Adjusting to a "New Normal": Advice for School Administrators

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As schools navigate another year of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s essential to reflect upon what we have learned.

When face-to-face instruction was deemed unsafe, schools–along with the rest of the nation–were initially caught off guard when asked to deliver a quality educational program. According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), there was an urgency to educate in the safest way possible without forfeiting the educational program’s quality. Occurrences over these past several years have been astonishing and challenging.

 

COVID-19’s Impact on Instruction

The onset of COVID-19 required schools to pivot instantaneously from an in-person to an all-virtual or hybrid program almost overnight, catapulting many administrators into uncharted territory.

Historically, many administrators have focused on face-to-face instruction, so transitioning to a virtual program understandably presented obstacles. For many administrators, it was essential to select a virtual platform that school staff, students, and parents could access conveniently.

Additionally, there were issues concerning internet capabilities, lack of technology devices, and accessibility for special needs students. As these issues multiplied, school officials tried to resolve them to the best of their ability.

For example, administrators partnered with internet companies to provide portable hotspots and developed hybrid models for special needs students. School staff monitored student attendance and identified students who inconsistently attended or skipped classes. These students were offered an alternate instructional program.

 

Defeating Obstacles to Virtual Learning

While many obstacles have been addressed, research shows that numerous challenges remain, particularly for students “under-connected” to the internet. Studies conducted in 2015 and 2021 revealed that internet access rates and computer ownership slightly increased. Unfortunately, a proportion of lower-income families with unreliable or insufficient internet access remained roughly the same.

Subsequently, more than half of the families surveyed reported that their children’s ability to tune into online classes had been disrupted, which is a crucial finding as schools continue to pivot between in-person and virtual instruction.

Lack of sufficient internet access results in connectivity issues, which cause inconsistent learning due to audio and video lag times. Students who consistently cannot see or hear a teacher or educational therapist conducting a lesson could develop learning gaps. Parents are also frustrated with this matter and have been strongly vocal against resuming virtual education.

School administrators have attempted to identify families that need sufficient computer technology and internet access to address parental concerns and the lack of learning associated with the internet. While partnerships with community resources and the usage of COVID-19 funding have certainly improved the situation, there is still much work to do.

In addition to technological concerns, school officials discovered that many students and educators don’t have the necessary computer skills to develop lessons and participate in learning activities.

Since parents, teachers, and educational therapists relied on limited support provided by the district or the learning platform vendor, this shortage of training became a significant source of frustration. Schools had limited time to devote to technical support, putting additional pressure on district staff already stretched to their limits.

Using virtual education posed a shift in the philosophy of many educators, forcing administrators to learn how to develop a comprehensive virtual learning platform that accounted for the principles found in the research. Through this process, many leaders now believe that they can utilize virtual instruction as a part of a student’s educational program.

 

Addressing the School Staffing Crisis

Staffing shortages might be the most significant result of the COVID-19 pandemic that has critically affected schools. Staff burnout in every school position has caused schools to struggle to stay open. As COVID-19 variants extend across the country, COVID’s effects on school staffing have been exacerbated.

To keep schools open, school leaders nationwide have developed creative initiatives to staff their buildings. Many leaders stated that they spend each morning trying to assign a limited pool of substitute teachers, volunteer administrators, and central office staff around the district to compensate for teacher absences. When there’s a shortage of substitute teachers, school officials may find it necessary to combine classes or step into the classrooms themselves.

To increase the substitute pool, an Education Week article from January 20, 2022 reports that some states, including Kansas and Oregon, have relaxed requirements for substitute teaching certification, allowing candidates with only a high school diploma to apply.

Some districts have made desperate pleas to parents, state employees, and even college students to sign up to substitute teach. Other states have decreased regulations for retired educators to enable them to return to the classroom.

The shortage is so critical that governors have even requested the National Guard step into classrooms in some states. Other states have increased the substitute pay rate to entice teachers to their districts, creating a bidding war. Nevertheless, while new approaches to the shortage have helped, none have adequately addressed the crisis’s scale. 

 

The Emotional Cost of COVID-19

While COVID-19 has taken a severe toll on instructional programs and school processes, we must not forget how the pandemic has affected individuals emotionally. Parents, students, and staff are understandably concerned given COVID’s contagious nature and possible residual effects.

Although it’s easier said than done, administrators must provide a safe environment for all. Although the policies and procedures associated with achieving this goal can be stressful and expensive, actions to create a safe learning environment, such as daily testing, extensive cleaning, and changing school routines, remain on everyone’s minds.

 

The Importance of Collaboration in the New Normal

School leaders have exhibited remarkable resilience while addressing head-on the enormous challenges facing schools and districts. As an experienced special educator, I cannot overemphasize how critical it is to communicate and have an open mind when others present different opinions.

 


Ann Marie Geissel

Ann Marie Geissel, M.Ed., ABD

Therapy Source National Special Education Director

Ann Marie has 30+ years of special education experience, as a teacher, principal, special education supervisor, and special education director within urban, suburban school districts and charter schools. Her background and qualifications make her well-positioned to assist Therapy Source’s education clients with compliance monitoring and daily operation. Ann Marie holds a Bachelor of Arts in Special Education from LaSalle University, and a Master of Education in Special Education from Arcadia University. Additionally, she has been certified as a principal and special education advisor – and possesses a Letter of Eligibility for Superintendent – through Temple University’s and Widener University’s Doctoral Programs in Educational Administration.

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