Winter 2021

Research and Practice to Help Guide School Leaders During Covid-19

The world of education has changed on a monumental scale this year. To honour the spirit of change and the incredible pivoting educators have had to do in their work, we’re going to do something a little different in this article to make use of the different perspectives we bring to education. One of us is an education leadership scholar, the other is a practicing principal, and we are going to interview each other. In doing so, we hope to combine emerging research and practical realities.

For those of you who may not know us, I’m Katina Pollock, Associate Professor at the Faculty of Education at the University of Western Ontario. And I’m Kyran Dwyer, Principal of St. Teresa’s School in the heart of St. John’s, NL. We are a K–6 school with approximately 540 students in both English and French immersion.

In this conversation, we explore school leadership practices in guiding staff and students during this time of instability and uncertainty and consider emerging research in this area. We conducted this interview on November 27, 2020. At the time of our conversation, Canada had 73,379 active cases, with Quebec and Ontario having the highest and second highest number of cases, respectively. From a school-level perspective, the Ontario data indicate that there are 122 school-related infections, of which 99 are students and 23 are staff members. There are 671 publicly funded schools in Ontario, or about 14%, with at least one reported instance of COVID-19. Six schools are closed because of outbreaks.

The interview has been condensed and edited for length.

Katina: Kyran, I appreciate you taking the time to chat with me about your situation. Can you start by briefly painting a picture of what the pandemic looks like in Newfoundland and Labrador, including the number of active cases?

Kyran: We are in good shape compared with Ontario and many other provinces; however, cases here are increasing, At the end of November, we have 36 active cases with one case being a primary school student. As an island, we have two entry points, which makes it easier to control the spread. The uniqueness of our situation is the high number of rotational workers, most of whom live in NL and work in other provinces or countries and some coming into NL for work. Many of the rotational workers are on three week- or month-long turnarounds. This has resulted in most recent cases being from rotational workers and/or close contacts to them. 

Katina: That must add a level of stress.

Kyran: Oh, yes—rotational workers were returning home and having to isolate for 14 days from families, which increased anxiety not only for families but also the general public.

Katina: I bet. Have you noticed any significant differences between the first and second pandemic waves?

Kyran: Certainly. When schools closed in March with little preparation, many school leaders were left scrambling and anxious amid the uncertainty of what lay ahead. First and foremost, our initial direction was ensuring the safety of students, families, and staff. It was this focus that helped staff through the difficult time of not seeing their students and families. 

Katina: I’m guessing there were quite a few well-being issues you had to contend with as a result.

Kyran: Absolutely. Leadership during this time was about looking after the social and emotional well-being of students, families, and staff. There was little direction or clarity in what was expected of us as school leaders—no handbooks to pull from the shelf to guide us. There were frequent Google meetings, telephone calls, and visits to families while maintaining social distance. 

Katina: Did that help foster a sense of connection? 

Kyran: Definitely. Connecting helped alleviate some of the anxiety and stress that everyone was going through.

Katina: And how about the second wave? Can you speak to the challenges you faced as schools opened up again?

Kyran: The start of school in September and the preparation for it created angst and a sense of uneasiness for all. We had new concerns and questions around the cleanliness of the school building. Would we have to wear masks? How can we keep hands clean and sanitized? How can we maintain social distance? How can we use resources such as Chrome books and shared resources? There were many “what if” scenarios that dominated the media as well as the minds of politicians, unions, and workers.

Katina: What would you say was your primary concern?

Kyran: For me, it had to be about safety—how do we ensure the safety of all? School staff had to wear masks in communal areas, and students in K–6 were required to wear masks on the bus but not in class. Class and sometimes grade cohorts were set up. 

Katina: I imagine working in the elementary panel has its own set of challenges.

Kyran: Children are social beings; COVID-19 does not change this. Keeping students away from each other simply does not happen. So, we have to keep reinforcing good hygiene—washing hands before and after any activity and sanitizing, cleaning, and disinfecting as much as possible. We have to educate, guide, and constantly reinforce the need to sanitize their hands and maintain social distance.

Katina: Can you describe some of the ways in which your work as a principal has changed?

Kyran: My routines are the same but the circumstances around them are different. I don’t just mean day-to-day operations and the current COVID-19 scenario. We are working in the present but preparing for a variety of future scenarios—scenarios that will impact our students in tremendous ways. So, we need to prepare the things we are told to prepare (checklists, tech surveys, etc.) but we also need to prepare for the things we know will happen that no checklist could ever predict. I’m talking about the social-emotional needs of students, the anxieties and fears of parents, the need to stay connected with families who may not even have a phone, and the need to ensure our students will be fed if they are without breakfast and lunch programs.

Katina: It sounds like an intense level of preparation overall, coupled with the need to be adaptable at any moment.  

Kyran: One hundred percent. What does the research say about principals’ work?

Katina: On my side of things, academics and publishers have been working to publish timely special issues of scholarly journals with the most recent information and global advice pertaining to the pandemic. For example, the International Studies in Educational Administration, a journal of the Commonwealth Council for Educational Administration & Management (CCEAM) has published several issues focusing on educational leadership, administration, and management during the time of COVID-19. To use a specific example, one article argued that the leadership skills used most thus far during the pandemic are: providing clear direction, communicating effectively, working collaboratively, and engaging in what the authors called adaptive leadership (Marshall, Roache, & Moody-Marshall, 2020).

Kyran: Any research closer to home for school leaders?

