How School Principals Can Respond to the Coronavirus

By Andrew Hawk

How School Principals Can Respond to the CoronavirusIn my career as an educator, I have experienced medical scares including bird flu, swine flu, SARS, and Ebola. The area in which I taught was hit hard by the bird flu during the 2009–2010 school year. I was teaching second grade at the time. More than half my class was absent for two weeks and several of my colleagues missed time with the flu. My school had students line up by the front doors and staff members (myself included) would swipe their foreheads with a digital thermometer before letting the students enter the cafeteria to eat breakfast. This seemed an extreme situation at the time.

Now we as a world find ourselves in the throes of another medical crisis—and one that is still developing. My superintendent describes it as a “fluid” situation that could change rapidly. Here are some ideas we have been implementing in my school district in case you want to try them.

Stay Current

I am not saying that you have to read every word of every article, but you should be checking the headlines and reading the updates released by your state government. Things can change quickly. I am located close to Purdue University. At the beginning of one day, Purdue announced that they were not cancelling classes. By the end of that same day, Purdue announced that they were switching to online classes after spring break.

Last Friday, I attended an administrators’ meeting in the morning where we were told we were only closing if we had a verified case in our district. At the end of the same day, we announced we would be moving to online classes for all of the following week (which is followed by our spring break). Rapid changes make people uneasy. Don’t be caught off guard.

Consult Your Network

Everyone in your network, whether it is parents, administrators, professors, or colleagues, will have something to add to this narrative. In the spirit of two heads are better than one, I suggest reaching out to these people, even if it is just by email. One or more of them might have a good idea you’ve not thought of yet.

Be Available

Last week, an ambulance was called to my school. Our nurse was out of the building and one of our students was having abnormal chest pains. The paramedics examined the student and the student’s father came and took him to his doctor. The student was back in school the next day.

What did passersby think when they observed that an ambulance was parked in front of our building? They assumed we had a case of coronavirus. I fielded multiple phone calls from parents the next day asking if we had a verified case. Coronavirus is on most people’s minds, and they want to know that their children are safe. Each phone call was brief, but I believe talking to me had a calming influence on people. Whether you are a teacher or an administrator, make time to talk to concerned stakeholders. Postponing these conversations will feed into unnecessary concern.

Control Information

I know this is easier said than done, but if you hear your colleagues or staff members spreading blatantly incorrect information, ask them to stop. If they say someone else in the building told them, go tell that person to stop as well. This can be accomplished in a respectful manner. I had two of these conversations last week. Letting information that is not factual circulate through your school also causes unnecessary concern.

Increase Cleaning

Talk to your custodians about extra cleaning of high-risk areas (such as doorknobs). Consider whether your teachers need to do anything extra. During the bird flu outbreak at my school, we cleaned desks and pencils every day while the students were at lunch. Consider what you will do if you cannot obtain normal cleaning supplies such as disinfectant wipes. We are considering the best homemade cleaning solutions we can put in a spray bottle.

Decrease the Spread of Germs

Cover the best practices for hand washing, coughing, sneezing, and touching in general. Consider halting practices such as food sharing during lunch. Cancel or postpone large gatherings. Last week, my state’s governor restricted gatherings larger than 250 people; on Sunday, the CDC suggested a cap of 50 people. I cancelled my school’s spring concert last Friday, and it was not an easy decision. I have also cancelled all field trips for the rest of the year with the disclaimer that we can reevaluate later if the situation improves.

Plan for Multiple Scenarios

We are currently doing eLearning, but there are challenges with it. What do we do for students who do not have internet access? Our free and reduced lunch rate is 83 percent: How do we get food to our students? What about all of the special education meetings? What about standardized testing? What if at some point we have to even abandon eLearning and just be closed? Will staff members who are paid hourly still get paid?

It is important for administrators to talk through several scenarios so everyone has an idea of what will happen and what could happen. We have answered all these questions in ways that meet the needs of our students and staff members. For example, we are going to make sack lunches that will be passed out at several locations in our community.

Stay Positive

It is easy to get upset when things change quickly. The higher up you are at your organization, the more people will look at how you are responding to adversity. Even if you are frustrated, it is important for you to set a positive tone for your people. In Indiana, we are kicking around the phrase “We are in uncharted territory.” It is important to keep this in mind and to remember that it is true for all of us at all levels of government.

Explain Our Goal

Not everyone understands that the real goal of cancelling school, closing restaurants, and telling everyone to stay home is to slow down the spread of COVID-19. I explained this to several of my staff members last week. On paper, the symptoms do not sound much worse than the flu, but this virus is highly contagious. We as a country are trying to prevent our medical system from being overwhelmed. Whether you think we are doing too much or too little, you too can make a difference by following the advice that is being circulated in your location. Stay safe, everyone.

Andrew HawkAndrew Hawk has worked in public education for 18 years. He started as a teaching assistant in a special education classroom. He completed his bachelor’s degree in elementary education at Indiana University East in Richmond, Indiana. Andrew has taught first, second, and fifth grades as a classroom teacher. In 2011, he earned his master’s degree in special education from Western Governor’s University. Andrew has worked as a resource room teacher and also has taught in a self-contained classroom for students on the autism spectrum. In 2017, he earned a master’s degree in educational leadership, also from Western Governor’s University. This is Andrew’s first year as a building principal. He is the principal of an elementary school that houses kindergarten through fifth grades. When Andrew is not preparing for school, he enjoys spending time with this wife and two daughters.

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