The Pandemic: Lessons Learned

I haven’t written a blog post in over a year. It’s actually hard to believe that over a year has passed since that day in March, 2020 when we were told that schools would be closing. At the time, I remember thinking that we would be closed for two weeks at the most, and the immediate challenge at that point was to figure out how to keep students engaged “asynchronously” so that they didn’t fall too far behind by the time we returned. Those two weeks, of course, turned into another two weeks, and then two more after that, until we were finally closed for the year and scrambling to come up with “reopening plans” for September. With that, the summer was lost and everyone, from administrators to teachers, and parents to students, were entirely burned out before the first day of school in September. In some ways, it felt like school never ended, and in others it felt like it would never really begin again. At DFHS, we opened with a “student need hybrid” which basically had our students remote most days with opportunities to sign up for in-person experiences as needed. We eventually transitioned to a more traditional “AM/PM” hybrid with cohorts, and we are finally planning a full reopening starting the week of April 12th. 

It’s been quite a road, and the truth is that there’s no way that I can even remotely capture all that happened day-to-day. A day felt like a week, a week a year, and a month, well, a career, and it was a constant battle of “putting out fires” while trying to be proactive enough to avoid future ones. In most cases this was to no avail. I did of course think about this blog from time to time over the past year, and even had a few moments where I thought “I should write about this.” But the time was never there, and the energy it would take to sit down and actually write was frankly better spent responding to emails, speaking with teachers and parents, or meeting to discuss the “next step” in an endless journey of steps. As I’m sitting here now, I am in no way under the false impression that we are at the end. Quite the contrary. While we are “reopening,” I’m also aware that cases are still abundant, there’s talk of a fourth “surge,” and we are about to encounter a whole new set of challenges once we have students in the building at much greater rates than we’ve had to this point. In some ways, I’m expecting the spring of 2021 to be as harried as it was in 2020. But this time around we are more hardened, and more prepared mentally, emotionally, and intellectually.

As I look back at where we were right when the pandemic started to where we are now, it’s hard not to think of not only the journey itself, but perhaps more importantly the lessons learned throughout that journey. That’s what I’m going to share here. The ten most important lessons in no particular order. In sharing these, I fully recognize that I can easily write 4,000 words on any one of them. At some point perhaps I will. Or maybe I won’t. I suppose we’ll see what the next year brings. 

For now, here’s my top ten:

