Principal Responsibilities in the Pandemic

Layfolk have little clue what principals do all day. For example, principals spend very little time evaluating teachers and that’s how they like it. Most of them aren’t terribly interested in outward metrics of student learning, like test scores.  Most school administrators only worry about problematic teachers on an exception basis: they don’t hear, they don’t care.

School administration is an intense, brutal management position that has a limited relationship to teaching. Issues that are largely unconsidered in the public perception are of fundamental and compelling importance to a school and its districts, dwarfing such piddling concerns as teacher quality. Merely excellent teachers aren’t terribly valuable in a principal’s currency. Without too much vanity, I can say that my students and colleagues alike consider me one of our school’s top three or four pure-play teachers. (meaning pedagogy, curriculum, delivery, effectiveness).  From a technical standpoint, I know my principal admires and appreciates my skill. From a school ecological health standpoint, my quality matters not at all. For years, my value to administrators was my ability to fill a teaching gap in any one of three subjects. Taking on a new responsibility six years ago bumped my stock skyhigh–which barely moved me into the lowest tier of valuable teachers. The top tier is peopled with the coordinators of school-wide initiatives: student activities, ELL testing, Title I.

Day to day operations combined with a series of one-offs rule the administrator world. Student discipline. Answering a tiny slice of the thousand emails received since 8 am. Parent phone calls. Meetings. Facility emergencies. District visits. Attending every single sporting event. Routine yearly or regularly scheduled events that nonetheless require planning, which at the high school level might look like: the master schedule, state tests, graduation, accreditation. Most of the intense planning occurs during the summer month when teachers and students are gone.

But these interrupt-driven tasks are actually a luxury permitted because the district manages the really important school responsibilities, the hulking beasts known as federal and state education mandates. These obligations are so essential and failure so threatening that the tasks are automated and audited by clerical or administrative staff at an expense of millions per year.

For example: attendance reporting is critical to school funding, audited at the district, county and state level. Principals aren’t usually evaluated on test scores. They are evaluated on whether or not their teachers take role. As in, if 90% or more of teachers in a school aren’t identifying any missing students on the expensive online attendance system and clicking “Save”, the principal will get some negative attention and an evaluation metric on that point for the next year.

Another important requirement:  a credentialed human being has to be in each classroom nearly every minute of the school day. As in the case of attendance management, districts spend millions each year to take this off individual administrators, usually with a teacher absentee system that allows substitute teachers to sign up for logged teacher absences. This frees principals from a task that would otherwise dominate their day–and, in fact, has dominated their days since the return from the pandemic occasioned a catastrophic sub shortage.

Then there’s the food issue. School researchers and reporters academically and casually use the term FRPL–the usual criterion for Title I designation–but far less attention is spent to the logistics of lunch time or, god spare me, breakfast time, particularly in elementary schools. It’s not just the money for food, but the scheduling, the hygiene standards, the workers, their pay, their hours, their substitutes….it’s a whole thing. No point in blaming federal mandates for this, mind you:  school lunch had  been in place for over fifty years in 1946, when Truman signed the National School Lunch program. (To this day I wonder why we never decided just to give school kids coupons for meals at local diners. Maybe just add the food cost onto SNAP cards? Sure would have been cheaper and more efficient.)

But the most significant requirement lurking at the edge of every principal’s worry horizon is special education. A behemoth of legal responsibility created by the unexpected collision between 1975’s special education law and 1991’s ADA, the legal mandate of IDEA and the civil right statute known as 504 have effects that were exacerbated by collisions created by medical advances and the APA’s ever-expanding DSM. The original special education law was intended for mildly “retarded” students but for the past 30 years, ever since it was retagged IDEA, the monster has created a whole slew of rights for kids who are a) severely mentally disabled, b) physically disabled (from minor to severe) and c) kids who have learning disabilities that were after the fact categorized as disabled. These are rights that only accrue to those with the magic three letter document known as an IEP, or the less-impressive but still powerful 504. (I would repeal IDEA in its current form, so take my pith with some salt.)

