COVID-19 devastated school learning, especially for marginalised students, but resourceful principals have shown how they can make a difference.
School principals in some disadvantaged areas across the United States resorted to innovative strategies to keep their students engaged with virtual learning during the height of lockdowns.
They organised to loan struggling kids laptop computers, created wi-fi hotspots, visited homes and conducted lessons in their driveways. They even placed encouraging signs of support in their front yards and formed car parades through their neighbourhoods, according to research from the University of Texas at San Antonio. For students’ families, they created food banks and located community mental health services. These efforts kept many students and families engaged in virtual lessons, rather than dropping out of school.
“When you serve marginalised kids, you have to create systems of opportunities so that no child digs themselves into a hole they can’t get out of,” a secondary principal in South Texas told researchers.
Despite this, the after effects of COVID-19 continue to impact schools across the US. Teachers are quitting or retiring in record numbers, staff absenteeism has dramatically increased and hiring qualified substitute teachers is nearly impossible.
The ongoing effects of the pandemic on students’ academic performance and emotional wellbeing are also far from over, especially for those in underprivileged communities. School leaders report families still need assistance to help their children cope with these challenges.
Academic performance focuses on students’ intellectual and cognitive development, while social-emotional wellbeing refers to their ability to manage and cope with impulses, emotions, and feelings. The two cannot be separated: children’s social-emotional wellbeing significantly affects their cognitive abilities.
Over 80 percent of American schools report ongoing problems with students’ social-emotional wellbeing, including increased misconduct, disrespect to staff and use of prohibited electronic devices. There is chronic absenteeism and heightened anxiety, depression and social withdrawal observed in students of all ages.
Test scores for most schools in the US have plummeted below 2019 levels, with students in high-poverty schools scoring 20 percent lower in maths and 15 percent lower in reading than their counterparts in low-poverty schools. High schools in marginalised communities report significantly fewer high school seniors pursuing post-secondary education.
Research over the past 25 years has shown how school principals can influence students’ academic performance. Since 2010, a consortium of researchers from the International School Leadership Development Network has examined successful principals serving high-need, marginalised communities. Given the pandemic’s effects on schools, these researchers have pivoted to understanding how school leaders are contending with these changing circumstances.
At the onset of the pandemic, school leaders quickly established new school operations, procedures and expectations while attending to the emotional turmoil experienced by staff, students and families. Because of the uncertainty surrounding the immediate switch to online learning platforms, school leaders not only developed new policies and practices dealing with grading, graduation requirements and online lessons, but also clarified expectations for teachers, including guidelines for conducting online learning sessions, responding to emails, contacting parents and tutoring students.
In the US, South Texas school principals and assistant principals recognised the overwhelming stress experienced by their staff, students and parents, and were keenly aware of the need to address their emotional needs. They emphasised the importance of constantly communicating with staff to update them on the latest developments and expectations from the district and addressing teachers’ slipping morale by implementing virtual games and team building activities. One school leadership team conducted weekly mental health check-ins with their staff and created a newsletter summarising mental health resources in the area.
The leaders in these schools incorporated social-emotional wellbeing into the curriculum and implemented a positive behaviour program for students. They sought the help of school counsellors to address disciplinary issues and partnered with community agencies to help students experiencing trauma. A primary school assistant principal in South Texas said, “the days of being an instructional leader without (understanding) social-emotional learning is no longer an option”.
The principals understood that re-engaging students and families was critical because, “virtual learning created students with ‘escape’ strategies rather than ‘coping’ strategies,” as a primary school assistant principal in South Texas told researchers.
Principals also acknowledged the unique circumstances of serving under-resourced communities, including the need for older students to work to support their parents and siblings. Many of these students spent more time working during the pandemic. But with the return to in-school learning, a South Texas secondary school principal noted “fewer students [are] participating in school activities, such as choir, orchestra, and athletics”.
But many schools in the US continue to struggle to meet the emotional needs of their students due to students missing important early socialisation experiences at school, losing family members and friends to COVID-19 and watching parents contend with job loss.
The International School Leadership Development Network found that school leaders have a desire for professional development to better deal with students’ social-emotional development and classroom management strategies. They want to raise their awareness of effective emotional wellbeing activities through classroom activities that address student disengagement and disruptions. As well as ways to better provide mental health services for struggling families. They noted these issues should be better embedded in preparation programs for future school leaders, but it’s currently not considered a priority.
While research demonstrates a positive relationship between students’ social-emotional development and academic achievement, no studies have yet to reveal how schools and their leaders have made headway into improving students’ behavioural and social learning outcomes.
This unexamined area is essential to improving and helping schools all over the world overcome the ongoing effects of the pandemic on children’s education. Conducting qualitative, mixed method and experimental research can reveal promising interventions for addressing students’ mental and emotional needs. Educational researchers, like those in the International School Leadership Development Network, aim to make a substantial contribution to educational leadership practice by undertaking these important studies.
Nathern Okilwa, PhD, is an associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
Bruce Barnett, PhD, is professor emeritus in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
The authors declare no conflict of interest.