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Perspective | Learning from COVID-19: What principals told us

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As state leaders, policymakers, and public school systems across North Carolina debated when and how to return safely to in-person learning, WakeEd Partnership hosted three focus groups to discuss remote learning and school re-entry with Wake County Public Schools students, teachers, and principals. This three-part series is a reflection on what was shared from each group.

In our first two articles on learning from COVID-19, we showcased the concerns and considerations of students and teachers in relation to their experiences with reentry to schools in the midst of the pandemic. As school building leaders, principals also have their own set of experiences and thought processes they bring to the table. As the captains of each proverbial ship within the district, principals oversee the bigger picture of what happens day-in and day-out for every student, teacher, and staff member.

As Wake County Public Schools were preparing for a return to regular in-person learning, WakeEd Partnership hosted a virtual session with principals. This focus group was geographically representative of Wake County and included principals and assistant principals from across grades K-12. We heard about their experiences and observations with reentry models, their perceptions of their students’ experiences, their observations of teachers’ stress levels, and their experiences with district requirements, all considering both virtual and in-person settings. 

Leadership challenges

The ability to lead effectively was an underlying theme throughout the entire focus group discussion. Principals must simultaneously juggle the considerations of students learning needs and outcomes, teacher needs and requirements, and building formalities and protocols. All are equally important, and each of these aspects intersects with the other constantly.

For example, if there is a first grade teacher that can only have a maximum of 20 students in their classroom, this number includes students who are also learning online, in addition to those who are in person. These restrictions, along with social distancing requirements, impact the layout of classrooms and other protocols principals must consider.

Almost every principal in the focus group also brought up concerns related to staffing challenges. One primary staffing concern was about “singleton” teachers, or those who are the only one in the building that teach their content area (e.g. music, foreign language, or technology). These teachers are teaching concurrently every single day, five days a week, and oftentimes with more limited breaks than what other teachers are experiencing.

Courtesy of WakeEd Partnership

Feelings about ‘tomorrow

As principals shared their anxieties, an additional question was thrown into the mix: “How do we feel about tomorrow?” That question, in the moment, was asking about the literal tomorrow, as it would be the first day that all teachers and students would return in person full time. But there was a metaphorical tomorrow that underscored much of what was shared from our principals. 

All of the principals shared feelings of hope that seemed to shine through whatever other emotions were being felt. As schools are moving back to full time, in-person instruction, this brings about more normalcy than what has been felt all year long. And with that comes hope for what is to come for the upcoming school year, which many of the principals are starting to consider.

Principals also shared concerns about the social/emotional health of both staff and students. The fact that this year has included numerous ups and downs and inconsistent scheduling and pivoting has brought about a weariness that is being felt from many who work and learn in schools. This includes weariness from principals themselves, who are the face of school buildings and often feel the need to be strong in front of their staff and students. 

Finding the space for engagement

The most surprising part of our discussion came when the question was asked: “How has the hybrid model impacted your ability to engage the community?” As building leaders, it is the expectation that principals will oversee and reach out to their surrounding community to engage with them on a personal level. This is an investment not only in the lives of the students, but also the life of the neighborhood.

It was refreshing to hear these principals talk about how the pandemic and the hybrid model has forced them — and subsequently, the staff — to think outside of the box when it comes to outreach beyond their computer screens. One principal spoke of their connection to local artists at the beginning of the year who were able to help create a mural for their school. Every family was provided materials from the school to create artwork at home. In their materials bag was a pre-stamped return envelope to provide their piece, and then the mural was created. In the end, there was a drive-thru event where families could come out to take their pictures in front of the mural. This family engagement was designed to build a robust sense of a deeper community. 

Courtesy of WakeEd Partnership

The hybrid model has also brought about a considerable amount thought about what the future of school looks like from a leadership perspective. Items like open houses, IEP meetings, or parent-teacher conferences can now be offered online, which not only helps principals in their business model for school, but also assists and supports the parents and teachers.

Considerations for the new school year

As leaders, principals tend to put others before themselves. This often means considering the needs of their staff and students before they consider what they need. In order for principals to be effective at their jobs, they need teachers and students to feel supported.

As mentioned previously, principals have faced significant staffing concerns. This comes with multiple considerations: not having enough staff to teach the students in a hybrid model, not having enough staff to support class size requirements — particularly in elementary school classrooms — while maintaining social distancing guidelines, and not having enough substitute teachers to pull from when one is needed.

Moving forward, we should consider how we are supporting our building leaders to not only be effective in their positions, but also how they are being positioned to help their own staff and student populations be successful. This may mean allowing principals to guide more budgetary decisions, particularly related to teacher positions.

Additionally, we must listen to these principals as they are guiding us from their own observations. One of the principals interviewed shared how, as they have been back in the school building, they are noticing teachers and students wanting to do less with screens. “They’re over using screens to teach and learn,” said the principal.

This observation brought about a need for more access to hands-on materials in this school building. Those materials are currently lacking, both due to limited time to order materials and due to limited funding to support these efforts. 

At WakeEd Partnership, we recognize the value of school building leaders: the principals. We encourage all districts to acknowledge their experience and expertise, and to be wise in allowing them to take the helm in guiding what our next school year will look like. 

Douglas Price

Douglas Price is the Director of Programs for WakeEd Partnership, an independent nonprofit organization composed of business and community leaders committed to improving public education in Wake County. Douglas was the 2019 North Carolina Burroughs Wellcome Fund Charter School Teacher of the Year and is an educator of 12 years. Previously he served as a Hope Street Group Fellow: Teacher Advisory Council, EdAmbassador with EdNC, and participated in several key fellowships throughout NC, including Hope Street Group: Teacher Voice Network, the Kenan Fellows Program for Teacher Leadership, the Education Policy Fellowship Program (NC Public Forum), and the NC Collaborative (Duke Research Clinical Institute). He is a current Doctoral candidate at UNC-Greensboro in Educational Leadership.