504 is primarily about disabilities that require equal treatment. IDEA covers “learning disabilities” that require equal educational opportunities. IDEA gradation goes from mild learning disability (executive function, auditory processing, ADHD) to low IQ but otherwise functional, to needs two paras and diapers and constant monitoring, to all that plus a $300k wheelchair, by which point school is little more than free institutional daycare.

Special education tasks are usually one-offs, only raising their head when a parent complains, which is often.  Ask any principal about the high-maintenance sped parents and they’ll have a list. Any time the parents are unhappy, well, just add more entries onto the day-to-day list–attend the IEP meetings, write careful emails, and so on.

So that was life before the pandemic closed all the schools. The method of teaching underwent a tremendous change,  but the responsibilities did not. Administration, on the other hand, had a pretty dramatic shift in responsibilities because they had to assume some of the responsibility for delivering legally mandated services.

First, the good news: they lost one responsibility, gained another that was easy to handle, and a lot of the day to day tasks got a lot easier.

Technology was the only new factor.  Ensuring Internet access was one of the easier tasks schools took on. In reality, students age twelve or over probably had a phone and at the high school level far too many students used their phone anyway. Younger than twelve, I’d argue online school wasn’t much use. Still, it was a popular method of looking productive. Look, we’ve passed out 300 Chromebooks. Easy metric.

Substitutes became a non-issue, at least on a daily basis. Most student disciplinary issues ended, once they got the zoom-bombing under control. No suspensions, no expulsions, and no teachers calling to remove students from the classroom.

Attendance would have been a problem except the binding federal and state mandates were first lifted and then redefined by legislative act or Betsy DeVos, depending.

The bad news: closing schools also closed the cafeterias.

Feeding students took up a great deal of a principal’s pandemic day. In urban and suburban regions, lunch distribution was a centralized activity; parents lined up at the school. I once counted a hundred cars–a quarter of a mile of cars–waiting for food delivery from an elementary school. In rural areas, where transportation is more of an issue, teachers themselves had to step in to distribute lunches. In either case, schools had to assume responsibility for feeding the kids that would otherwise be getting free meals from the cafeteria.  So in the early days of the pandemic,  food distribution took hours each day in the spring of 2020, and still consumed a lot of effort throughout the 20-21 school year.

The worst news: the special education beast rose to greet the pandemic monster and it’s still hard to figure out who won. I would love to know if anyone in education policy gave a thought to special education during those crazy weeks in March 2020. The binding, restrictive and costly laws that schools face were utterly unworkable. Shutting down infuriated one group of special ed parents, while staying open outraged the other.

There was no right answer for special education during the school shutdown era. Remote education screwed one big chunk of their population whose parents desperately wanted them in school ever day, while in-person education would trigger lawsuits from another chunk of parents who were convinced that covid exposure would kill their children.

Severely disabled students basically needed daycare and stimulus so, by definition, remote education violates their right to a free and appropriate education (FAPE). In Seattle, one of the earliest areas hit by the virus, a school district suspended all remote education for fear they’d be sued by parents or the federal government for failing to provide special education students equitable access. The Department of Education responded:

ensuring compliance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504), and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act should not prevent any school from offering educational programs through distance instruction

Translated: Districts can’t refuse to offer remote education using special ed mandates as an excuse–but districts still need to comply with special ed mandates.

Later, Betsy DeVos, who never met a public school she didn’t despise, issued guidance exempting schools from IEP compliance in the event of school closure but required compliance if only the school building was closed–that is, remote education was no excuse for IEP non-compliance.  Schools had to provide remote education and live with the fact that the feds could punish them for failing to meet special ed mandates.

Meanwhile, kids with any immunity issues had an instant ADA lawsuit were they required to attend in-person instruction–at the time, that is. Before the vaccine, everyone looked to the day when the  vaccine would eliminate the risks. Now we know there will never be any perfect protection, so the entire rationale that so terribly threatened schools is mostly a moot point. However, even after schools opened, sped parents whose child had an immune issue were furious at being forced out of remote–and some of them won lawsuits to gain that remote access.