  1. We were right about adaptability: About ten years ago we read The Global Achievement Gap by Tony Wagner and since that time we’ve been talking about the 21st century skills that students need in order to be successful. Among those skills that led the way for us in Dobbs Ferry was adaptability, and boy did we need to put that one to use during this pandemic. For over a hundred years, school has been a certainty for all of us despite whatever uncertainty has come our way. During World Wars, terrorist attacks, national tragedies, and so much more, school has been the one constant that kids could count on, and that society relied on. This pandemic changed that. Or at least it changed the way we were accustomed to thinking about it. Virtually overnight, schooling shifted from the brick and mortar of our school building to the remote world of Google Classroom and Google Meet. There wasn’t time to prepare, there wasn’t even time to think. We all needed to adapt, and this pandemic showed us not only that we can, but also that we must continue to be ready to adapt for the foreseeable future and, perhaps, indefinitely.
  1. We were also right about technology: Dobbs Ferry was way ahead of the curve in 2013 when we transitioned to a full one-to-one program at our high school. Our teachers (and students) adapted quickly to this shift, and our school (and district) fully transitioned to Google several years ago, with all teachers using Google Classroom along with the seemingly infinite number of apps available to enhance instruction. A few years back, there was a growing voice in our community to basically eliminate technology and move back to traditional methods of the 20th century. The pandemic taught us pretty quickly that it was a good thing that we didn’t make that shift backwards. 
  1. We need managers after all: The past twenty years in education have seen a shift away from managers as a preferred leadership style to instructional leaders as being what is most needed and desired in our schools. While the latter is still undoubtedly true, schools that lacked true operational and managerial experts struggled mightily during this pandemic. At DFHS, we have a team of expert managers led by @careim2, and because of this we continued to transition and adapt smoothly as massive change was thrown our way seemingly on a daily basis. 
  1. Broken systems were exploited: Expanding on the point above, so many schools (and districts) look perfect on the outside. They are located in affluent neighborhoods, test scores are high, and the local and national rankings are right where they are expected to be. When you look inside of the walls of many of these schools, however, there’s sometimes a different story. There aren’t clear management systems, teachers feel isolated, there’s a clear divide between the administration and the staff, and toxicity seems to reign as a result. While many schools can “survive” those shortcomings under normal circumstances, all of that was exploited during the pandemic, and those schools struggled the most as a result. To those schools, the pandemic should serve as a wake up call to get the shop in order because a rainy day (or year) is always a day away. 
  1. It’s a matter of trust: When systems are broken, trust doesn’t exist, and schools without trust had a really hard time navigating the pandemic at a time when trust was needed most. The pandemic put our schools in a full blown crisis, and there were countless times when I just needed the teachers and staff to trust in what I was telling them and to trust that I’d always support them and have their back as we worked through the crisis. As in any relationship, trust isn’t just words that we use. Saying “trust me” just isn’t enough. Trust is built over time, through actions that are genuine and selfless, and it’s the most precious commodity of any relationship. We have that type of relationship at DFHS, and it made navigating this situation so much easier and productive. 
  1. You will please no one when you try to please everyone: This is my tenth year as the principal of DFHS, and my sixteenth as a school administrator. I learned long ago that it’s impossible to please everyone so I stopped trying well before the pandemic. However, this pandemic truly made it clear that not only was it impossible to please everyone, but in reality it seemed at times that it wasn’t possible to please anyone. No matter what decision we made as a team, we were barraged with emails that were at times highly negative and even personally insulting. The same held true during online community forums. As a leader, I’ve always had thick skin, I never take anything personally, and we make the best decisions as a team with the best and most current information that we have. That was certainly put to the test during the pandemic, and it was a true lesson in leadership, perseverance, and courage.
  1. Politics and schools don’t mix: It was fascinating how Covid became a political issue for so many people, and the political leanings of certain individuals often directed how they felt that schools should handle reopening. Some felt strongly that schools should fully reopen (“Covid is a hoax!”), others felt that schools should fully close indefinitely, and the majority were somewhat in the middle and didn’t know exactly what to think. For me, this was never a political issue, and my political opinions played no role in the decisions that were made. Instead, NYS essentially gave us a “playbook” of guidelines, and our job was to come up with the best solutions for the most people while playing by the rules of the respective game. In that way, it was objective decision making based on the information, and politics and “feelings” had no role whatsoever, as it never should. 
  1. Race and equity came to the forefront: Many years ago DFHS established itself as an “IB for All” school. Equity and access has always served as the bedrock of our belief system and philosophy as a district, and our school (and district) received local and national recognition for our success, including a National Blue Ribbon Award in 2020. When the pandemic hit, we were faced with new issues with regard to equity as students moved to full remote learning. This included the educational experiences of parents, students who had parents working from home vs. outside of the home, students who might or might not have a quiet place to work and/or meet with classes, and of course the inevitable self-consciousness that some students felt about the “background” that others might see during Google Meets. In late spring, the Black Lives Matter movement further illuminated issues around race and equity, and it became clear to everyone that we all need to do a better job of creating a truly inclusive school community. Our district has been dedicated to this important work since well before the pandemic and the new understandings that the pandemic brought forth have only increased our efforts. We all still have a long way to go. 
  1. Mental wellness also came to the forefront: Focusing on the mental and emotional well-being of students and staff has long been an emphasis for us at DFHS, and the pandemic brought many of those concerns further to the forefront. The start of the pandemic caused tremendous isolation and fear, and our teachers and staff were faced with the challenge of taking care of their students while simultaneously being concerned with their own well-being and that of their families. Despite challenges that are inherent whenever the focus is the human condition, as it was big time during the pandemic, our school was well equipped to handle these issues because of how much we focused on this area when things were “normal.” We emphasized mindfulness, meditation, staff and student wellness activities, and more structured programs that were designed by our Student Assistance Counselor and our school counseling team. Our forward thinking here made life more manageable for everyone when faced with a true crisis, and it allowed for much more level-headed proactive thinking when everyone was reacting to all that was happening around us. 
  1. Our students taught us all: The age old “concern” of older people is that the youth will lead to the downfall of America. We heard it with every generation, from the counterculture teens of the 60s to the millennials of this generation. We always think that our generation “did it best” when in reality that is the furthest thing from the truth. During this pandemic, we all learned pretty quickly that our kids are going to be okay, and with that so will we. While so many adults scrambled and, for lack of a better word panicked, our students and children for the most part rolled with the punches. They adapted to the changes, figured out how to navigate school, and they even offered help and support to teachers who were thrust into a whole new realm of virtual teaching. With so much taken away and lost, especially for our seniors, we saw our students rise up to the challenge, pivot, adjust, and find success in a world that was entirely different from the one they knew only a day before. Indeed, they were (and continue to be) a true inspiration to all of us.

There’s definitely a Part II to this pandemic as it relates to schools, and I’m sure a year from now I’ll look back again and reflect upon how schools have forever changed as a result. We already know that we can’t just simply go back to doing things exactly the way we did before March, 2020. To do so would be foolish. We’ve all been through so much and have learned, evolved, and grown as educators in ways we never thought possible. First year teachers became master teachers, and master teachers were in many cases turned back into rookies. It was a total upending of the system, and it forced all of us to rethink education not for what it is, but rather for what it can and will be. It is that concept that is most exciting, and it is the greatest gift that we all take away from this pandemic.

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