School principals are key lever to ensuring safe and successful school reopenings

School principals are key lever to ensuring safe and successful school reopenings
© getty: Children in an elementary school class wearing masks enter the classroom with desks spaced apart as per coronavirus guidelines during summer school sessions in Monterey Park, California on July 9, 2020

As Congress debates legislation to support reopening schools, local education leaders across the country are grappling with the extraordinarily difficult question of how this can be done safely. These leaders must balance the desire to return to in-person instruction with the reality that coronavirus-related risks remain high in many communities. 

Despite significant uncertainty, one thing is clear: Safely reopening schools will take an all-hands-on-deck approach with strong buy-in from a wide range of stakeholders. With this in mind, it is critical that principals — the individuals whose core job it will be to implement reopening plans — are meaningfully consulted during plan development and implementation. The success of a reopening plan hinges on the extent to which those implementing it believe in it, had a hand in shaping it and feel empowered to carry it out. Here are four considerations: 

1. Provide principals with resources to keep students and staff safe 

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In a recent national survey, 87 percent of NAESP members identified enhanced cleaning protocols, and 75 percent indicated providing personal protective equipment was “extremely important” to ensure schools can safely reopen. In the coming weeks, Congress is expected to provide additional funding to districts and schools to support school reopenings. 

As state and district leaders make resource allocation decisions about these funds, it is essential to hear principals directly about their school-level needs. Principals will be navigating day-to-day decisions on everything from testing procedures to schedule, so engaging them will help clarify where resources are needed most. This “feedback loop” will also ensure plans are being implemented with fidelity and in a way that meets the needs of students, families, and educators.

2. Ensure principal representation throughout school reopening planning and implementation

Critically, principals must have a seat at the table during school reopening discussions. With decisions being made about everything from reorienting instructional spaces in schools to how best to protect students and staff, principals must be part of these conversations. Unfortunately, in the same recent survey, only 35 percent of principals indicated they had been consulted “a lot” on their school district’s reopening plan.

Ultimately, these plans are words on paper; how they are implemented is the true barometer of success. Beyond having a seat at the table, principal representation should be diverse — demographically, geographically, by school type, and by position — to increase the likelihood that plans work for schools across the district, no matter their size, location, or demographics.

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3. Boost principals as instructional and emotional support leaders

Research is clear that principals are critical to advancing successful teaching and learning. With deep concerns about student learning loss due to school closures, especially among the most vulnerable students, it boosts principals as instructional leaders take on new urgency. As principals identify the unique instructional needs of their school in the coming months, ensuring they have ample resources to support effective instruction — including access to high-quality professional development and bolstered staffing — will be paramount.

Beyond the severe impact on academic achievement, school closures have caused trauma and increased mental health challenges. Being physically out of school for months has upended students’ support systems, creating isolation, deepening anxiety, and making it difficult for school-based mental health professionals to reach students. When schools reopen, principals will have to assess the scope and depth of the impact school closures have had on students and identify which supports are needed to help these students heal. To meet these needs, principals will need ample funding to expand school-based mental health programs, provide trauma sensitivity in their schools, and train staff to better understand trauma’s impact on their students.

4. Leverage principals’ relationships with families and community members

According to the Pew Research Center, Americans trust K-12 principals more than other authority figures to be caring, provide fair and accurate information, and handle resources responsibly. This trust and goodwill will be precious in the coming months. 

School districts can leverage principals in “ambassador” roles to engage directly with parents, families, and community members. Principals — and the trusting relationships they have developed with students and families — will be key to effectively communicating with these stakeholders. Further, as schools reopen, new issues and concerns will arise, and setbacks will occur. Leveraging principals can be a critical lever to help navigate these choppy waters. The coronavirus pandemic has forever changed the principalship, but a principal’s role as the nexus for various stakeholders in the K-12 ecosystem will endure. 

Providing principals a seat at the table through all phases — development, implementation, and ongoing course correction — is essential to ensuring safe and successful school reopenings. The challenges that districts and schools will face in the coming months are enormous: expanding sanitation protocols, boosting staffing, reconfiguring school spaces to meet social distancing guidelines, and ensuring the safety of all students and staff. It is an almost overwhelming challenge. But by meaningfully engaging a wide range of stakeholders, including principals, state, and local education can advance school reopening plans that prioritize safety and position schools to confront this crisis head-on.

Dr. L. Earl Franks is a veteran association executive and advocate for public education and school leadership with over three decades of pre-K–12 education experience. The National Association of Elementary School Principals is a professional organization serving elementary and middle school principals and other education leaders throughout the United States, Canada, and overseas.