The above is another logic point in support of my case that school districts heeded parents, not unions, in keeping schools closed. Yet another unacknowledged hierarchy: districts fear special ed parents far more than they fear unions. But even with the obvious violation of special education law and the threat of penalty from the federal government, schools still stayed in remote when that was what a majority of parents wanted. And even with the obvious risks of lawsuits that arose when schools were opened and no remote option was available, schools ended mask mandates when a majority of the parents called for it.

Based on their behavior, districts prioritized in this order: 1) overall parental preference, 2) special ed and 504 disability demands  3) in-person institutional needs of severely disabled students.

Generally, schools made the right bet. The lawsuits from angry sped parents whose severely disabled students were non-responsive and miserable all day haven’t been nearly as bad as originally feared. (Moreover, judges haven’t been totally sympathetic to the parents.) Settlements, on the other hand, in which the government just agrees to fork over compensatory services, are still an open issue.

So why am I nattering on about administrators, special ed, and lunch?

I’m trying to give a very rough, incomplete overview of actual school administrator responsibilities to give people  to a better grasp of school life during the pandemic. Principals had serious shit to deal with. They told teachers to figure out zoom and do their best. Even over the summer of 2020, it was district staff who focused on finding some curriculum they could use as talking points when asked what they were doing to help teachers with remote instruction.

For decades, we’ve been piling on additional responsibilities to public education. Finally, it turns out that during an emergency, actual education has to take a managerial back seat to those other demands.

In the main, teachers did much better than they were given credit for. I taught online nearly continuously from March 2020 to August 2021. I’m a good teacher. I adjusted my curriculum. Made sure my kids couldn’t easily cheat, and as much as possible eliminated cheating. And I’m here to tell anyone who’ll listen that teachers could not realistically cover the same material while ensuring student learning–that is, no cheating. We also couldn’t reasonable ensure student attention, or even presence. I’d say 70% of my kids learned 60% of a normal year. Teachers with more motivated students might be able to do better, but the harsh truth is (and those teachers will agree with me) using normal methods and teaching at normal pace meant the kids were cheating.

More administrative attention on teachers would not have improved results. If nothing else, the pandemic should lead people to question the value of virtual instruction. (Instead, since many parents are still terrified of covid19, they are booming in popularity.)

Principals had to completely reorient their world during the pandemic for remote instruction.Then consider the exponentially more hellish their lives became in hybrid mode, when some students are on campus and some still in remote, and teachers likewise.  Food and technology must still be delivered, but substitutes and student discipline get thrown back into the to-do pile. Additional levels of (ultimately needless) sanitizing. The only schools that would undergo hybrid would be blue state districts forced to comply with CDC restrictions as well as a white parent populations demanding in-person instruction (Vermont, sections of Connecticut and Washington). Polls showed that hybrid didn’t satisfy parents enough for the work it took–and teachers hated it.

My last article argued that parents, not unions, were the primary driver of school and district choices for remote or in-person education. By examining the administrative requirements of schools during the pandemic, it becomes clear why districts only opened if enough parents demanded it. If demand for in-person was weak, then the second group in priority, special ed parents with immunity concerns, as well as the hassles of hybrid, would prevail.

This puts the hybrid mode offered by NYC and Chicago in a different light.  While angry Republican moms bewailed the union control, the importance of white (taxpaying) parents, even as a minority, was such that these large districts went through the hassle of aggravating their unions and the expense of hybrid instruction (all that was possible given state governance) to at least partially assuage these constituents.

But generally, districts had no incentive to push for inperson instruction without parent support, even though they clearly saw the problems with remote learning.  Absent significant majorities for in-person instruction, remote would be the preferred delivery.

About educationrealist

12 responses to “Principal Responsibilities in the Pandemic

  • Chris Gillotte

    Great article.
    You mentioned you effectively curtailed cheating. May I ask how you achieved that result? At our school, we have not been satisfied with our results in reducing/eliminating cheating.

    • educationrealist

      First, I’m glad you liked the article. I’ve been working and working on a third piece and this was originallly part of it–pulling the focus. So I suddenly had the idea to make a separate piece and it went much better, but I worried it was too boring.

