Coming through COVID: School leaders address responses to ongoing pandemic

Jennifer Schroeder and her second-graders from North Grove Elementary School in Sycamore connect online.
Teacher Jennifer Schroeder and her 2019-20 second-graders at North Grove Elementary School in Sycamore connect online last year.

As a new school year begins across Illinois and the nation, administrators continue to face a familiar and unwanted challenge.

COVID-19 remains among the problems that superintendents, principals and other school district personnel must confront to keep students, teachers, staff and their communities from the virus and its variants.

Gov. JB Pritzker has mandated masks for all P-12 schools this fall, and the Illinois State Board of Education is aligned with that directive. Many parents and elected officials, meanwhile, are fighting Pritzker’s decision.

However, if the June 16 installment of the NIU College of Education’s Whiteboard Wednesday series is any indicator of success during a pandemic, the schools are in good hands.

Panelists Marcus Belin, Julie Lam, Amonaquenette Parker, Christine Sefcik and Tim Vincent explored topics such new leadership and communication strategies, the urgent need to make curricular changes, the results of impromptu innovations, lessons learned and more.

Among those lessons? Rely on your network. Practice creativity, flexibility, adaptability, perseverance and empathy. Err on the side of grace. Don’t sweat the small stuff.

Belin, principal of Huntley High School in Huntley Community School District 158, talked about the shared experience of navigated unknown waters together.

Marcus Belin
Marcus Belin

“I called a faculty meeting virtually, on Google Hangout, and the first thing that I told them was that I’ve never done this and that they have never done this, so we have to give each other grace. We have to be respectful of people, and just understand that everybody’s going through this in so many different ways and that processing this is going to a challenge,” Belin said.

“First, it was always setting the foundation that we have to be vulnerable in our positions,” he added. “I’ve been a principal for three years, and I’ve never led in a pandemic. I’m going to make some mistakes. Teachers are going to make mistakes. We have to be willing to accept that.”

Second, he said, was their need to “move education forward” with everyone contributing no matter their rung on the ladder.

“We cannot sit in a meeting, talking about ‘woe is me’ or ‘woe is everything else that is going on around this’ because the world is dealing with this. People are losing their lives, but we are very fortunate with what we have and so we have to make the best of it,” Belin said. “You’re at the table. I don’t care about titles. You are going to helping figure this out. We’re all even. Let’s go.”

Victories came, Belin added, and with them an unexpected realization.

“I have been dispelling this thought – this notion – of ‘I can’t wait until we get back to normal.’ I don’t want to get back to normal. I actually want to look at how we recover and restore what has been lost and what has been damaged and move onto some better things,” he said.

“Education is a lot further along than what it was,” he added. “The pandemic forced us to do things that we didn’t know we could do. It showed us a level of resiliency that we all have reached in so many aspects.”

Lam was assistant principal at Oswego East High School in Community Unit School District 308 for the first 16 months of COVID. Since July 1, she has served as director of Student Learning at Oak Park-River Forest High School.

Julie Lam
Julie Lam

Her role in Oswego required her to lead implementation of curricular changes as well as instructional adaptations that meant professional development in educational technology.

Veteran teachers with tried-and-true lesson plans expressed concerns over the management of lost classroom time – cutting just eight minutes per period essentially eliminated one period each week – and the task of prioritizing content.

Teachers also knew that they needed to provide more social-emotional supports during a pandemic. Many students struggled with the transition to remote learning for many reasons, including the lack of in-person social interaction and having family members who were affected by COVID.

Yet Lam also provided for the staff something more important: a voice of calm reassurance.

“We made so many schedules. We scrapped so many schedules,” she said. “I had to communicate with our teachers just the right amount of information where they felt, ‘OK, I have some information, even though there’s the unknown. I have a little bit of information to get me through the next couple weeks of couple months.’ ”

There was more stability when the Board of Education approved a remote schedule in the fall and then a transition to hybrid learning in the spring.

