Area Principals Prepare for New Normal

Marshfield (OnFocus) – Area schools are facing multiple challenges as preparation for the 2020-21 school year continues. Leading the charge are area principals, tackling the uncertainties that COVID-19 has brought to the ‘new normal.’

This second in a series on the start of the 2020 school year takes a look at how area principals and their schools are taking on challenges this year.

Learning is a continuous process, and when Wisconsin schools quickly transitioned to virtual learning  in March, students and teachers adjusted to a changed look. Learning from the final two and a half months of school last year has proved to be invaluable, multiple principals shared.

In person instruction just can’t be replaced, principals explained.

“I think the biggest thing we learned over the past several months is that there is no replacement for in-person instruction. Educators in brick and mortar schools, and those that attend these institutions, are not actively pursuing remote instruction as their primary mode for education,” said Craig Anderson, Neillsville High School Principal. “Yet, in March, everybody found themselves in the virtual realm without the opportunity to properly educate and develop students and staff skills to make that mode of instruction the best it could be for all learners.”

RELATED: Area administrators share thoughts on tackling challenges this year

Being thrust into teaching remotely provided opportunities for schools to learn at an accelerated pace, and despite being a hectic time, was very beneficial.

“The spring allowed for much growth from educators researching alternate ways to provide the opportunity for continued learning from students. We were forced to learn more about technology, online meeting platforms, and other strategies to make distance learning possible,” Abbotsford Elementary Principal Gary Gunderson shared.

Adapting quickly to a whole new world caused by the move to virtual instruction was critical for area schools. Learning on the fly was necessary.

“I was very pleased with how quickly our staff was able to transition from learning in person to a virtual learning environment. Both the teachers and the students were able to transition to our virtual platform within the first week of school shutting down. This is not to say that they were not some challenges along the way, but nonetheless they were able to adapt,” said Mike Lambrecht, Columbus Catholic Middle and High School Principal. “Teachers needed to find ways to engage the students when they were not directly in front of them and be able to work with students who needed extra guidance.”

Trying to make sense of a changed education landscape brought on by the pandemic has not been easy for everyone, Anderson explained.

“Adding to the complexity were daily struggles that everybody, the young and old, had in trying to navigate the unknowns of the pandemic. To some degree, much of that uncertainty remains as the nation and world struggle to get a grip on the virus. We all want “normal” to return, but our world isn’t yet ready for that occur on every level,” said Anderson.

The in-person shutdown of schools was quickly executed, and with students and staff gone for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year, opportunities to reflect still remain.

“I am not sure that the school, as an institution, has had the opportunity to reflect, process, and grow from the shut down yet. From a leadership perspective, I learned that I am more of “people person” than I even knew, I learned that nonverbal communication is incredibly important, and that people almost always rise to a challenge,” said Wisconsin Rapids Area Middle School Principal Tracy Ginter.

Continuing to learn about technology was big for schools also.

“The importance of technology for all families. Our district provided hot spots and devices to all students who needed it,” said Heather Friday, Pittsville Elementary and Middle School Principal.

Significant learning took place beyond the traditional curriculum, beyond what shows up on report cards. Friday went on to share that everyone, not just schools, also learned more about skills  and character development that are keys to success, including flexibility, communication, and consistency.

“We learned that communication between teacher, students, and parents was key to feeling connected. We also learned that teachers need to be consistent with one another with big picture things to help minimize confusion for parents,” said Friday.

Being flexible in uncertain times is something multiple principals shared.

“We learned that planning one moment, can mean just that. Flexibility is important,” Friday explained.

As Friday noted, schools learned so much about students beyond content areas, beyond what is seen on a report card. Without students in the building, schools were able to reflect and see things from different perspectives.

“The change to remote instruction helped remind us that our priority is always students. While content is important, reaching the student and helping them reach their potential is our number one priority. I think the abrupt end to in-person learning forced us to reflect and prioritize that. We truly missed having the kids in the building each day,” explained Edgar High School and Middle School Principal Tom McCarty. ‘It also gave us an opportunity to see students in a different light and highlighted the need to reach variable learners where they are and help them individually depending on their strengths and weaknesses. I really think that it jump-started our need to become even more student-centered in our approach, especially at the secondary level.”

Read about how area administrators are preparing to tackle challenges: CLICK HERE

Schools have prepared for the opening of their doors September 1, with a variety of combinations of in-person and virtual configurations. A committee approach has been utilized across the board, and Anderson explained comprehensive reopening plans are in place.

