First Things First

Social Distancing in Practice
Empty classroom with social distancing information on chairs

As the COVID-19 pandemic shut down brick-and-mortar schools in March, school administrators and teachers scrambled to continue teaching in a virtual setting, learning many lessons along the way. As some school buildings have reopened, school principals have had the challenge of setting and redefining priorities. We spoke with three principals, Kerensa Wing, NASSP 2020 National Principal of the Year and principal of Collins Hill High School in Suwanee, GA; Donald Gately, principal of Jericho Middle School in Jericho, NY; and Jonathan Apostol, principal of Monett Middle School in Monett, MO, to analyze their first steps to ensure safety and continued learning in their school communities. Principal Leadership senior editor Christine Savicky moderated the discussion.

Savicky: What were some of the great ideas that came out of virtual learning—the silver lining, so to speak? 

Wing: One of the first silver linings is that it forced our teachers to realize the depth and strength of the digital tools that we have available for them, and it helped them see how they could use them every day. We use Brightspace—the same platform that our colleges use in Georgia—to get our high school students familiar with the platform and be ready to take online classes in college or elsewhere. Our teachers have used aspects of the Brightspace platform in the classroom, but this pandemic really forced everybody to dig in and learn what those platforms could actually do. Additionally, our teachers did not utilize or know how to utilize our virtual conferencing tools—Google Meet and Zoom—to their fullest extent. The teachers have really realized the power of those. We have 45–50 percent of our students on free and reduced-price lunch, and now our teachers see a way to use those conferencing tools to help students do review sessions after school for those who have to ride the bus home. When the students get off the bus at home, they can hop on their phone and do a review session live with the teacher. All of our students have access to Google Classroom as well, so another bright spot is being able to teach the students how to use those digital tools.

Gately: I certainly saw a tremendous jump in innovation among teachers and also among leaders. There were some educators who already were extremely tech-forward, and I think they had the easiest time jumping in. But I saw many teachers, perhaps, who may have been resistant or even well-intentioned but just hadn’t taken the dive into the deep end of the pool as far as technology and the use of technology went. I guess through necessity they’ve adapted and learned many new tech tools.

Apostol: One silver lining was that virtual teaching made our teachers very flexible and fluid. Another piece that came out during the two months that we were away was that both our students and our teachers strived for social interaction. We had Google Meets that students would jump into. They were excited to see their teacher and classmates. The final piece that I thought was a great silver lining was kind of twofold. Parents had a greater appreciation for our teachers and had a renewed appreciation for all the things that go into the planning and the teaching of students, especially after parents had that second job of being the parent but also the teacher. Our school made a point of recognizing the parents as well, thanking them for stepping into the role of teacher helper. It’s really continued to keep our bonds between our school and our community very strong.

Savicky: What’s going to be your first priority when you reopen?

Wing: Our district is very focused on doing teaching and learning from day one, but I am going to take some time to reacclimate students to really provide some time for building relationships again with teachers and with other students, and having some discussion about the learning that they did—or did not do—while they were out. Giving them an opportunity to voice what they experienced is important because everybody had a different experience, and the teachers need to hear that. We practiced grace, and we used a lot of flexibility at the end of the semester, but a lot of the students who were struggling did not voice that to their teachers. I need the teachers to really hear what the kids were struggling with so that they know how to adjust, and if we were to have a flare-up or a hot spot where we’ll have to be back to digital again, we need to be better at it the second time.

Gately: I won’t be the first one to coin this term, but I think “relationships” is the fourth “R” in education. I think that those face-to-face, hug-to-hug relationships—I’m a middle school principal, and we hug our kids, we high-five them, we fist-bump them. I think all of those interactions contribute in a huge part to the relationships that we have with kids. I think that restoring those connections will probably be the first priority.

