For school principals, the COVID-19 pandemic introduced a host of unprecedented challenges. As we cautiously emerge from the Omicron wave here in Saskatchewan, it is worthwhile to look back on these challenges and figure out what we learned, and how we can best proceed. In many ways, the Saskatchewan experience has been unique. Our provincial leaders have often been the last to introduce new preventative health measures and the first to remove them. At times, school divisions were put in the position whether or not to introduce local measures in response to the pandemic, while at other times, rules were imposed from the provincial capital.
In December of 2021, the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation (STF) sought the expertise and perspective of the province’s principals, vice-principals and assistant principals. Informed by extensive consultation and the work of a provincial advisory committee concerned with the principalship, the STF wanted to know – how were principals coping? How were their staffs and students coping? How was the principals’ role changing over the twenty-four months of the pandemic?
Though the findings were voluminous, three key points clearly emerged from the data.
A clear finding from the survey is the impact the pandemic has had on the mental health and wellbeing of principals, teaching staff and students. The reality of the mental health situation in Saskatchewan schools was confirmed by the quantitative survey data. When asked to identify causes of increased workload, responses with the highest weighted average by a substantial margin concerned addressing mental health and stress-related issues in both staff and students. For example, well over half of all respondents noted that addressing mental health concerns in staff and students resulted in a noticeable effect on their workload.
Numerous qualitative responses indicated that mental health and stress-related concerns were having a severe effect on principals’ professional experience and personal wellbeing. Several respondents indicated that the joy they had felt coming into work before the pandemic has been entirely undermined. Others indicated that worry, anxiety and stress were the highest they’ve witnessed at any point in their careers. Sadly, at least two written responses indicated that he or she had decided to leave the profession at the end of the year due to pandemic stress while several more noted that they were considering early retirement.
What’s more, numerous qualitative responses indicated that while school divisions have been aware of the pandemic’s mental health effects on students and teachers, interventions intended to address these issues – while well-intentioned – often simply added to the already mountainous workload of principals. It was found that this often resulted in a situation where programs meant to address mental health concerns in school had the paradoxical effect of undermining the mental health and wellbeing of school leaders.
In short, survey data clearly points to the reality that principals have overwhelmingly identified stress and mental health concerns as substantial issues in their schools. Respondents indicated that access to more staff – including regular teachers, substitute teachers and educational assistants – would allay some of the stress being experienced. Others said that regular access to mental health supports – including in-school counsellors and psychologists – would pay substantial dividends as well.
Finally, a minority of responses indicated that they are coping well. Some respondents said that staff are doing fine and feeling safe in schools, even suggesting that the STF is representing a “vocal minority” when it comes to advocating for interventions for stress and burnout. However, while this may be the perception of a minority of individual principals, it is out of line with the reality that less that 10% of respondents said that mental health concerns were having no effect or a limited effect with regards to workload intensification.
A second theme that emerged from the data was the reality that the principal’s role was shifting from the school-based educational leader to the on-site pandemic manager. Certainly, quantitative data confirms that numerous pandemic-related responsibilities added to the overall workload of Saskatchewan’s principals:
While each of these elements in a vacuum may be manageable, having to deal with a large combination of them in addition to the regular duties expected of Saskatchewan’s principals added significant time to school leaders’ schedule. When asked to quantify the number of hours the pandemic had added to their workload, 68% of principals indicated that COVID-19-related responsibilities had added between one and seven additional hours to their regular workweek, while over 50% noted this amount of addition time on the weekend. Around one in six respondents noted that COVID-19-related responsibilities were adding more than seven hours a week on top of their regular workload. Only four responses out of 316 indicated that the pandemic has added no extra time to their workweek.
One response aptly sums up the sentiment of this theme:
The pandemic has changed my role to crisis management all day long every day. There are not enough resources to support all of the needs and it is a constant battle of finding the balance between those that are pushing to open things up further (with extra curr, etc.) and the reality that every single moment of the day is handling severe behaviours, family and team meetings, supporting mental health crisis and covering classes on a regular basis because we are short staffed. I often do not have any time to keep on top of my admin duties throughout the day and therefore spend my evenings and weekends trying to catch up which takes away from my family who desperately needs me as well.
Principals overwhelmingly desire to be instructional leaders – not administrators and not managers. Principals are first and foremost principal teachers. They play a vital role that both sustains and enhances preK-12 public education in Saskatchewan. In a post-pandemic reality we must ensure that principals have the time and resources available to serve as the leaders their school communities need them to be.
A third theme that surfaced in our analysis was the tremendous concern for the learning needs of students, and in many cases, the concession that many student needs were going unfulfilled. Prior evidence suggested that principals were already deeply concerned for the capacity of preK-12 public education to meet the diverse of students, and this concern was amplified to the extreme by the pandemic. As instructional leaders, student learning has always been a focus for principals. However, numerous responses clearly demonstrated that Saskatchewan principals have witnessed first hand the impact of inconsistent and interrupted schooling on students’ progress and learning:
We need counsellors in schools to address the mental health issues students are facing. It is consuming teacher and admin time and is extremely disruptive to the learning environment when we are expected to counsel students ourselves. The level of learning has been dramatically reduced due to student crisis and teachers having to prioritize this over teaching.
Our biggest issue is the gaps in learning. Teachers are scrambling trying to help kids. There are just too many gaps and little to no support for our teachers.
Saskatchewan is fortunate to have a body of principals, vice-principals and assistant principals who have immensely diverse backgrounds, identities, and worldviews. Reflective of society writ large, opinions expressed by principals in this survey regarding the response to the pandemic – be it from government, their school division or their community – varied widely. However, concern and care for students was unequivocal and universal. We all know the road ahead is long. We know recovering from this traumatic period of our lives will take time, compassion and empathy. Principals expressed these elements overwhelmingly and will play a vital role in shaping what the school looks like in the years ahead.
What we have learned
As one might expect, the vast majority of principals expressed that the fallout from COVID-19 on schools has made most aspects of teaching and learning the most challenging they’ve ever seen. Similarly, most expressed a belief that the provincial pandemic response has been inadequate, leaving most of their staff members feeling unsafe throughout the pandemic. A substantially smaller number of respondents suggested that operations in their school were more or less manageable and that their staffs and students had largely coped throughout the pandemic.
Many of the additional duties placed upon principals at various time throughout the pandemic such as contact tracing and checking vaccine status no longer exist as the province has removed all public health restrictions. However, this does not mean that the crisis brought on by the pandemic has ended. Student attendance and staff shortages have been an immense challenge and will likely continue even as public health mandates are lifted. Perhaps most importantly, responding to the secondary crisis of chronic stress, burnout, mental and emotional fatigue will require meaningful intervention, careful planning and unwavering commitment by all involved long after the acute health crisis is over.
Without doubt, our principals’ roles as educational and instructional leaders are irreplaceable in Saskatchewan’s public schools. Research by Dr. Pamela Osmond-Johnson at the University of Regina has identified Saskatchewan principals as “the other first responders.” Our survey confirms this reality.