Launching a School Year in Uncertain Times

By Ronald Williamson and Barbara R. Blackburn

This school year will be like no other. Regardless of the region of the country or the size and location of the city or district, school life as we know it has been impacted by the pandemic.

School systems spent the summer planning for the new school year. Some schools are already open, others will open soon, yet others have delayed the start of classes well into September. That illustrates the problem. There continues to be great uncertainty about the look of the 2020-21 school year.

Will schools open for face-to-face instruction? Or will schools open as virtual programs or hybrids of the two? Will families choose to send their children back to school if the plan is face-to-face? Or will families select virtual options?

In areas with high rates of infection, how likely is it that initiatives to open physical school will fail? What will happen if the teacher and substitute supply begins to dwindle from the spread of Covid-19?

Despite the uncertainty it’s critical that the new school year get off to the best start possible. Teachers and principals don’t want to add to the uncertainty or to the stress of students and families. Here are three areas where we suggest extra attention for these uncertain times.

The Bottom Line Is Safety

As the start of the school year looms, safety – both physical and social-emotional – has become the most important issue for teachers, other employees, families and students. Some psychologists argue that being physically in school is important to good mental health. Others question this benefit if school feels strange and cautionary.

It’s also important to remember that employees, students and their families have been impacted by the pandemic in a maze of ways you may not know. Have friends or loved ones become ill? Has the job status of family members changed? Have extended family members joined the household? Do employees, or their loved ones, have pre-existing medical conditions that make them more vulnerable?

Feeling safe is a complex physiological reaction to events and the environment. Both the Mayo Clinic and other health care providers offer tips to help you think about navigating the anxiety associated with launching a new school year.

  • Acknowledge the Anxiety – When talking with people, acknowledge the anxiety that is present. Describe safety protocols but don’t get defensive. Willingly answer every question. Understand that everyone has a different level of comfort or concern about dealing with the crisis.
  • Establish New Routines – Routine and structure provide calm and help reduce anxiety. Don’t talk in generalities about safety but instead offer specific plans about your school’s new routines for things like lunch, entry and exit from the building, or changing classes.
  • Look for and Share the Good – As you talk with teachers and with families and students, look for good things that are happening. Identify positive activities or trends. Share those things to help people become more hopeful and more focused on problem-solving.
  • Encourage Self-Care – Talk with teachers and other employees about the importance of caring for themselves. Encourage them to take time every day for themselves and do things that contribute to their own well-being.
  • Reach Out – A connection to others contributes to feeling safe and reduces anxiety. Make time every day to personally connect with teachers and other employees. Talk with them. Ask for their feedback. Seek their opinion. Listen. Do the same for students and families.
  • Extend Grace – This school year will not be normal. Give yourself as well as your teachers, students and families some extra grace. Forgive the brash comment. Don’t react to the forgotten deadline. Be flexible when you can.

Communicate Often and Disseminate Broadly

During this crisis there’s a lot of misinformation shared through social media and other sources. It’s important that your school become hyper vigilant about monitoring what’s being shared about your school and its plans. It’s essential that you become even more transparent about your own plans and preparations. In the absence of information people tend to form their own opinions, and often share those, even when they’re inaccurate.

Here are some tips on sharing information about the start of a new school year.

  • Communicate Often – Providing frequent updates to families and students lets them know you’re planning for the new year and builds confidence in you as a reliable source of information.
  • Disseminate Broadly – Don’t rely on a single method for communicating. You can utilize traditional formats like newsletters and email, but be sure to also post news on your school’s website. Take advantage of social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) to share information as well. Monitor those sites to identify questions or concerns that may emerge.
  • Be Unfailingly Honest – Never mislead. If you don’t have an answer, say so and commit to getting the answer. During a crisis people want assurance that the information they receive is trustworthy.
  • Listen as Well as Share – Use your communication tools to authentically listen to what families and students are saying. This can help identify issues that are bubbling up and allow you to monitor the current tenor of your school community.

