Winter 2021

Schools as an Equalizing Force: What the pandemic has taught us about school leadership and inclusive education


Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have led three different research studies exploring the experiences of principals and parents with children with special education needs (SEN) during the pandemic. One of these studies (Sider) included survey data from 82 Ontario principals who were completing a Special Education for Administrators Additional Qualification course. A second study (MacCormack) included interviews with 38 principals primarily from Alberta and Ontario. A third study (Whitley) included 265 surveys and 25 interviews completed by parents of students with SEN from across Canada. Some of the findings from these studies are available here:

Whitley et al.
MacCormack et al.

In this article, we first share three common themes from these studies to inform what we know about how school administrators have interacted with students with SEN – and their parents – during the pandemic. Second, we provide insights into what the pandemic has taught us about inclusive education. Finally, we raise questions for exploring the intersection of school leadership, family engagement, and inclusive education going forward.

Theme 1: Work Intensification 

It will be no surprise to hear that principals have seen their workload increase during the pandemic (Stone-Johnson & Miles Weiner, 2020).
The work intensity of principals has escalated beyond the normal busy work-load of administrators to include decisions about the allocation of staff, ensuring access to technology and learning resources for students with SEN, and engaging with community and health-based resources external to the school. One principal described the challenge of supporting students with SEN during this time as finding approaches that did no rely on the “environment, schedule, transitions, equipment, and relationships that support daily learning.” 

The work intensification that principals experienced was often mirrored in the experiences of parents who were supporting children with SEN at home in their virtual learning environment while also fulfilling their own work obligations. One parent stated that, “And the one in kindergarten is the one with special needs. She’s on the spectrum. And yeah, she doesn’t get that there is school at home and she keeps on telling me “ecole fini!”. I find that stressful trying to mix up with my own work. I can do one or the other well.” The similar experiences of principals and parents with work intensification illuminates the types of emotional supports that principals found themselves providing.

Theme 2: Emotional Support

School administrators have experienced an increased need to provide emotional support for students and their families, teachers, and staff. In all three of our studies, we heard from principals and family members about the challenging situations that principals had to respond to. Principals discussed the concerns they had for the mental and emotional health of teachers, students, and family members associated with their schools. One principal noted that, “It is really heart-wrenching to watch them go through this, and to listen to the parents who are calling almost in tears because they’re frustrated.” Another commented that, “We could have done a better job preparing ourselves for the onslaught of mental health concerns that came up during this time.”

One parent of four children, the youngest with Down Syndrome, was also a teacher and described the high levels of stress she experienced trying to support her family while continuing to teach at the primary level. She shared, “I also had to reach out to my admin and just say, ‘Listen, like I can only do so much’ because there was a lot of expectations that had to do with the teacher side of things.” Providing emotional support to families and teachers was commonly stated by principals as a key aspect of their day-to-day leadership through the pandemic.

In addition to the emotional needs that principals were called upon to support, it is important to note that the extra care they provided to families and staff likely influenced their own well-being. This was illustrated through the comment of one principal who stated, “I am exhausted and don’t feel supported or understood by the board.” Principals expressed exhaustion from the work intensification and degree of emotional support that they provided.

Theme 3: Services and Supports for Students with SEN

With the onset of the pandemic, many families saw an abrupt canceling of school-based, health-care based, or community-based services for their children with SEN. Principals were called upon to support families in the wake of these cancellations. Principals used creative problem-solving skills in their attempts to support students with SEN and their families in the delivery of services via remote, virtual, or otherwise-adapted formats in the ensuing months. One parent of a child with SEN described the support her son Sam received during school closures.

The principal’s got 2000 kids in the school, and they’re in the middle of a pandemic. So it’s like a nightmare there. I know it is. But the principal knows when the EA talks to Sam and sometimes he’ll pop by the classroom…to say hi to Sam. And Sam is very strong socially and very good at making connections. So him and the principal, they talk about hockey, so when the hockey playoffs were on, you know, they’re joking about the Canucks and you know, that’s kind of their thing that they do together.

