Practical Principal: How to Create a Virtual Main Office

The Practical Principal series features examples of strategies Chicago public school leaders are using to keep their school communities connected during remote and hybrid learning. Find more ideas from school leaders here. If you have an idea you’d like to share, send it to engagement@thefundchicago.org.  

The Challenge

Families, students and teachers needed a place to ask questions, troubleshoot tech problems, and get updates about reopening. And staff needed a way to re-establish trust with families and students.

The Solution

Morrill Elementary School Principal Dawn Sydnor-Cole created a “virtual main office” on Google Meet. The office is open and staffed during the school day. To do it yourself: 

  1. Create a recurring all-day calendar invitation with a link to a Google Meet
  2. Share the link to the meeting with staff members and the dial-in numbers with school community members.
  3. Make sure at least two staff members are present in the Meet at all times. 
  4. When a school community member calls in, use the breakout room function to discuss their issue more in-depth. 
  5. Follow up with the caller either via email or phone to ensure the issue has been resolved.

The Story

Morrill’s virtual main office was, like many things during the 2020-21 school year, born out of necessity. 

In August, Principal Sydnor-Cole needed to find a way to keep her clerks safe while answering families’ questions about remote learning. Her first solution was simple: She set up a walk-up window in a classroom across from the main office. Morrill families were used to doing things in-person, and the walk-up window was an easy way to hand out laptops and other devices. 

But Sydnor-Cole also knew that families would need more help getting their kids connected and logged into class. The first week of school, 160 students were not online. So she and her clerks set up a virtual main office in Google Meet, with dial-in numbers in English and Spanish by grade level. Then she shared the dial-in numbers any way she could: robocalls, texts, emails. 

The calls came rolling in. Mostly requests for help with resetting passwords at first. But the system was working: within weeks, the number of students showing up for class increased significantly. 

She quickly expanded her main office team, training teacher assistants, SECAs and security guards on how to handle the most common questions. Over time, the system has helped her rebuild trust with the school community; parents, grandparents and caregivers once again have a reliable way to get in touch with school staff.  

Six months in, the office runs like a well-oiled machine. Sydnor-Cole makes sure that families can easily find the dial-in numbers. They’re at the bottom of every email she sends, and she reminds community members to use them during her biweekly principal chats. 

The office has evolved a bit since its early days. Now, when school community members call the line, staff quickly identify their questions and pull them into breakout rooms to work with them one-on-one. If staff can’t immediately help a caller, they follow up afterward with a phone call. Follow-up is crucial; it helps reinforce strong relationships with families.

Overall, Sydnor-Cole sees the office as a success. There’s been a decrease in foot traffic and an increase in calls over the last several months; community members “feel valued and heard.”

Sydnor-Cole plans to keep the virtual main office running through at least the end of the school year. 

Advice from Principal Sydnor-Cole

  1. Give families a phone number – not a link – to the Google Meet. Some community members don’t know how to use Google Meet, so a phone number is easier. 
  2. Share the phone number in every communication to caregivers. Consistency and frequency are the keys to success. 
  3. Make sure you have at least two staff members in the virtual office at all times. Team members should be seen as first responders and empowered to make decisions. 
  4. Equip staff members in the virtual office with all the resources they need, including training on common technology issues. Staff members should be able to meet the language needs of the community and have the patience to talk caregivers and students through issues.