Lessons from the pandemic: School principals weigh in on what worked and what didn’t work during COVID-19

There is no doubt that COVID-19 has changed the lives of students and teachers across the country, but there are still some positive developments that have emerged from the pandemic.

Virtual field trips, online parent-teacher interviews and smaller groups are among the changes related to the pandemic that principals across the province hope to see continue in a non-COVID context, according to a new report.

Advocacy group People for Education surveyed 1,173 elementary and middle school principals last fall about the positive changes that benefited schools and the challenges that intensified as the year progressed. This spring, a smaller group of more than 200 principals completed a follow-up survey and individual interviews.

The report was released on Wednesday, a day before thousands of Toronto students returned to face-to-face class for the first time since April.

While e-learning cannot necessarily replace the “incredible importance of face-to-face relationships between students and teachers,” there are positive aspects of online education that have emerged during the pandemic, said Annie Kidder, People’s executive director for education. .

“Yes, we are all tired of Zoom meetings. But for principals and people who work in schools, it meant that teachers and students could easily collaborate with each other, without having to be physically there, ”Kidder said. “There is a disadvantage and an advantage to being online.”

Annie Kidder is the executive director of People for Education, which surveyed elementary and middle school principals about their experiences during the pandemic.

Principals reported that online parent-teacher interviews, school council meetings, and staff records were more convenient, efficient, accessible, and even increased participation. Using different schedules to keep the cohorts smaller meant that students were able to build deeper connections with their peers, contributing to a reduction in behavior problems and anxiety for some, according to the report.

For parents who have very young children at home and are unable to provide child care, the opportunity to meet with the board’s specialists through a Zoom call helps them overcome barriers and access language, psychological, and support. necessary social skills, Mikki Hymus said. , principal of the Grenoble Public School in Toronto’s Flemingdon Park neighborhood. The ability to continue tours virtually was also a “game changer,” added Hymus, who was not involved in the survey.

Adrian Scigliano, principal of St. Daniel Comboni Catholic Elementary School in Brampton, who participated in the survey, also praised the online field trips, saying that one of the aspects of virtual learning that the school community enjoyed was the ability to host interesting guest speakers. .

However, as the year progressed, pressure to provide an environment that was “safe, caring and caring” amid pandemic-related concerns was met with increased anxiety for management and staff, Scigliano said.

“Principals and educators love the children entrusted to their care. We wanted to make sure we were working hard and doing well for our community, ”he said. Overcoming challenges with teachers, families and staff brought the school community closer together, Scigliano added.

The report’s preliminary findings suggest that 55 percent of principals were dealing with high-level anxiety. In the fall, 36 percent disagreed with the statement that their recent stress levels at work felt manageable and 19 percent strongly disagreed. In the spring, 23% strongly disagreed. Only 28 percent agreed or strongly agreed that their stress levels were manageable, a 33 percent drop in the drop among the same group of directors.

“This year has been absolutely full of anguish. Collectively, we find ourselves in uncharted waters, in a climate unprecedented with this pandemic, ”Hymus said.

As an administrator, you are tasked with managing the teaching, learning, welfare, and safety of the school, with safety being “number one.” It’s a “big load to carry,” but not one that you have to carry in isolation, Hymus added. She is supported by the Toronto District School Board and the school’s partnership with Michael Garron Hospital. “The yin and yang is that there is a resilience and definitely a will to carry it out. (Thursday) is the beginning of a new year, a clean slate. “

The need for educational and mental health support increased dramatically during the pandemic, but principals reported a shortage of social workers, school psychologists, child and youth counselors, special education services, occasional teachers, educational assistants, and speech and language pathologists. language, according to the report. .

Aside from the widespread anxiety that many Ontarians have been feeling, principals faced difficulties in accessing the right staff to work in the schools, as well as dealing with changes in the learning model and schedules.

In addition, policies were announced “without notice,” sometimes to be implemented very quickly, which was a source of stress for many directors, Kidder said.

“In many cases, principals were left to execute or implement policies that they had not been consulted about and that did not necessarily complement or coincide with the reality of their schools,” he said.

They reported a disconnect between decision makers and school communities; people “on the ground” who understand “the complexity of running real schools with real students, real families and real staff,” Kidder added.

At times, the policy announcements and their implementation could have been “more fluid,” Hymus said. Ultimately, the work of the principles is to take the guidance of the provincial government, the board, and local public health units, and harness it to meet the needs of their schools. When the Grenoble Public School had to restrict outside community members’ access to the school, the administration implemented a “no lunch, no problem” initiative for families who were unable to provide meals for their children in the morning.

People for Education has been advocating for the formation of a provincial health and education task force to help mitigate problems in schools.

“We have had a science table. We have had a table of vaccinations. We have had other collaborative tables focused on health. But we haven’t had one for education, ”Kidder said. It is not too late, he added.


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