“I had something more concrete to work with,” Lam said. “I told them that this is going to be different from the spring, and different in a good way, and they were very much positive about that. They would have more time to plan.”

Parker, principal of Huntley Middle School in DeKalb Community School District 428, addressed the need to find different, clever and caring ways to operate – and the realization that meant “more than just technology.”

Amonaquenette Parker
Amonaquenette Parker

“We had the technology. We had the platforms. We had the software. All of the kids already had a Chromebook in their hands,” Parker said. “We really had to think about innovation, and how crucial it was to our continued success – that if we were going to see any type of success for our students, we had to think outside of the box.”

She met with her leadership team, as well as her teachers and district-level administrators, during Summer 2020 to explore relationships, teaching-and-learning, processes and communication.

Those four concepts were chosen “very specifically because we knew that traditional ways of building relationships were going to be hampered when students were not in-person.”

Relationships spawned parades “where all the teachers got in their cars,” home visits with parents and requests of parents with the right careers or credentials to serve as virtual guest speakers.

Meanwhile, Parker nurtured the relationships of her staff.

“We employed every virtual game that was free. Virtual Bingo. Virtual escape rooms. Scavenger hunts when people did come back in the building,” she said. “We did an average of two events every month where the administrative staff and I went to people’s doors and left prizes. We did a Favorite Things Day where we delivered whatever was your favorite thing. If you love Butterfingers, you got a bag of Butterfingers that day.”

To improve teaching-and-learning, Huntley surveyed students to understand what they needed to thrive while in school at home.

Huntley Middle School logo“It was something as simple as a student saying, ‘I can’t hear my teacher sometimes when she walks away,’ so we ordered tons and tons of distance microphones,” Parker said. “We had instructional coaches demonstrate how to parallel-teach in front of a camera, and we sent out teachers that video. Professional development was the main thing when it came to teaching-and-learning.”

Processes, meanwhile, unearthed unexpected issues.

One student was in Saudi Arabia, in a time zone eight hours later. One student was spending days in the car with his father, who was driving to jobs building decks and laying brick pavement. One student was sitting in the hospital room of her terminally ill mother.

Finally, communication continued through videos of Principal Parker sent to specific students or specific grade levels and focused on connection in addition to contact. The school’s parking lot also hosted drive-in movies for parents as well as a food truck night

Sefcik, superintendent of Grant Community High School District 124, talked about what COVID demanded of her in terms of communication as the top-ranking leader.

“Being transparent was extremely important – and we always have been – but I think it just required a new level of transparency,” Sefcik said, “sharing not just ‘what and how and when’ but really the ‘why,’ because things were changing so frequently, and we really needed to communicate the details of that.”

The superintendent engaged regularly with colleagues to hear what was working for them while “learning on each other and trying to do things in sync. It really did a lot to lessen the blow, so to speak, in the community by trying to stay on the same page as our peers.”

Christine Sefcik
Christine Sefcik

She also maintained an open dialogue with parents and families, the school board, the union, the local health departments in Lake and McHenry counties as well as the Northern Lake County athletic conference.

For the school board members, that meant almost daily updates from Sefcik and her team, who had been provided the independent authority to modify learning modes as necessary.

For parents, it means questions beyond their assessment of how things were going: Were their students planning on coming back during hybrid operations? Will they need transportation? Will they require meal service?

District staff held meetings on Zoom, provided opinions via surveys and even gathered virtually across departments and divisions for “social and emotional things,” she said. That intra-level coordination was important, she added; for example, school bus drivers were delivering food and instructional supplies.

Some COVID-prompted changes will remain in the future.

“For the first time, we did our parent-teacher conferences fully virtual – and that is a keeper,” Sefcik said. “We got great feedback on that. We had better participation than we have had in years, so that’s something we are going to maintain moving forward for parents and just to keep that convenient.”

