 36 focus groups with elementary school principals.

While principals are used to handling crises on a daily basis, the sheer scale of the pandemic and other challenges of the year—protests, political division, natural disasters—left them lurching from one extraordinary event to the next.

They faced unpredictability and the politicization of the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to frequently changing guidelines, uncertainty, and local resistance to COVID-19 safety measures in some communities. That meant that principals spent a lot of time communicating what they knew to their school community on multiple platforms—and monitoring those channels for feedback, to counter disinformation, and to ensure that correct information was filtering through.

And while social media was vital in getting school messages across to stakeholders, principals thought that it also played a role in the fragmentation and tensions they saw in their communities, according to the report.

The December brief is the second in The Leaders We Need Now” series, exploring how principals fared during the 2020-21 school year, the first full academic year amid the pandemic and one buffeted by political and social unrest.

The briefs look at how the principalship changed during that tumultuous period, lessons learned, and ways to improve supports for principals.

Changing priorities amid the pandemic

In addition to their new roles as crisis managers and social media specialists, principals found themselves changing priorities.

The Professional Standards for Educational Leaders, which were released in 2015 by the Council of Chief State School Officers, describe what principals should know and be able to do to lead successful schools.

But principals found that amid the pandemic, they had to push some of those standards to the back and prioritize others. Standards, such as school improvement, had to be shelved entirely—a move that could have major implications in the future when schools return to normal and the full weight of state and federal accountability measures return.

The front-of-mind standards during the pandemic, unsurprisingly, were those directly related to supporting teachers, students, and the school community, keeping them safe, and ensuring that they were kept in the know. They include building caring, supportive school environments to support students’ academic success and their social-emotional well-being; engaging with families and communities; fostering supportive, professional environments for teachers and staff; and managing school resources to ensure that students and staff have the necessary supports to thrive.

And many areas that were front and center before the pandemic received less attention over the last 20 months, including those dealing with the school’s mission, vision, and core values; school improvement, ethics, and professional norms; equity and cultural responsiveness; curriculum, instruction and assessment; and the professional teaching capacity of school personnel.

It wasn’t that the professional standards were no longer relevant, it was that principals’ priorities changed.

Most elementary school principals told the NAESP in 2018 that teacher evaluations and development were big concerns, for example; but evaluations did not even come up in this year’s focus groups, according to the report. And many principals told AIR that they hadn’t met with their central office bosses about school improvement in the 2020-21 school year.

While equity was top of mind for principals amid the pandemic and social justice protests, school leaders told the researchers that they couldn’t do deep work (such as equity audits and curriculum reviews) in those areas because of the more pressing, immediate concerns of the pandemic, and because some felt they needed to learn more about those issues before taking action, according to the brief.

The pandemic also revealed deep fissures on race and equity not just in the communities but within school buildings and among school staff, prompting at least one principal in a focus group to wonder whether he actually knew his staff.

Still, some principals took action, setting up professional development opportunities to review curriculum, school data, and bias in their buildings, and ensure that students had equitable access to technology, the brief said.

On the curriculum side, principals emphasized continuity rather than starting new programs, according to the report. They focused less on building teacher capacity and more on ensuring that teachers had the tech skills to get the job done in a year when technology played an outsized role in schools.

Surprisingly, elementary principals told the researchers that their working hours were more or less the same as before the pandemic—about 60.5 hours weekly, on average—during the 2020-21 school year. (A 2018 NAESP survey found that principals worked an average of 61 hours per week, in line with federal data from the 2015-16 school year showing that primary and middle school principals spend about 60 hours a week on average on all school-related activities.)

What was different, though, was how principals spent their time during that period and on what tasks they spent it, with the lines between home and work becoming less clear, according to the report.

They spent a significant portion on pandemic-related issues: contact tracing, “enforcing” mask mandates, setting up social-emotional supports for students and their families, and filling in for teachers who had to quarantine.

The brief also highlights how districts and preparation programs can support principals dealing with the current challenges—as well as prepare them for the next disasters.

Supporting principals amid changing duties

Distributing leadership among assistant principals and teacher-leaders can reduce the burden on principals. Some tasks, such as social media management, for example, can be delegated to assistant principals and teacher-leaders, according to the report. (A major hiccup in this proposal is that many elementary schools do not have APs.)

Revising school leader job descriptions and duties will also help. Central office administrators can assume some of the duties that principals now shoulder to give school leaders more time to spend on school-level work, according to the report.

Preparation programs can also make changes to better equip principals to handle crisis management; social media and crisis communication; support for staff members’, students’ and families’ social-emotional well-being; self-care and time management; and to effectively engage with their communities and build trust.

The focus groups, which included a total of 188 elementary school principals across the country were conducted between March and May this year.

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