By Andrew Hawk
The 2020–2021 school year has come to an end, and what a difficult year it’s been. In my case, it was certainly the most challenging year of my career so far, and next year will begin my 21st year in public education! I am hoping for at least another 21 years in the future.
Not all places in America were affected by the pandemic in the same way. My school in Indiana stayed in session for the entire year. We ran a virtual option for our students whose parents elected not to send them back to school and for students who had to quarantine due to contact exposure. Now, as we work toward the start of the 2021–2022 school year, we can reflect on what lessons we learned last year. Here are a few of my takeaways.
1. Stakeholders Will Have Questions
During the pandemic, we learned that stakeholders will have varying degrees of comfort with reentry plans. While we have always known that we cannot please everyone, making sure every family feels as though their child is safe at school still feels like a reachable goal to me.
Now that we are beginning to roll out next year’s reentry plan, we have a much better idea of what reactions to expect. Many of the questions will be the same, and I believe we will be more confident in our answers.
2. Driving a Bus Got Harder
Being a bus driver, in my opinion, is the most difficult job in education. This duty was made even more difficult by the pandemic since bus drivers had to start enforcing a mask mandate. This was especially true during the drive home, after students had worn masks the entire school day. However, the enclosed space of the school bus makes it nearly certain this will be the last place the mask mandate is lifted. We need to support our bus drivers as much as possible.
3. It Is Challenging to Find Substitute Teachers
This has always been true, but never more so than now. One-third of the substitutes at my school elected to stay home last year. Finding replacements was nearly impossible. I am fortunate that I have a number of instructional assistants that can be reassigned to sub in classrooms, but many schools do not have this luxury. It is high time to consider new incentives for substitute teachers.
4. Carefully Consider Your Virtual Option
As of now, my school corporation has decided not to offer a virtual option next year unless there is another statewide shutdown. Many of our virtual students returned to the classroom by the end of last school year, and we feel that this is the best decision for our community. Each school district will need to weigh the pros and cons of offering a virtual option and come to a logical decision.
5. Everyone Appreciates the Little Things
Last year, my school had recess in designated areas so classes did not mix. We had no field trips. Lunch and breakfast were served in the classrooms. Special classes took place in the classrooms. All these measures are going to be rolled back next year, and I expect staff and students will be thrilled. It is nice to give some good news after spending a year telling everyone no.
6. It Takes Time to Recover from Learning Loss
We are all still weighing the learning loss caused from the pandemic. There are several state and local assessments that can be used to calculate this loss. Early analysis shows that the amount of loss varies from place to place but is present nearly everywhere. It will take a concentrated effort to help our students recover this learning loss, and it will not happen overnight.
7. Many School Employees Are Considering New Careers
Throughout the country, the field of education is hemorrhaging employees. Many are taking early retirement or looking for a new career. As administrators, we need to find creative ways to retain our staff members. We were already facing teacher shortages in multiple areas in the United States, and this new exodus will only compound the current challenges.
8. You Must Stay Cautiously Optimistic
It appears that the worst of the pandemic has passed. Many families lost loved ones during this strange and frightening time. My family saw the loss of my grandmother and my sister’s mother-in-law to COVID-19. One of my fourth-grade teachers lost her mother. While many of us may feel ready to put COVID-19 behind us, we must still be aware that the danger has not completely passed. We can start to inch our way back to normal operating status, but we must also be prepared to put safety measures back in place.
9. People Want an Empathetic Leader
The biggest takeaway for me from running an elementary school during a global pandemic is that people value empathy from their leader. This is not the time to needle teachers over test scores. Everyone worked extra hard this year, and everyone deserves a pat on the back. As leaders, we are always trying to push our teachers and students to reach their full potential. However, this next year, we need to make sure it is a gentle push and not a shove.
Andrew 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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