“In terms of bringing this back to the school level, our school district re-entry committee, school board, and community have a plan to reopen on a month by month basis that allows us to provide some face to face instruction for students at every grade level. This is all being done in the safest manner possible and following all of the safety protocols of the CDC and our local health department. There is a fine balance between meeting the needs and wants of our society during this time as nobody has the all of the answers,” Anderson said.

Districts face new challenges in 2020-21

Districts are employing a variety of opening formats to begin this school year, ranging from five days in person to 100% remote. Uncertainty with how things will unfold has schools preparing for what can be thought of as a moving target. Unknowns exist everywhere.

“Anxiety, angst, uncertainty. The number 1 challenge is not knowing what next month is going to look like. We have spent a lot of time preparing to re open our buildings, and re enter our students. We are ready and are confident we have a great plan. The challenge becomes knowing that things can change so quickly,” McCarty shared. “Time is also another challenge. We are asking our staff and students to do a lot of things differently in a short amount of time. They have all risen to the occasion but time will be a certain challenge as we adapt to the changing landscape. With challenges comes opportunity though- I really look forward to the conversations this era can create about new practices to improve our education system.”

Gunderson agreed that dealing with unknowns is a huge challenge.

“The main challenges I see are planning to provide education with so many unknowns. Planning always has some uncertainties, but this year, every phase of education is affected by COVID-19 which makes things very difficult for all educators(not just administration) and families who have children in school,” Gunderson explained.

Anderson explained this year’s challenges are unlike schools have ever faced before.

“The challenges we are facing entering this school year are unlike anything that I have seen in my 24 years in education; the last 18 as a building level principal. Since March our school staff has been working and operating the school in an almost complete remote fashion. Teaching staff and students have really not been in the building for nearly the past five months. As a service industry we rely on human interactions and personal communications to operate most effectively. We were able to still do those things, but remote communication poses significant challenges to that process,” explained Anderson.

Friday pointed out there are so many questions to be answered, so many uncertainties as the year begins.

“We have many challenges this year. Scheduling with cohort groups and parents wanting to change. Classroom set up – desks back in rows, etc. All “fun” furniture out. There are no black and white answers and staff want that, which makes them frustrated. The issue of wearing masks is also present,” Friday said. “How can teachers who are here five days a week with their students provide high quality instruction to distance learning students?
We are trying to keep staff morale up. Teacher burn out is a huge concern, administrators included. Everyone, actually. How can we truly take care of ourselves?”

Planning for this year is unlike any before, Lambrecht shared.

“Columbus Catholic will be open 5 days per week with a virtual option. We had to find ways to address social distancing and additional sanitary measures within the school. Teachers will have to be able to teach their classes traditionally and virtually at the same time. All of this requires additional planning and training,” Lambrecht said.

McCain explained that balancing the needs of students with the risks the pandemic creates is not an easy question to answer.

“Our biggest challenge moving forward is determining how we balance our students mental health and academic needs with the potential physical risk the pandemic creates. It is a question no school board, administration, or teacher is prepared to face or should have to, but schools are and we can only hope that we have got it right,” McCain explained. “Additionally, our nation is greatly divided on what is right and opinions are strong; so while our schools struggle with what is best for kids, no matter what decision they make, they will meet strong criticism and opposition.”

Ginter added that schools face a sort of balancing act.

“The biggest challenge this year will be navigating through the social, emotional, and political unrest surrounding in-person learning. Balancing individual needs with the good of the whole is always complex. The polarizing aspects of the pandemic response create unbelievably complicated circumstances to navigate,” Ginter shared.

Safety precautions in place for all schools are necessary changes, but yet are new for everyone. Drinking fountains, for instance, are only in operation for filling water bottles. Procedures and protocol for the use of bathrooms is another change everyone will be getting used to. Breaking of routines is a challenge, for sure.

“The other significant challenge that I see will be breaking the routines of school given the needs to distance and follow the safety protocols that students and adults have never experienced in this setting. Masks are mandated in the building and that poses a challenge as nobody wants to wear them, but they are very necessary for the safe operation of the schools,” Anderson explained.

With all of the challenges schools face this year, remote instruction has shown everyone the importance of school extends well beyond teaching of content. Socialization benefits are huge, Friday explained.

“The importance of the social aspect of school can’t be understated. In the spring, many students felt isolated, and they missed their friends,” Friday added.

Next up, Part Three in our series: Area teachers share thoughts on conquering challenges this year

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David Keech
Author: David Keech

David Keech is a math teacher in Wisconsin Rapids and public address announcer for Abbotsord High School. He officiates basketball, baseball, and softball in central Wisconsin. He has reported on amateur sports since 2011, known as 'KeechDaVoice.' David can be reached at [email protected]