The superintendent also has grown in her philosophy to keep students “at the forefront” of all messaging from the district office, much of which traditionally covered behind-the-scenes operations.

“I didn’t typically focus on the students,” she said. “They’re certainly included on all of our communications, but I will tell you that, going all the way back to a year from March, I heard loud and clear from them that anything that impacted them they wanted to hear that directly – school activities like Homecoming, pep assemblies and prom. They wanted to hear about those things first.”

Tim Vincent
Tim Vincent

Vincent, superintendent of Galena Illinois School District 120, brought a unique perspective to the panel.

At the time COVID abruptly shut down almost everything in March 2020, Vincent was serving in DeKalb as director of Curriculum and Instruction. He had accepted the Galena job in late February, however, and began work there July 1.

“What I learned instantly in a new district is that people are gauging you and judging you the whole way,” Vincent said. “It’s kind of an experiment in trust when you’re meeting with all these people and trying to gain trust in kind of a parallel fashion moving forward because they didn’t know me, and I didn’t know them.”

Part of that process was simple survival, he said.

But the unusual time and circumstances taught him plenty about his new community and colleagues, a lesson he is carrying forward.

“Our transition team included as many different leaders as I could find. I don’t mean leaders by title. I mean the vocal person among the cooks, and the custodians, and the paraprofessionals, and all the teachers at all the different levels,” Vincent said.

“We got together, and I think, in that way, the leader is kind of the filter of the process, in crisis or not,” he added, “and in the body language and in putting out that persona of being able to work with people and being able to deal with whatever comes our way. All of those people who are sitting there – their input really matters, and it really drives what we do.”

Like Sefcik, Vincent fostered a culture of cross-coordination that will endure.

Photo of a school bus“Too many times, pandemic or not, I think we were sitting in a room with only one role represented because we think it only pertains to them,” Vincent said, “but we forget about what it does to Transportation, or to the secretary’s schedule, so just having everybody in one room at one time was a really nice experience. Everybody’s voice matters.”

Moving to Galena during COVID-19, meanwhile, reinforced notions of the importance of shared leadership he had experienced in DeKalb.

“COVID was a ton to be dumped on all of our plates at the same time, and anyone who thinks they can do it on their own, or do the lion’s share of it, is probably set up to fail,” he said.

“People really want to help. People show up at the table, and they want to dive in,” he added. “In putting together little teams of particular areas that people are passionate about, you just really trust them to do their work and to report back and to ask questions.”

He also discovered truths about human beings.

“People deal with stress in different ways, and it’s not good or bad – it’s just the way that people deal with something that’s a surprise or a pandemic dropped on our laps or any type of trauma,” Vincent said.

“You really learn about people in those situations. You learn about who you need to bring along your side, who can handle and who need the extra responsibility to fee some sense of control, or you learn about how to differentiate what their roles or responsibilities are to bring them through this – how to relationally help them along so that they can just get out of survival mode.”

Photo of hands on a logThat learning curve is urgent, he said, and taught him quickly about the diverse methods of response from his team members, what they need to avoid becoming overly stressed or completely shutting down and who should hear from him first.

It also showed him the solemn obligation of his role.

“People definitely want from their leader that everything is going to be OK – that we will get through this together – but they also need the logistics,” Vincent said. “What does this look like in my classroom? What does this look like in the cafeteria? What does this look like on the bus? It puts people at ease if they know what ‘it’ is – if they know specifically what we’re getting into and what the expectations are so that they can ask questions and make tweaks on their own.”

Empowering his team earned their confidence.

“Once they have that, there’s some sense of control, that you can control the uncontrollable pandemic, that you can have some trust and autonomy because you know what’s going on,” Vincent said. “I never want to overlook that. I’ve been impressed in both of my districts through this of how flexible people were, how collaborative people were and how much people stepped up to the plate. I’m incredibly proud of the people who I get to work with.”

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