When School Buildings Are Closed: The First Few Weeks

On Tuesday, March 10, I was meeting with my instructional leadership team after school for our regular monthly meeting when I was alerted that an email just came in from our superintendent about COVID-19. Effective immediately, all after-school activities, assemblies, and events were cancelled. School would continue during the day as normal, but no guests would be allowed on campus. The email was sent to the entire district: staff, students, and parents. There was no warning, no call to the principals to prepare us. This was a sudden mandate we needed to respond to.

A Sudden Shock

I was shocked by the suddenness of this all. We had been following the news, and in Pasadena, CA, we knew we were in an area with lots of travelers and people, so likely more at risk, but I did not expect such a mandate at that time. It was nearly 5:00 p.m., and my instructional leadership team started asking me questions for which I had no answers. Our school musical, Chicago, was rehearsing down the hall in the auditorium. Opening night was in two days. I left the meeting and found the musical director flummoxed as he had just read the email and asked me what to do.

With no time to prepare or organize my thoughts, I walked into the auditorium. The students were dressed in their costumes, preparing for rehearsal. The band was warming up. Parents, excited to see the principal, rushed up to me to express their excitement for opening night. I was introduced to grandparents who had flown in from Amsterdam and Tennessee just that morning to see their grandchildren perform. A mere 10 minutes after the superintendent’s mandate, I gathered the students and let them know that the musical would be canceled or postponed indefinitely due to the outbreak of COVID-19; the months of sweat and work would not be seen. There were tears and lots of questions with few answers as the students tried to make sense of what was happening around them. Amazingly, they were gracious and thanked me profusely despite the news I was sharing.

This same conversation was repeated multiple times over the next few days with the student clubs whose spring break trips were cancelled, the athletes whose seasons were cancelled, and the student leadership members whose planned activities were cancelled. Soon the NBA cancelled the season and the NCAA tournament was cancelled, and what was a surprise just a few days earlier by its suddenness was now a part of our lives. The announcement the following Friday that the school would transition to distance learning seemed like a foregone conclusion.

Transitioning to Online Learning

Fortunately, my district had a great plan for online learning. All secondary students already had Chromebooks, and the district had been providing hotspots to families without internet access throughout the year. A majority of teachers had online platforms set up. On Day One of online learning, the teachers physically reported to work for a districtwide webinar to set expectations. The tech leads had spent the previous weekend posting tutorial videos for teachers on different platforms.

As principal, I felt the best thing I could do was to find ways to maintain connectivity between staff, students, teachers, and families. On the first day, I met virtually with every department and we set up virtual meetings twice a week. These virtual meetings have been transformative. During the meetings, I just observe and listen. The teachers are sharing strategies for online platforms, ways to increase online engagement, and how they are connecting with families. Teachers are also virtually meeting on their own to train some of their Luddite colleagues on new tools they can use. I have an excellent teaching staff, and never have I been more in awe and impressed with them than I have in their ability to transition so quickly and suddenly to distance learning. Teachers have shared that they have never collaborated more with colleagues than they have over these past few weeks. We have since set up virtual meetings with our paraprofessionals, too, to keep them engaged.

Through these meetings, we discovered the need to make a schedule for ourselves as many teachers were hosting “live” lectures. To prevent ourselves from scheduling lectures at the same time we created a schedule for live events:

9:00–10:00 a.m.—ELA/ELD

10:00–11:00 a.m.—Social Science

11:30 a.m.–12:30 p.m.—Science

12:30–1:30 p.m.—Math

2:30–3:30 p.m.—VAPA and PE

3:30–4:30 p.m.—World Language

Virtual Communication

The student leadership kept Spirit Week going, encouraging students and families to participate virtually and tag us on social media.

I have since taken to sending out daily emails to the entire community. I feel they need to know the school is still here to support them. As the public face of the school, it is important that people stay connected with me. So in each email, I give updates, words of encouragement, a poem for the soul, and a video. I have very little talent, so the videos are not masterpieces. Nor do I spend much time on them—what you see is always the only take. It’s just me having fun, trying to bring smiles to people’s faces, and letting them know that the school is still here.

Day 1—An introduction

Day 2—St. Patrick’s Day

Day 3—A special cheer

Day 4—The Office

Day 5—My one-man version of Chicago

Day 6—Monochromatic Monday

Day 7—Twin Day with my dog

Day 8—Sports Day

Day 9—Class colors

Day 10—Pajama Day

I also did a longer video over spring break.

Despite hearing about COVID-19 on the news for months, the school closure and cancellation of activities felt abrupt. The teachers were truly the rock stars as they adapted to the transition, and we were strengthened by a district that already had a strong technology initiative. My heart hurts for the seniors who will not return in time for prom, grad night, and graduation—the rites of passage they have been looking forward to, seemingly yanked from them through no fault of their own. We continue to work to try to do something for them, some way to acknowledge the accomplishment of completing high school, including holding the ceremonies during the summer, if possible.

By nature, as a principal, parents send me complaints or suggestions on how we can improve. It is rarer to have someone send a compliment. Since we have transitioned to online learning, each day in my inbox are multiple messages from families praising their teachers and the school. In this pandemic, the mood around the school has never been more positive. Through the fire and difficulty of this time, our metal has been forged, and we are now even stronger and more united as a school community.

Mark Anderson is principal of Marshall Fundamental Secondary School in Pasadena, CA. He is the 2019 California Principal of the Year.

6 Comments

  • Kevin M Grawer says:

    Fantastic article Mark that summarizes what so much of us are feeling. However, it takes a special skill that I lack to create your level of videos!

    • Mark Anderson says:

      Kevin, I just try to learn from great leaders like yourself who I look up to. We’re all working together.

  • Carol Conklin says:

    Well done Mark, you captured the challenges that many principals are experiencing and showed how to lead with style and grace, providing kids with continuity and hope. Loved your Spirit Week!

  • Mark Anderson says:

    Thank you Carol. You are the epitome of style and grce

  • Kerensa Wing says:

    Mark – I have no words! Love your videos – especially PJ day! 2.2M views – you rock! Thanks for sharing what we are all experiencing. You have inspired me to do some more videos! – Go Eagles!

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