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School & District Management

What Principals Have Learned From COVID-19’s ‘Stress Test’

By Denisa R. Superville — November 18, 2020 9 min read
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When schools and districts shut down abruptly in the spring, principals jumped into action.
They knocked on doors to find students, packed meals for families, scrambled to set up remote learning programs, and, in some cases, even provided money to families struggling to make ends meet.
Their experiences in those early chaotic days as the coronavirus pandemic swept across the country, and their preparation for the new school year, are captured in a series of five recently published briefs by the Consortium for Policy Research in Education, at the University of Pennsylvania.
The briefs, based on interviews with 120 principals in 19 states, show principals’ raw reactions as they and their districts struggled to make plans amid a fog of uncertainty and the challenges they faced. The analyses also include takeaways for schools and districts to prepare for the next emergency.
The in-the-moment research revealed glaring inequities and varied district approaches. Some gave principals broad autonomy to make decisions related to the pandemic response, while others took a top-down centralized approach that constrained school leaders. Others balanced the two approaches.

Setting Priorities

The first priority for principals during the crisis was ensuring that their students, staff, families were OK before getting to academics.
“The schools with the least amount of resources were the ones that were most intricately involved with meeting the needs of those communities—food hubs, going into the apartment complex and making sure the internet hubs were there,” said Bradley Carpenter, an associate professor of educational leadership at Baylor University and one of the 20 researchers who interviewed principals for the study. “Those were the schools that were working more hours than the schools that were affluent.”
The briefs also highlighted another incongruous feature of the education system: that the measures often used to judge schools—chiefly test scores—only capture a fragment of what school leaders and teachers do.
“The principals are doing all these amazing things, which are serving urgent needs of kids and families,” said Jonathan Supovitz, the chairman of the education policy division at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. “That’s not taken into account in what we think of as a good school. There is an imbalance between our metrics for assessing quality and the actual role of schools in society.”
Overall, Supovitz said the coronavirus pandemic was like a stress test for school systems, “much like in 2009 when there was a financial crisis and banks go through a stress test to make sure they could respond in future crises.”

Lessons for What’s Ahead

The briefs examine how principals managed the crisis; major challenges for families and educators; how districts delivered support for principals and students during the shutdown; accountability; and how principals supported their staff and students social-emotional well-being as well as their own.
District responses ranged from “highly responsive to well-intentioned but fundamentally counterproductive.” Districts that had planned for emergencies generally had a better response to the shutdown, the researchers found. And lack of readiness put the onus on teachers and principals to “make do” with what they had or come up with creative solutions.
Among the recommendations:

  • Districts should set up opportunities for principals to network – something principals told researchers helped a lot during the crisis.
  • Districts should provide more training for teachers, as well as take into account that teachers and principals are managing multiple roles – as educators, parents, and caregivers- while setting up remote learning programs.
  • Plan for future emergencies and disruptions to schooling.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is a dry run for future disruptions in education,” the researchers wrote. “This expectation should motivate all districts to do an ‘after action review’ to see what they might learn about their response (for better and worse) to prepare for the next curveball that life will throw at us.”Given that principals’ duties multiplied and magnified during the pandemic responses, the authors recommend that school leaders get additional support to handle some of the technical challenges of the job, so that they can focus on instruction, particularly as a number of students are expected to lose ground academically because of the in-person shutdowns.
Researchers found from subset of interviews that even though states suspended accountability measures, that did not affect teachers’ goal to provide students with rigorous instruction or addressing the needs of families. Instead, school staff relied on existing relationships and grade level and subject area professional learning communities to hold themselves accountable.