Apostol: [We] will begin by doing some groundwork … making sure that the social and emotional status of our students and our staff are OK. That’s the biggest piece. When schools abruptly ended, we had a two-week [break], what we called a “wellness break,” so that the district could readjust and make sure that we had everything ready for our students and their families. What we were unable to do was to continue to check on the pulse of our students, especially when they had parents who experienced a job loss, or the loss of a relative, possibly due to COVID-19. Those are those instances where, as they return, we’re trying to make sure that their social-emotional needs are met. We want the students to know that we overcame this challenge together, and we’re stronger together as we move forward.

Savicky: What systemic changes do you think are going to be made to public education as a result of the pandemic?

Wing: I know we’ll constantly be cleaning. Right now, we are putting in hand sanitizer options at the end of every hallway so students can have regular access to it. I’m installing water-bottle fillers in lieu of water fountains so the kids can have access to water. And we’re going to have to have one-way hallways, which I’m excited about trying at a high school of 3,000. Systemically, though, as a nation, we need to discuss if an internet connection needs to be a necessity like water and electricity. That’s been a big barrier. Some of our students didn’t have internet access, or they didn’t have a device. We’re not a 1:1 district; we did provide devices for those who needed them, but they had to be able to pick up a phone and request one. We also couldn’t get ahold of some of our folks over the phone, either. We sent about 40 snail mail letters, and I received one response. You know that “digital divide” that everybody talks about? To me, that’s systemic. We’re in a digital age, but not everybody has access to it.

Gately: Something that I have a real passion for is standards-based grading. One item that has been brought into high relief for me is the deficiencies in our system of conventional grading. You saw it when you saw our districts adopt so-called “no-harm” grading, or “do-no-harm” practices when it came to grading. I think that during our quarantine/remote school conditions, the role of conventional grading practices—as being a vehicle to bring about student compliance rather than a vehicle for giving kids and families honest feedback on their learning—that very much became exposed. Over time, I’d love for us to scrutinize our grading practices and see them for what they are.

Apostol: The initial timing of the outbreak and what transpired in terms of a lot of states across the nation pressing the pause button on standardized testing is interesting. Standardized testing creates a strain on everyone. Realistically, if there is a way that we can show student growth on an annual basis without the use of a standardized test—even though it’s a federal account-ability measure—that would be a major change. The other systemic change that would be helpful is some sort of an assurance of adequate funding. I’m blessed to be in a school district that has a pretty good industrial base that kept us going, and—with respect to our free and reduced-price lunch status and our ESL population—that has helped us with some funding, but there are some other districts that are overrelying on summer school to help fund their next school year. Loss in funding has become a big factor for other school districts. Ensuring continued federal aid for struggling districts would be a great change.

Savicky: How were you able to handle complying with the students’ IEPs? Do you now think that the federal law regarding those students who have IEPs or 504 plans should change?

Wing: Complying with IEPs and 504s was very difficult, because they are written for a face-to-face setting. If we’re going to be held to compliance with IEPs, we really need to think about how to write them in such a way that they could be face to face or digital. Our students with disabilities probably struggled more than any other group outside of our English-language learners, and we did the best we could. We provided extended time on assignments and on assessments. We provided extra support via virtual conferencing, but really, our students who are in our self-contained rooms where they’re having to do hand-over-hand instruction and those types of things, there was no way to do that. It is really for our students who are most severely disabled that we had the most difficulty fulfilling IEPs.

Gately: I have read that advocacy groups are actually concerned about seeing major changes in the 504 and IEP guidelines at the federal level, because they’re concerned about losing the safeguards that our children with disabilities presently have. I will admit, as a principal, I’ve seen the challenges that are faced by our IEP kids during the quarantine. There’s been a number of pieces in the literature about the fact that a certain segment of kids with IEPs or a 504 plan actually thrived during quarantine. That includes some of our IEP kids who, by taking away the rigid structure of a bell schedule and taking away that kind of distraction, it was helpful to them. But overall, I think it was quite a challenge for those youngsters who get accommodations and have teacher aides in the classroom. In our integrated co-teaching model classes, it was a struggle for our teachers to meet the needs of those students. If the school closures continue long term, the federal regulations need to be reevaluated, but it needs to be done cautiously.

