Lessons in Leadership: In reopening prep, administrators move beyond ‘old way of doing things’

With the new school year fast approaching, principals and superintendents have a lot on their plates. Many are still navigating the extent to which they’ll reopen school buildings (if at all), weighing how to implement safety measures, planning how remote learning fits into the puzzle, ensuring robust professional development is in place, re-evaluating transportation routes, and so much more.

It’s a daunting task to say the least. We recently caught up with four principals and superintendents to learn more about where they see as their greatest challenges, as well as areas where they’re feeling comfortable. 

Richard Gordon

Principal at Paul Robeson High School in Philadelphia

My biggest concern this year will be how to provide our students a proper education while ensuring that their health and well-being are first and foremost in every decision we make. Health professionals all agree the reopening of schools should be based on how well we are able to control community spread. This is imperative, as our students are traveling from various parts of the city, and their exposure in their communities, on public transportation, and with their classmates is a grave concern in light of overall COVID-19 infections steadily rising in Philadelphia, in Pennsylvania and in the surrounding region.

Our students, teachers and support staff will be returning to school in September without us having a complete understanding or knowledge of the extent to which COVID-19 affects children or how infectious they are in terms of being “spreaders” of the virus, and our supplies needed to combat the virus are limited. Additionally, as a principal in an urban school system, our dilapidated, antiquated buildings are not equipped for proper ventilation nor proper social distancing. Without any type of air conditioning units in my building alone, it makes returning to school a real safety challenge for anyone who enters our building. 

The biggest lesson learned from the spring shutdown of schools was the importance of maintaining a connection with our students. It has been imperative for me and my amazing school staff to ensure during the spring shutdown, and through this summer, that we are just as focused on our students’ emotional well-being as we are on their academics. We must continually support them through the inevitable uncertainties of this “new normal” and be transparent in our conversations regarding what concerns them most.

When we restart school in September, it is my goal to improve our communications with our families and students. We must ensure we are as transparent as possible, and increase the number of updates and amount of information we are providing. Our families are highly concerned about safety over schools reopening, and in order to allay their fears — and our staff’s fears too — I must ensure I am doing the best job possible with maintaining open two-way communication with all stakeholders so we have a clear response to this crisis.

Shari Camhi

Superintendent of Baldwin Union Free School District in New York

The uncertainty going into this year is of great concern. We were shut down last year with a 48-hour notice. I think people are still in shock. We are preparing for full in-person, hybrid and complete virtual learning environments. Schools are very predictable places. [But] this pandemic has caused so much uncertainty both in and out of school.

We are dedicated to maintaining conditions that support the health and safety of our students and staff. I take this responsibility very seriously. It is of tremendous concern.

As educators, we are dedicated to properly supporting students academically, emotionally and socially. Ensuring our students are successful is of utmost importance. There is a concern that some students may not have made a full year’s growth during the 2019-2020 school year. We will, of course, meet them where they are, but we know we need to not only make up any lost learning but also keep them on course for a full year’s growth during the 2020-2021 school year. This is of utmost importance. 

I hope we do not see another closure. I remain optimistic and hopeful that we will see a springtime with full opening and 100% of students and staff back at full capacity.  

Equity and excellence are foundations of learning we pride ourselves in. We only had to give out 40 computers and internet devices at the start of the shutdown, but when it became clear this pandemic was going to last for the full school year, families could no longer share equipment. We were forced to move quickly to a 1:1 initiative for our grades 6-12 for this upcoming school year. Making sure our teachers were fully versed in the necessary software and technology and providing the appropriate professional learning is also a high priority.

Educators and everyone who works in our field are quick to learn and “step up to the plate” when needed. Our faculty and staff showed how innovative and creative they can be with our students instructionally, and in problem solving for all other issues. 

Lessons learned? Traditional instruction based on old concepts and practices are not as effective in the year 2020. The power of innovative, critical and creative thinking, connections and communication, and powerful relevant learning experiences were magnified during this crisis. There is an urgent need to update content, learning standards, and methods of assessing student learning.

We can no longer rely on the “old way of doing things.” It is time to update our practice, allow for educators to create experiences that are meaningful and relevant for our students. 

There needs to be a more coordinated and urgent effort to change what and how we engage students in learning.

Hamish Brewer

Principal at Fred M. Lynn Middle School in Woodbridge, Virginia

I am super excited to return to school, but I understand it’s going to look and feel different — that it’s just not going to look or be the same as we have been accustomed to. I miss my students and staff tremendously, but the priority has to be first and foremost student and staff safety, health and well-being.

Spring taught us so much about how resilient our students and staff are, how much we value one another through relationships and time together. Our staff displayed and operated nobly, with fortitude, perseverance and flexibility — keeping in mind our students as the focus and priority. I truly believe our communities saw and believed in the value of our schools, teachers and all educators do to contribute to helping their children aspire to great heights.

Going forward, it’s going to be critical to maintain a laser focus on our students and staff — health, safety and well-being, [and] ensuring equitable access to resources, services and instruction. As we approach the new year, we need to communicate effectively and openly with our stakeholders. There will be learning curves for many, including parents, and understanding that everyone has been touched by COVID in a variety of ways. It has affected students, staff and parents enormously, and we will have to show compassion and understanding.

All educators have learned so much about themselves during this period both professionally and personally [such as] their strengths and weaknesses, how they conduct and evaluate instruction. This experience is and has been a marathon. It’s not a sprint, and we have to remain positive, together and whole at the end.

We need to all continue to check in on one another, to lift each other up and be there in times of need, because we are going to still need one another as we progress back to school and the new kind of normal.

We have lived and worked through a global pandemic that has been historical and unprecedented. We need to applaud our communities and educators for the hurdle we continue to overcome each and every day. May the positive qualities of the human spirit continue to shine through!

Derek McCoy

Principal at North Asheboro Middle School in North Carolina

Going into the new school year, my main concern is on learners being safe. I’ll say I’m more concerned about learners being safe than our economics. Losing any lives is devastating. Losing lives of students is just horrible. Student safety is the primary concern. 

I know parents and teachers are frustrated not to have learners [physically] in front of their teachers. But I’ll take health over frustration any day.

Looking at the options, I am concerned about a full return to school. I just don’t see any numbers that make me feel safe about that. With the hybrid piece and the remote learning, that was hard and new for people because you just had to dive into the deep end of the pool without really knowing how to swim. We were literally treading water on that one. We are planning and we are doing things a whole lot better this go-around. 

The work, the interaction — it’s going to still be different, but it’ll be better. Particularly what we are working on here in Asheboro City Schools is we’re assuring our community that the interaction, the work, the monitoring, it will increase, and it will improve. The remote piece, we’re better at.

With the hybrid piece, we’re still at the point where we have to be concern about safety and contagion. That just stays in the back of my head. Whether we have all of our students back in the school building or half, that’s still a big number of kids to worry about. We can always improve on what we’re doing, and that’s what we’ll work on. 

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