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Principals: The Voice Too Seldom Heard in the Reopening Schools Debate

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Superintendents announce their districts' reopening plans, taking the inevitable slings and arrows no matter what they decide.

Teachers rally at school board meetings or organize highly visible social media campaigns to propel their sentiment and opinions into the public domain. Parents do as well.

But principals—the men and women who must actually operationalize any reopening scenario handed down to them—have been the least heard players in the divisive and complex debate over how to open schools this fall. 

A recent poll of school leaders found that just 35 percent of elementary school principals had been consulted "a lot" on their district's reopening planning process. Nine percent said they knew nothing about their districts' plans, according to the poll from the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

It's a glaring oversight of a critical player, argues the NAESP.

"The success of any reopening plan hinges on the extent to which those implementing the plan believe in it, had a hand in shaping it, and feel empowered to carry it out,"  the NAESP wrote in a brief highlighting how districts can tap into school leaders' expertise at a pivotal moment.

Indeed, as the K-12 leader closest to staff, students, and families, principals are likely to bear the brunt of pressure, worry, and dissatisfaction from parents and teachers as another unprecedented school year gets under way. They are the ones who will know what's working and what's not.

"We are the known quantity," said Derrick Lawson, the principal of Indio High School in the Desert Sands Unified district in Indio, Calif. "We are the face of the district to them."

Lawson said he channels his input on reopening plans through another high school principal who serves on the district's reopening taskforce. And his district holds weekly meetings with principals to provide updates.

Daniel Richards, the principal of Georgetown Middle/High School in Georgetown, Mass., agreed that without the principals' perspective some reopening requirements could be completely unworkable. 

"You need the persons who are involved in operations on a day-to-day basis to be part of those [reopening] decisions," said Richards, who is involved in reopening discussions in his district and with other principals in the region.

One example? The recommendation from state officials advising schools to keep students in the same cohorts. That, Richards said, is "much more complicated for high school students than it is for elementary. I would be able to provide the voice that says, 'yes, at the elementary level, you can do cohorts easily as the kids move through the building and keep in a cluster.' When you get to the high school level, some kids move to English class, some are now moving on to AP science, art class, gym class—it's impossible to keep that cohort together... ." 

Principals are also grappling with the big responsibilities they feel for keeping teachers, staff, and students safe—and how they can pay for everything that it will take to safeguard health and well-being.

Parents Are Reaching Out to Principals

The reopening committee in the Desert Sands school district, where Lawson is principal, includes principal and teacher representatives. He also feels that the teachers, three of whom serve on the teachers' union executive committee, are able have their say in the reopening through regular meetings with the teachers' association's president.

"I feel like I have a voice, whether or not I have a particular parent or staff member on those task forces," he said. "I have ways to be represented."

The district conducted a survey to gather input from parents to help guide their reopening decisions and has used live broadcasts on Facebook and YouTube to communicate with parents, Lawson said. (In the end, with coronavirus cases rising in California, Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered schools in areas with high infection rates to start the school year online. The district will transition to a hybrid format when conditions change, though parents can choose to stick with remote learning for the entire school year, according to the district.)

But even with those opportunities to participate on the district level, parents have reached out to Lawson with their concerns, including questions about how schedules could accomodate families with children in different grades and whether school meals would be provided to kids on days when they're scheduled to work at home.

"My families rely on that for survival," said Lawson, whose school, where 91 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-priiced meals, is the district's largest food distribution site. "We have families right now that are in survival mode. And that is going to continue to be critical for them because they work either in the service industry or settings that have been closed that makes it really difficult."

Principals are also juggling the needs of staff members, who may be in at-risk categories or have family members who are.   

"They are eager to teach their kids," Lawson said. "They are dedicated, but at the same time they are worried themselves about whether there will be enough PPE.  Will there be enough sanitizer? What are the plans for sanitizing and keeping me COVID-free because I have to go home at night to take care of a parent or a medically-fragile parent or a medically-fragile child?"

Focus on Trauma and Equity

Knowing principals are juggling a lot of demands, the National Association of Secondary School Principals launched a re-entry committee to create a kind of clearinghouse for resources to help principals as they get ready for the new year—and also get support and resources on what's working from peers.

The group has settled on some key areas of focus after getting feedback from school leaders across country: trauma, equity, students' learning and mental health needs, and resources on how to communicate effectively with their communities.

Equity, including ensuring that not only teachers and students have computer and internet access, but also guaranteeing that teachers are trained in the digital tools to deliver high-quality instruction, are critically important for the group, Lawson said.  And the conversation around equity must also take into account the gap in access between urban and rural students, not just race and income, he said.

Although Lawson's district provided Chromebooks and Mi-Fi to students, the Mi-Fi didn't work in some cases for children who live in rural areas and in other cases, the internet connection was so spotty students were not able to watch videos or participate in live sessions.

"We walked into closures back in March," said Lawson, who is on the NASSP re-entry committee. "Every school across the country had to turn on a dime. When we go back into the fall, we want to make sure we are creating those checklists and protocols as things come up to make sure we are not leaving something out."

Even still, principals can't assume that everyone has been affected the same way, and must create nuanced approaches to help their students.  And with the best laid plans, there's still anxiety about the uncertain future.

"We're all in this together, but at the same time we are all on a different journey," Richards said. "Some people have had very traumatic experiences in their personal lives; some have just been inconvenienced. But we all come in with some sort of fear. If I can relax that fear with students and adults, then people are going to teach, students are going to learn. My job is to reduce that fear for students and adults."

Image: Getty


If you have questions that could use some expert perspective, send them to The Principal Is In, bi-monthly advice column written by two seasoned school leaders. Send it to [email protected], and check back to see if it appears in an upcoming column.

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