Apostol: Even though we’re rural, we do have a special education director, and she was the one in charge of assuring our special education teachers of the supports that are needed for all of our students. She was really instrumental in ensuring that those pieces were in place. Our teachers, during our virtual instruction, did several different one-on-one check-ins or small group check-ins to try and keep those minutes as active as possible. It has been really good to have someone else who is well-versed in IEPs and 504s and how we sustain that even during virtual instruction.

In terms of the federal law changing, or regarding changing it, if we have students with IEPs or 504s, as long as the law still provides flexibility for schools, there may not be much of any changes that need to happen. But if it becomes very strict in terms of what schools are able to provide but is at a financial disadvantage to be able to do that, that’s where the difficulty will lie.

Savicky: What do you think the effect on students will be regarding the greater freedom they’re enjoying in terms of doing their schoolwork and structuring their own days?

Wing: We already have an online campus. We have campuses that do evening classes. So, we have those choices built in. What I’ve seen is that—when we went virtual—most of the students replied with, “We didn’t sign up to be online students!” They really treasure the social interactions and the interactive aspect of school, and they miss it. I think they will definitely value that in a different way when they return. I do think that we will have some students, though, who want that choice and flexibility. They’d never [have] chosen online learning, but they’d also never experienced it. So, we’re going to have to think this through: Do we offer online settings at each campus? Do we offer students online classes and let them come in later if that better fits their schedule?

I do have an online campus center on my campus. It’s one classroom with a facilitator. The facilitator is not the teacher of record; those are run through the district’s online campus, but there is a place for students to have access and technology. I give up my FTE [full-time equivalent] funding for that, but it’s important for kids to have that flexibility. And it gives me some flexibility if I need a second-semester class offered during first semester. I just started this program last year, and I anticipate more students who will want some type of mixed schedule. I have some junior- and senior-level hybrid classes as well. We usually put those classes at the beginning or end of the school day so they can come in late or leave early. The students have really liked it, and that’s just been a choice that we’ve offered.

Gately: To circle back to my discussion about grading, we adopted a so-called “pass-fail” grading system for the end of the year. That is such a forgiving model because as far as their compliance, when you do that, all you’re left with is the learning. So, I do think that that will lead us to a greater embrace of self-directed approaches and competency-based approaches. At the same time, I think students have really learned to treasure their relationships with their teachers and hopefully their principals, too, during this time when we’re not together every day.

Apostol: During the first two weeks of the shutdown, I encountered more emails from students asking, “So, first-period class? What class do I need to report to? How many classes do I need to go to? How is this going to work?” Many of our students initially struggled with the unstructured day. For students in schools, it’s the bell that begins or ends classes. Students move to the next class, and when the bell rings, they go to the next class. At a specific time, they have lunch, and at the end of the day when the bell rings, they leave. When they transitioned into virtual learning, even with our support, flip videos, and YouTube videos on how to organize their day, students still struggled with that structure. They eventually got better, but initially they did struggle. They enjoyed the greater freedom but needed structure.

If we need to move online again, they will be more prepared for it. We’re going to get some students who will benefit from a competency-based approach because of their initiative and their drive, and whether they’re learning within a brick-and-mortar building or learning virtually, there’s an internal drive that keeps them moving. But then there are students who, on a weekly basis, continually check in with their teachers, making sure that they are not lost, so I think you have to have a combination of both, of trying to ensure that the student who needs acceleration is able to do that, while still providing support for students who are struggling.

Savicky: What will the impact be if 5, 3, or even 1 percent of the parents decide that they want something different after this? For instance, if they prefer homeschooling to the previous status quo, or if they want less adherence to seat time and more of a matter-based approach to learning?

Wing: If the parents make that decision, our school district has options for them to make that decision within the public school setting. I’ve already provided some of those options for students here. If they come in and want this, I can provide some of that for them. If they decide to leave the public school system, then it will impact our funding. We’re already looking at that because of the decreased state funding that we’re facing from the recession. We’re getting a 10 percent budget cut; we know that already. We’ll get a finalized district budget after our state legislature meets, so we really don’t know what our budget will look like for this upcoming year. I can tell you because of the pandemic our kindergarten numbers are at about 25–30 percent of what they normally are for enrollments. That’s been the biggest impact that I think we’ve seen. We’re just waiting to see if those students will choose to come to public school.

