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School principals are not OK

The pandemic and politics are pushing out leaders in education

Principal Rob Palazzo at Panther Valley Elementary School in Nesquehoning, Pa. Associated Press/Photo by Matt Slocum, file

School principals are not OK

Belle Chasse High School principal Jemi Carlone remembers the day Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards announced that public schools would close due to the COVID-19 pandemic: Friday, March 13, 2020. Belle Chasse’s senior prom was scheduled for that evening. The New Orleans–area school rescheduled it twice before eventually canceling.

Two months later, school administrators tried to decide how to handle a socially distanced graduation for Belle Chasse’s students—including Carlone’s youngest daughter. They finally hit on a solution: Hold graduations of 10 students each. “I did my speech 29 times—it took me two days,” Carlone said. “And each kid at least got to go across the stage.”

As the extra educational responsibilities of the pandemic bore down on teachers and parents, principals felt increased stress, too. A December report from the National Association of Secondary School Principals showed only 35 percent of surveyed principals strongly agreed that they were “generally satisfied” in their role, down from 63 percent in 2019. Seventy-nine percent of respondents said they had to work harder for pandemic-related reasons. Less than one-fourth of survey respondents strongly agreed that they would reach retirement as a principal.

Jeffrey Geihs, executive director of the Nevada Association of School Administrators, said school leaders face three main challenges: student learning loss, student behavior issues, and a politically divisive culture. Since many students have been out of school for longer periods, Geihs said they need to catch up academically and readjust to school behavior expectations.

As for the politics, Geihs said principals have to decide how to approach vaccine or mask decisions: “They have parents coming at them from both directions.”

The association has offered professional development workshops for principals, teachers, and other education professionals on topics such as stress or trauma that have been very popular. “I would have never thought to offer such things five years ago,” he said. “Now it’s like at the top of the list.”

Leaders of Christian schools are experiencing similarly increased stressors, said Brian Jensen, an executive search consultant with Vanderbloemen Search Group, a staffing company for Christian organizations. Jensen said many school leaders feel like COVID-19 has dominated their work.

“They’ve done nothing else except figure out how to keep their school running—with maintaining COVID protocols, answering to federal regulations, county mandates, balancing parent expectations,” he said. “What that’s done is pulled them away from … the mission that they’re on to maintain Christ-centered education and academic excellence … which is why most of them went into this work. And so it’s pretty draining and incredibly stressful.”

Jensen hasn’t worked directly with any schools whose principal or head of school chose to leave their job because of pandemic-related stresses, but he said he has heard anecdotally of school leaders retiring early or changing careers.

He said many Christian schools have found a COVID-19 response that works best for them, but they face a new challenge from pandemic-related growth. Many families chose to take their children out of public schools because of pandemic concerns or curriculum issues, so Christian schools around the country have seen higher enrollment. But not all of those families wanted a uniquely Christian education; some just wanted out of the public school district. They may have differing priorities or expectations of principals.

For some heads of schools, “there’s this juxtaposition of exhaustion and hopefulness,” Jensen said.

Carlone said her goal for this school year was to return to normalcy, and she feels like she and the other administrators have accomplished that. Masking was optional as of October, and the only school event she has canceled so far this school year was an event that would have brought many unvaccinated elementary students to the building: “That probably wasn’t a good idea to bring them here and intermingle.”

After more than a decade of being a principal, Carlone also wonders if it might soon be time for her to move on from her role, though she doesn’t think COVID-19 really affects that decision for her.  Even if she decides to leave her position, she thinks she would move to a role in the central office: “I will not leave education.”

Lauren Dunn

Lauren covers education for WORLD’s digital, print, and podcast platforms. She is a graduate of Thomas Edison State University and World Journalism Institute, and she lives in Wichita, Kan.

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