The pandemic demonstrated that not every family was in a position to provide the kind of support needed for their child at home. One principal noted that, ““Our ability to engage with and support students with special education needs is almost entirely dependent on the capacity of parents/caregivers to support learning at home.” Early on in the pandemic, principals scrambled to provide students with SEN the tools needed and, more recently, the focus has shifted to ensuring that those tools are being used effectively with adequate instructional support.

What has the pandemic taught us about inclusive education?

Over the past 30 years, Canadian school systems have moved toward inclusive education models. At the heart of inclusive education is a belief that every child matters; at the core of this belief is that for every child to matter they must matter in relationship to their peers and to those who live in community with them. The pandemic has reminded principals, teachers, and students with SEN and their families of the fundamental importance of teaching and learning as relational practice.

As proponents of inclusive education, we believe that schools should be an equalizing force in Canadian society. The pandemic demonstrated the fragility of schooling in this regard. The pandemic has laid bare the gaps and challenges that students with SEN – and other marginalized groups – were already experiencing prior to the pandemic (Eizadirad & Sider, 2020). As one principal stated, “The pandemic has shed light on the inequities within our system and the need to develop and support a system that is more adaptive.”

School administrators have been at the forefront of the effort to make schooling work for everyone during the pandemic (Gurr & Drysdale, 2020). In the midst of these significant efforts, the pandemic has clearly demonstrated the challenges of Canada’s public school systems in meeting the needs of those who are often the most vulnerable (Stough et al., 2017).

Questions for school leadership and inclusive education going forward

Going forward, we see the pandemic as an instructional moment for school administrators and those of us who engage in research on inclusive education. As we consider the types of schools and school systems that we value in Canada, we raise the following questions for educational leaders, academics, and the broader society to consider:

  1. In crises as well as in the normal periods of education, how do we support those who are often most marginalized or at-risk for being marginalized?
  2. What innovations that were necessary during the pandemic might have applications for supporting students with SEN during non-pandemic times?”
  3. In what ways do we address the needs of students with SEN as a key priority of schools?
  4. How can we learn from the positive experiences some students had engaging in virtual learning to imagine more flexible learning systems going forward?
  5. What strategies would enrich home-school partnerships so we can work more effectively with parents and care-givers of students with SEN?


We need to recognize that services and supports for students with SEN going forward might look very different than before the pandemic. Further, we need to re-imagine how to effectively work collaboratively with families. Long-recognized as an important, although under-accessed, driver of change for student learning, the pandemic provides an opportunity to re-imagine and restructure schools as welcoming communities where the needs of all students are met. 

Eizadirad, A. & Sider, S. (2020). Schools after coronavirus: Seize ‘teachable moments’ about racism and inequities. The Conversation Canada.
Gurr, D., & Drysdale, L. (2020). Leadership for challenging times. International Studies in Educational Administration, 48(1), 24-30.
Stone-Johnson, C. & Miles Weiner, J. (2020). Principal professionalism in the time of COVID-19, Journal of Professional Capital and Community, 5(3/4), 367-374.
Stough, L. M., Ducy, E. M., & Kang, D. (2017). Addressing the needs of children with disabilities experiencing disaster or terrorism. Current Psychiatry Reports, 19(4), article 24, 10p.

Dr. Steve Sider is an associate professor in the Faculty of Education at Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario. He is a former teacher and school administrator.
Dr. Jeffrey MacCormack is an assistant professor (Faculty of Education, University of Lethbridge). As a former classroom teacher, Dr. MacCormack’s research includes studies of inclusive spaces, stigma/attitudes, and play-based learning.
Dr. Jess Whitley is an associate professor of Inclusive Education in the Faculty of Education at the University of Ottawa. Her research and teaching at the B.Ed. and graduate levels focuses on inclusive education, mental health and the intersection of the two.

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