Sustain the Culture

There’s comfort in the patterns and routines of daily life in a school. Those activities provide a structure that helps to organize and sustain a school. In times of uncertainty it can be even more important to maintain those patterns of behavior. If your school is offering a face-to-face program, continue those routines but appropriately adapt them to new safety protocols. If your school is a virtual or hybrid model, adapt the routines to fit your new model.
Here are some ways you can do to sustain your school’s culture during the current crisis.

Adapt Daily Routines – Think about daily routines like greeting students in the morning, taking attendance, lunch, or the end of the day. Rather than abandon some routines because of concerns about social distancing or other safety concerns, adapt them to the new environment. One principal in central Oregon whose program went virtual talked with Ron about how she missed greeting students and staff at the beginning of each day. She’s now sending short, upbeat, and encouraging video greetings to students and staff.

Share the Stories – Stories are powerful. They are the oral history that can be shared from person to person and often define the culture of a school. As you talk with your teachers, students and families, listen for their stories, the things they’re doing, or the activities they’re involved in that reflect your school’s values and support its mission. Then share those with others in your school community.

Check-In with Your Teachers – In these uncertain times it is essential that you talk with your teachers, learn about their work, discuss the challenges they face, and identify ways you can support them. One middle school principal in Michigan whose school was also virtual talked with Ron about “checking-in” with every teacher every few days. Rather than joining a large Zoom meeting, he provided an individual, personal time to simply talk with each teacher. He reported that most of the time “I was just listening” but “it was important for them to know I was there, that I cared, and that I really wanted to support their work.”

Final Thoughts

 While great uncertainty remains about the coming school year, it’s important for leaders to recognize the need to support and care for the members of their school community. That includes recognizing the overwhelming importance of safety as families make decisions about their children returning to school, and employees face returning to the classroom.

But it also means paying attention to both sharing and gathering information from the school community and identifying ways to sustain the routines that provide comfort and security during the school day.

It’s a daunting task, but we have every confidence that America’s teachers and school leaders will successfully navigate the launch of the new school year.

References

► Hubbard, L. (2020). 9 ways to tame anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic. Retrieved online from the Mayo Clinic – https://www.mayoclinichealthsystem.org/hometown-health/speaking-of-health/9-ways-to-tame-anxiety-during-the-covid-19-pandemic.

► Markham, L. (2020). Coping with fear in the face of a pandemic. Retrieved from Psychology Today – https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/peaceful-parents-happy-kids/202003/coping-fear-in-the-face-pandemic.

► McQueen, M. (2020). School reopenings are being touted as good for students’ well-being, but that’s wrong. Retrieved from Think/NBC News – https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/school-reopenings-are-being-touted-good-students-well-being-s-ncna1236188.

► Williamson, R. & Blackburn, B. (2019). Seven strategies for improving your school. New York: Routledge.

► Williamson, R. & Blackburn, B. (2020). Sustaining your school’s culture in uncertain times. TEPSA Leader, 33(3), Summer 2020 – https://www.tepsa.org/resource/sustaining-your-schools-culture-in-uncertain-times-adapting-your-school-culture-strategy-for-a-remote-or-hybrid-environment/


Dr. Ronald Williamson is Professor of Leadership and Counseling at Eastern Michigan University. He was a middle grades teacher, principal, and executive director of instruction in Ann Arbor, MI. He’s also served as executive director of the National Middle School Association (now AMLE) and as president of the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform. He received the Gruhn-Long-Melton award from NASSP in recognition of lifetime achievement.

Ron works with middle grades schools across the country and is the author of numerous books, including 7 Strategies for Improving Your School (Routledge, 2019), written with Barbara Blackburn. He can be reached through his website

Dr. Barbara R. Blackburn was named one of the Top 30 Global Gurus in Education. She is a best-selling author of over 20 books including Advocacy from A to Z written with Robert Blackburn (her dad) and Ron Williamson. An internationally recognized expert in the areas of rigor and motivation, she collaborates with schools and districts for professional development. She can be reached through her website. Follow her on Twitter @BarbBlackburn.