Gately: As a public school, we are always going to be bound to a consistent approach. Whatever consensus we come to, that will have to be the consistent model. We will have some students and families make the decision to homeschool their children because of COVID-19, which is to be expected. There is also a cottage industry out there of folks to provide teaching support for families that has grown during this time, whether it’s a passive approach—here’s the materials, go to it—or the tutoring services or paid-for type of approaches. Some of those businesses have really thrived during this time. It’s possible that they can fill a certain gap, but at the end of the day, we’ll have to come up with a consensus on what the approach will be. Some parents will not agree with that consensus, and there will be an awkward debate. But eventually, I think we’ll reach some kind of compromised consensus that most everyone can be happy with.

Apostol: Missouri has established a “cost to educate a student,” based on the average daily attendance, so we take that into account based on our funding. If a school loses between 1 and 5 percent of the student population, it will impact the district budget. In our district, we have about 2,300 students, so a drop of 1 percent of students is just 23. It doesn’t sound like much, but if you say that each student “costs” $5,000 in our budget, that’s $115,000. So, our true cost is $115,000. In terms of salary and benefits—which is about 80 percent of our budget—that’s about two teachers. We don’t want to lose our teachers.

If we have parents who choose homeschooling—and they have every right to do that—we’re always going to offer a virtual option for them so that they can stay connected with our district. That way, our teachers are still interacting with that student, and if they elect to come back to school, then that transition would be smoother.

Savicky: Do you think that education will fare better in future federal aid packages? Dollar figures are being touted, but beyond addressing the digital divide, what are the big ideas that political coalitions can rally behind? 

Wing: Outside of the digital divide, I believe that political coalitions can rally behind enhanced teacher and leader training for how to support students and teach effectively on a digital platform. The sudden shift to digital learning has exposed the gaps with new and experienced teachers in pedagogy and how that may need to shift in a digital setting. We need funding and time to enhance training for current teachers and universities that will need to shift their teacher preparation programs to include more training for engaging students in a digital setting. The other struggle states are facing is fully funding our schools as state budgets are cut across the board due to loss of revenue with the recession. Federal aid could be used to fill in the gaps until our economy begins to recover, so we can at least staff our schools at current levels to meet community expectations of class sizes and educational services.

Gately: I definitely think that we’re going to need a major stimulus package to help backfill the loss of state aid that we are experiencing due to the coronavirus. I’m in New York, and this is going to significantly affect our school budgets. We’re really hoping for infusions of support from the federal level through the stimulus packages for education. With an election coming up, I certainly hope that that will be given a tremendous amount of attention. It’s more than the digital divide—I think it’s teachers and classrooms. It’s class size. When I look across my region and I look across Long Island, I have colleagues talking about significant cuts in staffing due to the anticipated state shortfall in funding.

Apostol: The CARES [Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security] Act was a great federal package that helped, but it really did not close that gap in terms of where funding was guaranteed and where the CARES Act stopped. If enrollment continues to increase and our budget decreases, and we end up having to lose staff members over this, the hardest piece would be trying to keep that classroom size where it needs to be. If political coalitions can look at it from a point of equity, that is going to be the biggest driver of federal aid.

With that said, when you talk about equity, it’s not just about the digital divide because we know that there are districts out there that only allow their devices to remain at school. But when you talk about equity, you’ve got to look at it from a lot of different perspectives, from high SES [socioeconomic status] to low SES. For our English-language learners, we have to look at it from an angle in terms of equity and providing the support that they need as they transition into the community. And we must maintain equity for our IEP population. Whether it be a small school district, large school district, rural school district, urban school district, or suburban—if you look at it from the equity standpoint and trying to provide as much quality education as you can in each of those different backgrounds, I think political coalitions could take a look at that and say, “I can agree with that.” Equity is important for all kids in our public schools.

Disclaimer: Interview occurred in June.