For education reporters writing about the impact of COVID-19 on school communities, it makes sense to pay close attention to the experiences of teachers, students, and families. But the principal often sets the tone for the school community, and helps shape and influence the campus climate in important ways.
During the pandemic, principals had to reimagine how schools operate, deliver instruction, serve students, and provide key programs and services.
They also have to serve many often conflicting constituencies – parents, teachers, superintendents, and elected school board officials. That can make them understandably reluctant to make anything but the blandest of public statements.
So when The New York Times asked me to coordinate a conversation among four principals from across the country, I wondered how openly they would respond to questions about their experiences leading their schools through the pandemic. As it turns out, they were remarkably candid about the challenges, shortfalls, and lessons learned from what’s been one of the most challenging periods for public schools in recent memory.
Among the big takeaways from our conversation: the lessons of the pandemic will stay with these school leaders well beyond the next academic year.
You can read my full conversation with Principals Jennifer Bellinger of Oak Ridge High School in Orlando, Charleston Brown of San Francisco’s Willie Brown Middle School, Deborah Rogers of St. Louis’ Patrick Henry Downtown Academy, and Derek Hamilton of Pittsfield Middle High School in N.H., here.
In the meantime, I wanted to share some questions informed by the discussion, which might be useful to education reporters in covering the transition to the next academic year.
Questions Education Reporters Should Ask School Leaders:
- How have relationships changed between you and your staff? One example: Bellinger, whose school serves nearly 2,500 students, said she relied more heavily on her custodial and food service staff than in the past. They were essential to following stricter health and safety protocols.
- Did you find any unexpected allies during the pandemic, whether in the public or the private sector? Rogers of St. Louis told me she had no idea how many community organizations were willing to step in and make sure her students had enough to eat at home. She’ll be relying on them even after the pandemic school days have passed.
- What school programs or services developed out of necessity during the pandemic that you’d like to see continued, such as remote learning? For Pittsfield, the pandemic turned just about every adult on campus into a de facto IT troubleshooter. He expects to ramp up training for staff as the school continues to offer a remote learning option for students who request it.
- What will you be doing this summer to get ready for the fall, and how will it be different from other years? For many families, helping students catch up on basic skills is a top priority. Find out what your local school districts will be offering.
- Where did your school community fall short in its pandemic response, and where did it rise to the occasion? This can be a painful question to answer, but it’s also a chance to point to silver linings, lessons learned or moments of joy. Encourage the school leaders with whom you speak to seize the opportunity.