In the national debate over reopening schools, one perspective is sometimes missing from the conversation: principals’.
Since Chicago’s public schools moved to remote learning last March, principals and a handful of staff members have continued to show up in-person for work. They’ve been in their buildings, masks on, handing out meals and devices to students, talking families through how to reset passwords and helping teachers adapt to a new way of doing their jobs.
The return to in-person learning for elementary schools this week presents a whole new set of challenges and opportunities for these leaders. They are changing schedules — which must meet myriad state and district requirements — to work for the students struggling most through this pandemic, without losing sight of the needs of their broader community. They are readying 100-year-old buildings — some with narrow staircases and small classrooms — to ensure returning students and teachers are safe and that remote students can fully engage in the joy of learning. And they are fostering a sense of community — much more difficult to cultivate in the current climate — with empathy for all and remarkable grace.
Throughout the pandemic, principals have tried to stay focused on what matters most: students. All of them. Whether in school or at home.
Principals know that, for too many students, remote learning is not enough. For reasons ranging from stress to lack of stable housing to an obligation to support their families, students are feeling distracted and disconnected, and their grades are slipping; the district has seen an uptick in the number of failing grades in core classes like math and English over the last six months.
Even more troubling: Attendance has dropped by more than 10% in some schools, and enrollment is down by 4% across the district. That’s thousands of students who should be in our schools but are not.
These trends are worrisome overall and potentially devastating for groups of students who weren’t well-served before the pandemic. The data suggest that Black students, Latinx students, English Language Learners, and students with disabilities are much more likely to find the current state of remote learning inadequate or inaccessible.
As schools reopen, principals are asking themselves how they can use this moment to offer something better. Better online learning for those who need to stay home. Better in-person experiences for those who need to come to school. Physical and psychological safety and support for all students — and for teachers and other staff, too.
As we turn our attention toward recovering from this pandemic, principals — not policy-makers or politicians — will be tasked with reimagining what school looks like, whether remote, in-person or in-between.
They will be responsible for creating all kinds of spaces where students feel safe and supported.
They will work with school staff, families and community organizations to find and welcome back students who slipped through the cracks.
And they will lead the charge to help students grow academically, emotionally and socially, no matter where their learning is taking place.
For these reasons — and so many more — principals must be included in the conversations about reopening and recovery happening right now in our communities, our city and our state.
We have an opportunity now to take what school leaders have learned over the past year and make bigger and better plans for the future. But first, we need principals at the table alongside other local leaders.
All it takes is an invitation — a heartfelt “thank you” wouldn’t hurt either.
Dr. Heather Y. Anichini is the CEO of The Chicago Public Education Fund.