5 Challenges Facing School Principals in the Wake of 2020 and COVID-19

Posted November 24, 2020

Category: Education

5 Challenges Facing School Principals in the Wake of 2020 and COVID-19

It’s been a particularly difficult time to be an educator in the United States. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic causing K-12 schools across the country to shutter this spring, most of the summer was spent in a turmoil of questions about if they would reopen in the fall, when that might be, and what it might look like when they do. And while there have been challenges at every level of education, the position of school principals has been unique. Caught between the plans made by district administration and the needs of their teachers and students, principals have had to utilize their skills and education to tackle new leadership challenges from creative perspectives.

Salem University takes a look at five of these areas where current principals or those on the educational leadership track will need to focus in the near future:

  • Implementing blended and distance learning — With so many districts and schools around the world having to rapidly implement online learning options, it’s become a top priority and point of contention as its benefits and limitations become more apparent. In a March 2020 article in the Washington Post, they took a look at some of the complex issues surrounding online education, including things like data security, social isolation, and effectiveness. One New York City high schooler they interviewed said, “I feel like I’m not learning anything because all I’m being asked to do is go onto Google Classroom, look at the assignments and finish them by a certain due date. So it’s like I’m teaching myself rather than being taught.” There’s a real challenge and opportunity in developing not just any online learning platform, but one that is effective, engaging, and interactive for the students, that utilizes the true potential of virtual education.
  • Widening student equity gaps — In that Brookings Institute interview, former U.S. superintendent of schools Vicki Phillips notes that, “Over the last decade or so, progress has been made in the number of students who have access to devices and connectivity, making this move to online learning possible.” But that progress hasn’t been perfect, and many children still lack access to internet connectivity, digital devices, and/or learning resources. This means that there’s a real possibility of those who need the most attention getting left behind in the current environment, and the danger is that marginalized populations that already experience achievement gaps might see them widen. In a recent survey, the National Association of Elementary School Principals found that 64 perfect of their respondents were “very concerned” about the potential for learning loss among their students.
  • Redefining what teachers and schools mean to society — In a December 2019 blog, author and educator Peter DeWitt, Ed.D., noted that the last few decades saw a negative trend in the perception of teachers, with “a concerted effort to make teachers look as though they chose teaching because they could not do anything else.” But Phillips thinks the pandemic could change that, telling Brookings, “I think it will be easier to understand that schools aren’t just buildings where students go to learn, and that teachers are irreplaceable.” Additionally, she points out that a lot of people are realizing how many critical resources — like meals and mental health support — are provided to students by schools, and this could mean more appreciation, respect, and support for our teachers and schools.
  • Prioritizing mental health support — While there is a great deal of concern for how educational needs would be met over distance learning, there was also another prominent worry for many in teaching and principal roles: how will students’ mental and social needs be met. Even before the onset of the pandemic, DeWitt mentioned research from the National Education Association that shows that “many of our students are stressed-out, anxiety-filled, and at their breaking point.” This challenge has only become even more of a priority with the advent of online learning, social distancing, and other public health requirements that have increased our sense of isolation from one another. Finding a way to build support resources into student outreach wherever they are has quickly climbed the to-do list.
  • Bridging the gap between teachers and district administration — This is one of the key areas of disconnect in any school district, and it’s only been exacerbated by pandemic planning and decision-making. In the National Association of Elementary School Principals survey, “62 percent of respondents indicated their school districts had a reopening plan for the fall,” but “only 35 percent of respondents said they had been consulted ‘a lot’ during the decision-making process, while 17 percent indicated they were not consulted ‘at all.’” With stress running high, it’s more important than ever for principals to leverage communication and leadership strategies to not only bring district plans to their faculty and staff, but be a strong and persuasive advocate for them to the district.

Many of the challenges in the field of education for 2020 were already there well before the pandemic began, but the current crisis has also thrown them into sharp relief and given both current and up-and-coming principals a chance to really focus on priorities that will make the biggest impact. For themselves, for their teachers, and for their students.

For more information about Salem University’s Master of Education in Educational Leadership program, click here.

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