New Ways to Engage With Families

Principals said the pandemic forced them to find new ways to interact and communicate with parents. Where a weekly newsletter might have done the trick in the past, principals found that rapidly changing information required faster responses. They also had a lot more to share, including students’ schedules, assignments, and grading changes, and regular pep talks to teachers. Some started doing YouTube videos. A Connecticut principal asked a local bodega owner’s permission to post messages and updates in the shop.
Supovitz and Carpenter said there are also lessons for higher education on preparing and supporting principals for leading amid crisis.
Wes Kanawyer, a principal at Woodgate Intermediate School in Waco, Texas, where nearly three-quarters of the 700 students are in school five days a week while the rest engage in virtual learning, praised his district for including principals in the discussion from the initial shutdowns in the spring. That made it easier for principals to communicate messages to their staff, students, and parents and set up both academic and support programs for students.
Principals and district staff met once a week and “ensured very clear communication, ongoing dialogue, feedback and refinement,” Kanawyer said. “That was very important.”
“We’ve tried to be as proactive as we can,” he said. “A lot of structural aspects of the operations of the district [were] conducive to being responsive.”
Still, the constantly changing information from state and federal officials made it difficult to plan. But the district already had built-in infrastructure that allowed it to get a remote learning program up and running relatively quickly, he said. The school board had already funded a 1:1 computer access program, teachers were already familiar with Schoology, the learning management system, and students were accustomed to using the programs, he said.
Tweaks were still necessary. While all students had an iPad, the devices were left at the school at the end of the day. So Kanawyer and staff still had to distribute the devices to students during the shutdown, and find ways connect students to the internet.
The school developed a tiered priority list, he said. The first was to make sure that students were accounted for and that their basic needs were being met: that they had food, clothing, and shelter.
“After that, it became more of an academic focus,” he said. “Our focus wasn’t grading. It was making sure they were engaging with the content. … So, if we had them engaging, it was still academically stimulating.”

Principals Prioritize Teacher and Student Well-Being

Kanawyer said while his district had a good starting point, not all his colleagues were in the same position.
And he recognized the emotional strain the shutdown had on teachers. When he heard teachers were having professional learning community meetings during dinner, he told them not to burn themselves out and prioritize disconnecting to spend time with family. He devotes a portion of every staff meeting to acknowledging accomplishments and recognizing teachers’ work.
Technology access was one of the biggest hurdles for James Stewart, the principal of Waco High School, because the school did not have a 1:1 program up and running. And when one was set up, the school was only able to provide one device per household.
Since then, things have changed. If the system had to shut down completely again for on-site instruction, every student will have their own device.
Like many principals, his biggest priority was making sure that he and the school staff were communicating clearly with parents and attending to their students’ well-being.
“Some of those parents were working multiple jobs to make ends meet to try to make sure they are taking care of their families,” he said. “It’s one of those things—we have to make sure that we’re aware of the social-emotional side, as well as the content. … Do you have a roof over your head? Did you eat last night? Are your lights on? Those [were the] types of questions we were asking.”

Principals on Schooling During COVID-19

“My teachers are working 14 hours, they’re not turning off. Between the small group instruction, answering parent emails, being on Zoom calls, office hours, and then also planning a week ahead of lessons, that’s been a lot for them for time management. So, I have a staff that is completely exhausted.”
Colorado principal on meeting the social-emotional needs of staff
“My teachers need as much support as our kids do sometimes, just to talk them off the ledge saying, ‘It’s gonna be okay.”
Tennessee principal
“The demographics of this community are middle- to upper middle class, a fairly well-to-do community, and so we have a lot of programming because of the generosity, with our parent donations. ... So every single student has an iPad, every teacher has a MacBook and an iPad. ... So our transition was, I would say, not seamless, but it was very... It was very manageable.”
—San Diego-area principal on the readiness to pivot to remote learning
“ [Students are] getting really wonderful instruction from their teachers, but they’re missing out on those key components of learning, like the turn-and-talk, the collaborative experiences, the critical analysis of each other’s answers, and I really do think that social-emotional piece is key.”
—Colorado principal on the greatest challenge for students during remote learning
“As a principal, you are hard-wired to care. I think [in a crisis situation] it’s kind of hard to worry about anything other than the people in your charge. You have to look at the emergency and assess what people need and then react.”
—Texas principal on supporting families during the pandemic
“We connected families to soup kitchens and food dispensaries, and also we raised money to give cash allotments that we give to families. We worked with community-based organizations to raise money to be able to give families money to live and eat.”
—New York City principal on supporting families during the pandemic
“I stayed connected with other principals and did weekly check-ins with other principals via calling or texting—just to unwind or get advice.”
—Ohio principal on managing stress
SOURCE: Consortium For Policy Research In Education

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A version of this article appeared in the December 09, 2020 edition of Education Week as What Principals Have Learned From COVID-19’s ‘Stress Test’

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