The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has forced almost all countries to close their schools. At the peak of the crisis, about 1.6 billion children across the world were not at school.
School leaders bear the primary responsibility of ensuring the well-being of their personnel and students and finding ways to ensure that students are learning while in-school learning is suspended. A survey of over 1,800 leaders across 12 countries found that more than 70% of principals felt that the well-being of students in their school was their primary responsibility. Because they have the respect of their communities as well as personal relationships with students and their families, school leaders are uniquely positioned to guide families in many respects.
Speaking with education officials from governments in four countries, during a recent webinar hosted by Global School Leaders, it was clear that education systems should be delivering four clear messages to school leaders to improve student well-being and engagement through this crisis and as they move toward reopening schools:
1. Focus on basic needs first
Before we think about online learning and reopening of schools, we need to make sure that children’s basic needs like food, health, and emotional well-being are met. George Werner, Liberia’s Minister of Education during the 2014-15 Ebola crisis, said,
“You have to think as a leader, what happens when the shadow of COVID-19 begins to fade. We need to take school health more seriously than ever before, and it needs to be part of our strategic planning.”
Additionally, he highlighted the need to prepare teachers and school leaders to meet the psychosocial needs of children who have been through difficult circumstances. Programs that addressed students’ psychological needs in Liberia during the Ebola crisis, including a peace-building effort and arts program for children, were found to improve student well-being.
2. Focus on the most marginalized and at-risk children
The COVID-19 crisis is severely impacting individuals who are already marginalized relative to other groups and will likely widen the existing gaps between students from poor families and well-off families, as well as between male and female students. Dr. Praveen Kumar, the leader of the Telangana Social Welfare Residential Educational Institutions Society, a network of over 250 residential government schools for some of the most marginalized children in India, had this to say:
”The interest of those at-risk children must be at the core of the strategy for every school leader.”
When schools reopen, students will have different needs, and resources will need to be prioritized to match those needs. Initial focus should be on the needs of the most marginalized children so that the inequalities exposed by the COVID crisis are not exacerbated.
3. Focus on engaging the community through communication and collaboration
While many challenges with connectivity remain, schools and leaders are becoming more connected digitally to the parents and communities of their students as a result of the COVID crisis. School leaders can play a critical role in ensuring school-community connection continues to be strengthened to support student learning and build confidence. Dr. Sara Ruto, the Chairperson of the Kenyan Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD) and Chairperson of the Kenyan Ministry of Education’s COVID Response, provided an innovative example of how this increased connectivity can be used by leaders to improve the critical skills of social-emotional learning for students. She observed,
“[The crisis] is giving energy to some of the pillars of the curriculum that had not found voice before. For example, parental engagement, empowerment, and values-based education. These (i.e., values-based education) are things children need to see, touch, and grow with. And home is the first place where this happens. School leaders should use this opportunity to engage parents to ensure such learning takes place.”
Supporting school leaders as they continue to engage communities and families during and after the crisis will also be critical to reducing anxiety and building confidence to return to school and support children’s learning.
4. Embrace new opportunities to focus on learning
During the COVID crisis, school leaders and teachers in many countries are working in an uncomfortable situation with little prior experience to guide them in their responsibilities. As a result, educators are innovating and finding their own ways to focus on the needs of the students. Dr. Iwan Syahril, the recently appointed Director General for Teachers and Education Personnel in the Ministry of Education and Culture in Indonesia, captured this when he said,
“We are becoming comfortable with the uncomfortable. We’ve been talking about student-centered learning for ages. [COVID] is giving us the trust that this is okay. You don’t just teach your curriculum, but you look at your students and start there. This is an opportunity to reimagine the curriculum and ensure that each student is learning”
There is evidence that orienting schools, school leaders, and teachers to focus on meeting students at their level can improve outcomes. The COVID crisis presents an opportunity to have school leaders realign their roles and support teachers to focus on doing what is best for their students.
A strong response by school leaders is more urgent now than ever before to mitigate the disruption children are facing as they continue to be out of school. Education systems need to empower and support school leaders to focus on student success. As governments develop and refine strategies to address the impact of COVID across sectors, it’s important to embody the message delivered by Minister Werner when he said,
"To close schools during a crisis like this is to ask our youngest generation to make a tremendous sacrifice on behalf of its elders. The way to honor that sacrifice, when the coronavirus crisis abates, is to put learning for every child at the heart of the recovery. We owe them nothing less."
These key messages mean that school leaders and their associations should be part of developing the school reopening strategy. Panelists were clear that one cannot discuss school reopening without engaging school leaders.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also highlighted the imperative of training school leaders on aspects of community partnerships, communication, and instructional leadership.