In the middle of March 2020, schools across America closed abruptly. It didn’t take long to notice everything that disappeared — a safe place to send children while parents worked, nutritious meals and health services for high-need students, opportunities for young people to play and socialize with one another.
We invited several principals to share what it was like to navigate their schools through this crisis. We sought out leaders of public schools from different parts of the country with varying pandemic experiences: a combined middle and high school in the small town of Pittsfield, N.H.; an elementary school in a poor neighborhood near downtown St. Louis; a middle school in San Francisco that stayed shut for more than a year; and a large and diverse high school in Central Florida, one of the first states to reopen all of its K-12 campuses.
In our conversation, the principals talked about how there’s a renewed sense of appreciation for the role schools play as community anchors. As Deborah Rogers, principal of Patrick Henry Downtown Academy in St. Louis put it, a school “provides service after service after service.” That, she said, was “a hard thing for people not in education to see until it was all taken away.”
But there’s also work to be done to rebuild trust — between families and schools, administration and staff, teachers and students. The lessons of the pandemic can help spur school leaders to rethink how and where students learn, what teachers and staff members need, and how to nurture lasting connections between schools and the communities they serve.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.
School: Oak Ridge High School, Orlando, Fla.
Pandemic operating status: All virtual from mid-March 2020 to the end of that school year. In the fall, students had the option of coming back in person or continuing with remote learning.
Number of students: 2,495
Percent low income: 57
School: Patrick Henry Downtown Academy, St. Louis
Pandemic operating status: All virtual from mid-March 2020 to last October. Sixty percent of students then came back in person while 40 percent chose to remain remote.
Number of students: 211
Percent low income: 99
School: Willie L. Brown Jr. Middle School, San Francisco
Pandemic operating status: All virtual from mid-March 2020 to April 2021, when the school reopened for the highest-needs students.
Number of students: 270
Percent low income: 79
School: Pittsfield Middle High School, Pittsfield, N.H.
Pandemic operating status: All virtual from mid-March 2020 to last October. The school reopened in the fall with two days per week of in-person instruction. Families also had the option to be entirely remote. By April, students were back in school five days a week.
Number of students: 281
Percent low income: 45
When everything changed
Emily Richmond: What is the specific moment when you knew that your school would not go back to the way it was before?
Jennifer Bellinger: It was when we went home for spring break and the students didn’t come back. It was just an empty building with me and the administrators and the cafeteria staff, and you’re used to having over 2,500 students on your campus. And then we had to start serving food to families as they drove up. I knew at that point it wouldn’t be the same.
Deborah Rogers: Yeah, we thought we were on an extended spring break. We said: “Oh, we’re not going to come back for one week. Oh, we’re not going to come back for two weeks.”
It wasn’t really until the district said: “We’re not coming back. And also we have this crazy plan to use technology so that we don’t have to come back for the rest of the school year.” That was a first.
Charleston Brown: The real “aha” moment for myself was thinking about all of our kids who are usually late or were already slipping through the cracks. When I realized that we were going 100 percent virtual, my initial thought was: “How many kids are we going to lose? How many parents are we going to lose?”
Derek Hamilton: In the spring it was the moment when all of a sudden we made the pivot to remote learning.
The other turning point was in the fall when we thought things would become a little bit more normalized. And they were anything but. I recall a moment back in September. Usually when our students transition to lunch, I’m accustomed to a couple of hundred kids walking down the hall. But then it was really more like 30, 40 kids coming down the hall periodically, not necessarily all at once, and sitting in a cafeteria, one at a table, two at a table. And it was unlike anything I’d ever experienced in a school cafeteria.
“How are we going to keep people safe?”
Richmond: When you were deciding whether to reopen school buildings, what were some of the top concerns you were hearing from your teachers?
Brown: The top concern I heard was,: “What are the expectations around students in masks? What is the district going to do and what is the school going to do for students who are not following the mask mandate?”
Another concern was transportation. Is the district going to be providing transportation for staff not willing to take public transportation?
Bellinger: My teachers, they were concerned about the number of students that they would have in their classes.
There were concerns also with the mask policy. Everyone was mandated to wear masks. Are we going to monitor and make sure students are wearing masks?
Rogers: A lot of our questions from teachers were logistical in nature, very similar to Charleston and Jennifer: “Are you actually going to do what you say you’re going to do? Is the district going to stand by its policies?” And I think the deeper question was: “Is the district actually keeping me safe? And do they value me as an adult, as a staff member, as a human?”
Hamilton: I can echo a lot of what everyone said. I think you ask, “How are we going to keep people safe?”
Richmond: What were the top concerns you were hearing from parents and families?
Brown: Learning loss was a top tier, especially when it comes to math and writing.
I would say a close second was student-to-student interactions and engagement. How is it possible to create a virtual atmosphere for kids to engage with each other?