Katina: Although there is research on leading in a crisis, there is only emerging research that specifically focuses on leading during the COVID-19 pandemic. From my own preliminary research, Ontario principals are reporting that their role is the same but how they go about doing it has changed—some tasks and activities have become more prominent. For example, in the first pandemic wave, most schooling was online. On the one hand, this caused a decrease in student issues; on the other hand, principals reported a new emphasis on being a digital or digital instructional leader. They also indicated that although they have always been to some degree responsible for student safety and wellness, this aspect of their work has taken on an additional layer of complexity, especially with new guidelines and policies from the ministry of health (Pollock, 2020).

Kyran: I can’t speak for the rest of Canada, but I’d say that’s consistent with our experience in Newfoundland and Labrador. 

Katina: Now, you’ve spoken about the social-emotional impact on students, staff, and parents but I’m also interested in the impact on school leaders. Can you talk a little bit about how principals feel about their work right now?

Kyran: There is still very much an unsettled feeling—we’re unsure of what happens next and that comes with a feeling of waiting for the other shoe to drop. We must follow the overall direction we’ve been provided at the macro level but at the same time we have no concrete direction at the micro level. It is hard to know if you are doing the right thing when the right thing has never been done. 

Katina:That sounds stressful.

Kyran: Day-to-day happenings at school are indeed stressful. Are the decisions we are making keeping people safe? Or are we safe because our case numbers are low and we have no community spread? As long as there are no cases at a school, things appear fine. If, however, there is a case at a school, stress and anxiety will increase for all involved— students, teachers, and parents—and our role will shift to following the lead of Public Health more closely. Once this occurs, there will be contact tracing and if it happens that the child contracted COVID-19 at the school site, my fears are that fingers will be pointed at the principals, questions will be posed as to how this could happen, and we will wonder whether or not we did everything appropriately. What does the research say about how principals are feeling at the moment?

Katina: During a March focus group session in Ontario at the beginning of the pandemic, principals were indicating some degree of both helplessness and hopefulness as they took inventory of what was happening, and as systemic inequities became more apparent when trying to meet the needs of their student populations. This was definitely an adjustment period.

Kyran: I’d say the adjustment period is ongoing.

Katina: True. In your opinion, how important are principals in this current climate? And what kinds of things do you think they are uniquely equipped to do? 

Kyran: I believe a principal’s work is always very important and, in the current climate, its importance has amplified far more. Principals know their school community. Effective principals communicate quickly and efficiently with students, families, and the community. We are aware of the strengths, challenges, and exceptionalities of their communities, and are strategically positioned to inform directives, policies, and guidelines around teaching and learning, school well-being, and safety during the pandemic. We are there to communicate, support, and reinforce the directives of the district, department, and public health. We are continually responding to concerns and questions in relation to COVID-19 from students, families, and staff. We are often the calming voice that provides encouragement to those who are struggling and, in this pandemic, that voice is more important than ever.

Katina: That has to take an emotional toll—we know from the data that principals also experience well-being issues themselves.  

Kyran: The calendar is saying December, yet it feels more like April. The COVID-19 stress is real and is taking a huge toll on principals. Do you have any research-based suggestions for us to manage our own well-being?

Katina: Great question. My research partner, Dr. Fei Wang, and I suggested the following plan: (a) take inventory of current stressors, (b) develop healthy responses, (c) find a new physical activity routine, (d) maintain good sleep hygiene, and (e) manage your use of emails (Pollock & Wang, 2020). 

Kyran: Thank you. That seems reasonable and actionable.

Katina: I’m glad you think so. Any closing comments or remarks?

Kyran: Yes. Self-care is paramount in my daily life now more so than ever before. I walk my dog often, I meditate daily, and I make every effort possible to get at least eight hours of sleep. How about you? Any closing remarks?

Katina: I would like to add two closing thoughts. First, principals play a critical role in guiding schools for teachers, students, and also parents. It occurred to me as we are talking here that, for the most part, the role that principals have with parents during the pandemic has been largely absent. Principals can’t support parents if principals aren’t supported by the system. 

Kyran: Yes, that’s a good point.

Katina: And finally, if I were to add anything to the wellness plan that I just mentioned, I would also include a step that focuses on self-awareness. It will not matter how resilient they are, how self-aware, how much they exercise, or how much sleep they get—there will be work situations that are beyond a principal’s control. Although principals can work to mitigate the impact of these situations on themselves and others in their schools, they must also realize that there are larger organizational and societal practices at play that require a collective effort, policy changes, and structural shifts that individual principals will not overcome. This is where the support of districts, school boards, provincial governments, professional associations, and unions play a critical role in advocating for and supporting principals so they can do their work well. 

Marshall, J., Roache, D., & Moody-Marshall, R. (2020). Crisis leadership: A critical examination of educational leadership in higher education in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. International Studies in Educational Administration, 48(3), 30–37.
Osmond-Johnson, P., Campbell, C., & Pollock, K. (2020, May 6). Moving forward in the COVID-19 era: Reflections for Canadian education. EdCan Network.
Pollock, K., & Wang, F. (2020). Principal well-being: Strategies and coping mechanisms in times of uncertainty. OPC Register, 22(3) 22–27.
Pollock, K. (2020). School leaders’ work during the COVID-19 pandemic: A two-pronged approach. International Studies in Educational Administration, 48(3), 38–45.

Dr. Katina Pollock is an Associate Professor of Educational Leadership at the University of Western Ontario. Her research focuses on school principals’ work and well-being.
Kyran Dwyer is a principal in St. John’s, NL. He is a past president of the Canadian Association of Principals (2017-18).

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