Principals and the Pandemic

NASSP President Robert Motley recently called one of his students to see why he wasn’t logging into synchronous online classes at his Maryland high school. The student’s reply? He had to take a job at a shipping company to help support his family.

“Our kids are experiencing a whole different kind of pressure,” says Motley, principal of Atholton High School in Columbia, MD, during a virtual Capitol Hill briefing held Oct. 22. During the briefing, Motley and two other principals representing the American Federation of School Administrators and National Association of Elementary School Principals laid out the case for $175 billion in funding for K–12 schools in any future COVID-19 relief package—funding which Motley; Cesar Rivera, principal of Samuels Elementary School in Denver, CO; and Kimbrelle Barbosa Lewis, principal of Cordova Elementary School in Cordova, TN, said was critical to meet their communities’ needs.

“We have been leading this Herculean work to keep students safe and safeguard their welfare under extreme, difficult circumstances, and it reminds us that schools are more than places of learning. They are centers of community,” Motley said.

Extreme Circumstances

The three principals spoke to the challenges involving teaching in remote and hybrid models, with Motley pointing to efforts by his staff to purchase equipment including iPads and whiteboards to teach from home.

“Our teachers are spending a lot of their money to create opportunities to be fantastic virtual teachers in this environment,” he said. While his school’s PTSA is reimbursing some out-of-pocket expenses, “not a lot of people are acknowledging that,” Motley said.

“As difficult as remote learning has been, we principals have been able to fill that role as instructional leader,” Motley added. “We’re visiting virtual classrooms and providing feedback—instructional leadership looks a little different in this environment.”

Motley and the other principals also touched on the growing calls for racial justice, arguing that schools have a vital role to play.

“If your community is burning and on fire, you as a school leader have to address what’s happening around you. You can’t ignore it,” Motley says.

To that end, Motley began “virtual chats”—first with staff, then with students. These conversations led to a community book discussion in which parents, teachers, and students all participated.

“It led to a great opportunity for me as a leader to provide professional learning to my community,” Motley said. “You cannot function without addressing what’s happening around you.”

Motley also framed questions about continued assessment requirements during the pandemic through an equity lens. “We have to reexamine how we are assessing students given the extraordinary circumstances we find ourselves in now,” he said. “We’re in this national debate and discussion about racism and implicit bias. Let’s look at assessments and the implicit bias that goes along with that.”

Support for Reopening Schools

Even though he works in a district with significant resources for counseling and other supports, Motley said many students are struggling in fully remote settings—a recent audit found record numbers had low grades. “How do we transition and work towards getting them to where they need to be?” he asked. “The funding that needs to come from government is crucial.”

Education often takes a back seat during presidential elections, and this year the focus has been limited to calls to reopen school buildings that are currently operating in remote or hybrid models.

Many teachers are choosing to leave or retire, Motley cautioned. Pointing to a recent NASSP survey that found that 45 percent of principals are considering early retirement, he added, “You’re going to compound that with leaders leaving. It really is a critical issue in education that’s not on people’s radar.”

Motley and other principals also spoke to the resources needed to reopen school buildings safely; one estimate suggests the average school district will need to spend $1.8 million on additional safety protocols.

“It’s not just about opening schools—the principals are the ones who have to … make sure our kids are safe and our staff and teachers are safe. In order to bring 1,500 kids back requires significant modifications to the building to allow social distancing. Where does that money come from?”

To watch the Principals and the Pandemic virtual Capitol Hill briefing, click here. To send a message to Congress supporting school leaders and public education, click here.

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