Rogers: Technology was a massive concern, mostly because it’s not just our parents who needed the technology orientation, it was the grandparents and the aunts and uncles that children were staying with during the day. For a lot of our families, the kid was going to be with somebody different every day.
Once we came back in person, I had two extremes. One was a parent who said: “How can you possibly keep my child safe? There’s just no way that we could possibly come back in person.” The other extreme was: “Please, when are you reopening? I’ve got my multiple jobs and I don’t have anywhere to put my child.” Balancing those two made messaging very difficult because you were trying to be sensitive to both groups.
Hamilton: In March and April of last year, everybody was technology troubleshooting, not just our I.T. staff, but our teachers, our school administrators.
The challenge became a little different in the fall when we reopened, when we were only offering an in-person instruction two days a week. For parents, it was, “How do I manage the other three days a week?”
“At first families felt very much abandoned by us”
Richmond: Do you believe families gained trust in their schools, lost trust, or a combination?
Hamilton: In spring 2020, I think the community was extremely supportive, grateful for teachers and schools for providing the resources that students needed to work remotely. It became strained when remote learning continued through the end of last year and kids were trying to wrap up their courses and get their credits.
The community’s trust was challenged again in the fall. For some, reopening made them a little bit uneasy, not necessarily knowing what the protocols would look like, whether or not they would be strictly adhered to and followed by students and staff members at school. And it just created a bit of unease and stress. “Do I or don’t I send my son or daughter back to school, not exactly knowing what it looks like?”
Rogers: We started off with a pretty significant loss of trust because the communication was so difficult. We rely heavily on home visits and in-person communication. And all of a sudden in the pandemic we couldn’t do that.
I think at first families felt very much abandoned by us. We typically provide two meals a day, if not three. Now all of a sudden that’s gone. In trying to become a mobile food site, we were trying to do it so fast and we didn’t do it perfectly.
In the fall we came out in droves. My leadership team and I, we did hundreds of home visits in the first three months of school just to physically see our families and our students. That really helped us regain trust because the communication was there again. And it was really beautiful to reconnect with everybody.
Richmond: Let’s talk about how the pandemic has affected you personally and professionally. Who has been at home with you during the pandemic? And how did that shape or influence some of your experiences?
Brown: I have a 6-year-old, a 3-year-old and a 5-month-old. And then my wife works from home two days a week and my father-in-law comes in and helps out.
It definitely allowed me to put things in perspective. There’s one thing that we know for sure in this field: No matter how long you stay at school, there’s always something to do. So this allowed me to realize that family time is very important.
I have quite a few teachers who are on the brink of retirement. And what they often tell me is, “Mr. Brown, don’t use all of your energy and all of your love at the school site and forget about your children at home.” A lot of educators pour so much into the field that at home they have nothing else to give their kids. I realized that there has to be very clear boundaries. Even though our hearts are always for the kids we’re serving, we have to bring something home. Because if not, then burnout is real.
More appreciation for all that schools do
Richmond: Obviously, many parents can’t work if their children aren’t in school. Do any of you feel like this is a time of a renewed appreciation for schools?
Brown: I think parents, and maybe even the world, appreciate the work that educators do, boots on the ground on the front lines.
Rogers: I think that our community — both our actual school community of parents and neighbors and also the larger American culture — realize exactly how much a school provides for every single child in the building. We are a one-stop shop for a lot of families for medical care, counseling, trauma therapy, education, connections, relationships, all the extracurriculars, sports, just all kinds of things.
And when all of that was removed, so many people realized that a teacher is not just a teacher who’s giving a lesson on a specific content area. The classroom teacher plays 17 different roles in the classroom and the principal plays so many roles as an administrator. And then the district is also providing service after service after service. That’s a hard thing for people not in education to see until it was all taken away.
Richmond: For the next question, I want your answer as close as you can to one sentence: What decision did you make that you wish you could change? Is there something, if you look back, you would do differently?
Brown: I would place more love and compassion on the teachers.
Bellinger: I would have started reaching out to students who weren’t engaging sooner.
Rogers: I would have reached every single family before the start of the school year.
Hamilton: If I could have a do over, it would be in the way that we grouped students in the fall when we returned for hybrid learning.
Richmond: Can you elaborate just a little bit on that?
Hamilton: We really stuck to the idea of keeping students in pods. And it presented a number of challenges for us where students did not have the access to teachers that they needed to be successful. And we found that come November, we had to make a change to that. We were almost sticking too tightly to the health and safety protocols at the beginning and, at a detriment to our instructional practice.
Richmond: Well, I gave you a sentence, and now I’m giving you only one word: What is one word you would use to describe your pandemic experience?
Richmond: What’s one word for how you feel looking forward to the next school year?
Hamilton: I can’t think of a better word than excited.
Bellinger: I was trying to find a different word, but I’m excited.
Rogers: Ready. I actually feel prepared, finally.
Brown: I’m optimistic.
Emily Richmond is the public editor of the Education Writers Association and hosts the EWA Radio podcast.
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