School stability is a top priority as principals face an uncertain new year

'We'll try to keep things very positive and give students and staff reasons to come to school,' one principal says.
By: | January 2, 2022
Educators at North Country Union High School in Vermont hope students in 2022 will be able to participate in co-curricular and extra-curricular activities in more normal environments.Educators at North Country Union High School in Vermont hope students in 2022 will be able to participate in co-curricular and extra-curricular activities in more normal environments.

As principals look ahead to 2022 through the persistent uncertainty of COVID, helping students rebound from the early impacts of the pandemic will be a top priority.

Many educators underestimated the academic and social-emotional damage that occurred during remote learning in the spring of 2020. It’s not a linear equation—just because students missed half a year of in-person instruction doesn’t mean they only fall half a year behind, says Chris Young, principal of North Country Union High School on Vermont’s Candian border.

“Students are significantly more behind, especially emotionally, than they were when they left us, particularly students transitioning from middle school to high school,” Young says. “Though we can’t start where we would like them to be, we are building a schedule for next year to get them to where they need to be .”

The school’s educators will use its advisory periods, social-emotional learning surveys and academic assessments in continuing efforts to gauge students’ progress and deliver the appropriate supports. The school is also using ESSER funds to academic support staff and counselors. “I believe all students need some level of support—some need a lot less, some are ready to hit the ground running and are more available for learning,” Young says. “Differentiating our approach is going to be important.”

Teachers in 2022 also will be paring down the curriculum to the most essential standards and taking deep dives on those. Finally, Young says he is looking forward to getting the school’s co-curricular and extra-curricular activities ramped up again by removing limits on spectators and discontinuing some COVID protocols. “We’re doing these events but they’re not happening with the same level of enthusiasm,” he says. “I’d love to see the vaccination rate go up because I’d love to see fewer restrictions and recommendations.”

Staying positive, being flexible

This summer, administrators at rural Big Piney High School in Wyoming set an attendance rate goal of 94%. Based on the current situation, however, they are tempering their expectations slightly for 2022, says Principal Jeff Makelky, whose school is part of Sublette County School District #9.

The rate was hovering just over 90% in the fall but in December the 150-student school experienced a flu outbreak that caused a shortage of bus drivers. Added to those challenges is a 30% vaccination rate in the surrounding county of about 11,000 people and students’ social-emotional struggles that have been caused by more than just COVID, Makelky says. The plan for 2022?

Firstly, student leaders and peer mentors will organize bi-weekly activities such as handing out hot chocolate on Friday mornings and having staff greet students at the door.

“We’ll try to keep things very positive and give students and staff reasons to come to school,” he says. “And we’ve learned over the last couple of years that we have to look at every single thing we do and be flexible.”

That flexibility will extend to grading, in that teachers will be encouraged to provide feedback but not grade every assignment. A student who misses time due to COVID or quarantine may fall behind and become discouraged by a few bad grades. The school is also loosening its attendance policies, and will no longer count absences for medical reasons.

What happens when the pandemic ‘ends’

Student safety, and all that covers, will be a top of mind for Raul Gaston, principal of Jefferson Middle School in School District 45 outside Chicago.

“With everything taking place in our world today, it’s critical that school safety for students and staff take the first priority,” says Gaston, who is also president-elect of the Illinois Principals Association. “Everything from physical safety, TikTok Challenges, lockdowns, civil unrest, and community violence all bleed into our schools and create a heavy impact on all students’ well-being.”

Social-emotional health will be a component of keeping students and staff safe. That will include reminding students of how to behave and supporting staff in building relationships with their classes. “You can’t teach the mind until you reach the heart,” Gaston notes.

This will require free teachers from less critical responsibilities so they can focus on students and having administrators cover classrooms when teachers need time off and subs aren’t available. Teachers will have to prioritize helping students recover from academic gaps caused by the pandemic.

“From that point, teachers can first build the foundational skills needed for their instruction or unit of study before starting the new learning,” Gaston says. “This provides students with a chance to capture what they missed and apply it to their new learning. This needs to continue for several years to come as teachers continue to ‘backfill’ what students need to know before moving on to new learning.”

Along with math and reading benchmarks, the school also has set an SEL goal as part of its school improvement plan. Administrators have also transformed a classroom into a Student Support Center where educators can conduct social-emotional learning in small groups, targeted lunch groups, pull-out sessions and individual sessions.

“I am most worried about their development and how their most important and formative years have been imprinted by social unrest, violence, worries, and mandates,” Gaston says. “Students need time and space to heal from all this. No matter when the pandemic officially ‘ends’ for the world, we will be dealing with the after-effects of it in classrooms everywhere.”

Reteaching expectations

The current president of the Illinois Principals Association, Marcus Belin, is restructuring classes and adding new electives at his school, Huntley High School in Consolidated School District 158, in Chicago’s outermost suburbs.

His school has created an Algebra 1 skill development school to keep students who struggled in the first semester on track. School leaders will also continue developing online courses and a dual degree program that will allow students to earn an associate’s degree when they graduate.

Belin also intends to hire more social workers and counselors, and begin planning a wellness center, to support students’ social-emotional learning needs.

“We did not focus as much on the reentry back into school and did not know how challenged our students would be returning to a building and having to go to class and do school normally while having to be out for 18 months,” he says. “We needed to do more reteaching of expectations and have a stronger transition back into the building.”