“We Need to Keep Being the Cheerleaders but Also the Calm in the Storm”: One Principal’s Response to the Coronavirus Pandemic

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“Just remember, this is new for all of us,” principal Tina Miller reminds her students in her first video morning announcement, a virtual edition of a daily staple at Howe Elementary School in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin. With a warm smile, she assures her student body, “Your teachers have been working hard, and everybody in the building, and I know you and your parents have too. We’re all trying to figure this out together, and we’re all doing a great job.” She ends the video the way she ends all daily announcements, with the school’s credo—“You’re safe, you’re respectful, you’re responsible, and you’re definitely a learner”—followed by the Pledge of Allegiance. These videos, which Miller records and sends out every day, are one way she is attempting to maintain a level of normalcy for her students during a time that is anything but normal.

Like many schools, things changed quickly for Howe Elementary last week. In early March, the district superintendent had gathered the district’s principals to discuss a pandemic contingency plan. At the time, the chances of implementing it seemed far-off and unlikely.

On Friday, March 13, Miller met with her staff to go over what off-campus learning might look like. Within a half hour after the meeting, the Wisconsin governor instituted a statewide school closure. It was time to put the remote learning plan into effect immediately.

The first step was to connect with parents to let them know there would be no school on Monday or Tuesday. Teachers spent those days gathering and sharing resources as they transitioned their classrooms online. Then, on Wednesday, parents were invited to the school to pick up resource packets for their children. (Due to state government recommendations that people not gather in groups of more than 10, one of Miller’s jobs that day was to keep parents moving.)

Teachers sent out their first lesson plans to parents on Wednesday over the remote learning resource Seesaw, which is also how Miller sends out her daily announcements. Each lesson plan comes with a chart of activity options for each learning area, as well as the teacher’s contact information and office hours. The aim for each day’s lesson plan is one-and-a-half hours of engaged learning time for K–2 students and two hours for students in grades 3–5. Each teacher holds office hours for two hours each morning and two hours each evening. Like the morning announcement, the lesson plan templates—which teachers send out daily at 9:00 a.m.—and corresponding resource packets are meant to create consistency amidst the disruption.

Howe Elementary is in a unique position: 72% of their students qualify for free or reduced lunch. The school district has set up three meal pickup sites and offers home delivery upon request, but these students’ realities comes with a host of other ramifications—including the possible lack of weather-appropriate clothing, supervision, or a safe home environment—and Miller and her staff have taken some impressive steps to address the needs of students most at risk. Most critically, Miller met with Howe’s guidance counselor and social worker to make a list of students they will check in with at home, as well as a list of resources those students might need, including food, shelter, and clothing. “We just want to make sure those who would fall through the cracks, aren’t,” Miller explains.

Miller is also empowering her hourly workers, such as classroom aides, to take on new student support roles. Because some students might not have Internet access or a computer at home, this newly formed support staff has been calling each household to check in about what technology they have available and to figure out how to make sure students get the resources they need. “We don’t want [technology issues] to be a barrier to learning,” says Miller.

Paradigm shifts come with inevitable obstacles. Chief among them is the angst teachers are experiencing. Along with missing seeing their students in person, many teachers also feel overwhelmed by the new arrangement, unsure about the technology they are now relying on, or both. “Teachers are the first line of defense,” Miller empathizes. But she has also noticed some early successes. She has been energized by her teachers’ collaborative efforts as they problem-solve via email and share activities and resources in an online repository Miller set up on Google Drive. She has also noticed that, out of necessity, her whole staff is becoming increasingly more tech savvy. As Miller succinctly puts it, “Through chaos comes change.” This steep learning curve has resulted in new forms of collaboration as well, such as teachers sharing screenshots with step-by-step instructions for how to use certain functions on Seesaw.

Miller also worries about parents’ struggles. Many families are dealing with financial worries, while others must figure out childcare arrangements. Miller has fielded a few angry calls from parents who feel the school is assigning too much work, which she attributes to the unavoidable stress parents are experiencing. More ominously, she has heard from parents who have quarantined themselves due to flu-like symptoms, raising internal fears about keeping everyone in her school safe. Then there are parents whom her staff has been unable to reach. In these cases, Miller poses this question to her support staff: “How do we get resources in the hands of those kids?” The action plans they have come up with, including making home visits, are about making sure they support every one of their students.

One silver lining: Miller has also noticed an increase in parents’ connection to the school. She says that new relationships are being forged, and parents are making themselves more immediately available as they work more closely with Howe staff on their children’s education.

As principal, Miller has been inundated with emails. “My email inbox you would not believe,” she laughs. This is the natural consequence of a trifecta that was unforeseeable just a few weeks ago: all communication moving online, a set of uncertain circumstances, and her central role as leader of the school. But, as hectic as the situation is, it is those connections that make the job worth it. Her advice to other principals? “We need to keep being the cheerleaders but also the calm in the storm.” Currently, as teachers, parents, and students turn to her for both encouragement and reassurance, both roles are as vital as they have ever been.