      Curtailing cheating: first, the bad news. There was very little way to curtail cheating in pure operational lessons. Simplifying exponents, factoring, or solving complex equations. In precalc, for example, which is 70% about getting kids fluent in advanced algebra, I flat out quit giving tests. It was a waste of time. I had them record themselves solving problems, which took for fucking ever to grade. It was really disheartening, because you’d think precalc kids would realize how stupid it was to cheat, but no. I taught precalc the first semester (we have 4 block semesters so a year in one), and there were maybe 8 kids who actually learned stuff. The rest of them were shocked when I quit quizzing and dismayed that their grade dropped as they couldn’t prove they knew anything. So they weren’t rewarded, but at least they weren’t cheating.

      Trig and Algebra 2 I could get further because it’s a lot of graphing. I still skipped exponents in algebra 2 and unit circle memorization in trig because again, no point. But I could do a lot with right triangles, coordinate trig, and graphs for trig and function transformations, linear systems, and word problems for both groups in ways that couldn’t be photomathed (for readers unaware, the problem with cheating was that an app exists that solves any equation you point your phone at, may it rot in hell forever and the motherfuckers who built it).

      I also was able to get more students working because someone clued me into a feature of Desmos. You could create an activity and then link it into google classroom and see who was working on it. I would mark a lot of kids absent and they’d say “I was on zoom!” and I’d be like yeah, you weren’t on Desmos. And that got more of them working, where I could see what they were doing and get a good sense of their skill. I could also give simple quizzes on Desmos because I could watch their progress. Any kid who did nothing for 20 minutes and then submitted the quiz in 5 minutes I’d call back and ask to show me what they’d done.

      But even that was a success,really. Those kids weren’t using photomath–they were getting texted answers from a friend. Which shows I’d successfully modified curriculum.

      I also did a lot of conceptual stuff. No factoring, but I did show them how to graph and find zeros in desmos, and how to write it in factored form–then taught them binomial multiplication and I could quiz them on that. Hell, if they didn’t actually expand (x+3)(x-7) but figured out the graph on desmos, I’d count that a win.

      Examples: instead of saying “Graph (x-3)^2+7” I’d say “graph a parabola with h=3 and a vertical shift of 7.

      Or Graph a sine function with amplitude 4, vertical shift 5, and a period of 8.

      I got a lot of positive feedback from the kids, including a number of them who said they’d actually learned something, thanks. But it was achingly slow.

      • educationrealist

        Desmos was incredibly helpful, by the way. I’d like to take that course they’re offering to do even more modification (I’m a good programmer and have done quite a bit on my own), but not $200 worth. Still, along with Google classroom, I’d say Desmos was an essential element of online teaching.

  • Michael Pershan

    I don’t think I’ve seen anyone explain as clearly what exactly occupies a principal’s attention all day.

    By the way, how are you going to send middle schoolers to local diners? Local diners wouldn’t like that.

    Also, at my first school kids went out to eat. There was a pizza place across the street which is where they went every day. For variety and a healthy and balanced diet, there was also a Dunkin Donuts. The experience made me more strongly believe in the value of schools serving healthy options.

    • educationrealist

      Wow, thanks! High praise.

      “By the way, how are you going to send middle schoolers to local diners? Local diners wouldn’t like that.”

      No, but I think local diners or chains would welcome the opportunity to put a food truck outside a school at lunch time and accept vouchers.

      “The experience made me more strongly believe in the value of schools serving healthy options.”

      But it’ss well established the kids either toss the food or don’t eat it. Myself, I think the whole program is moronic. But I’d rather use coupons than staff a cafeteria.

  • Anon For This

    Your articles are eye-opening for those of us overseas.
    I’ve taught in several countries (not the US), in public and private schools. The main thing principals seem to do is manage the school so as to avoid attacks from a small group of eternally aggrieved parents, then to fend off these attacks as they occur, then to manage uncooperative teachers. Yes, their main metric is trying to keep a qualified person in all classes at all times, despite the above pressures sometimes making that difficult.
    This seems to have worsened over time. Being a principal is now so stressful in some countries that only the mad, bad or sad will attempt it. A lot of ambitious teachers aim to become Assistant Principal and stop there.
    Is this a similar trend in the States?

    • educationrealist

      That profile might be accurate for some principals in America as well–really well-off suburban schools, for example, would have fewer problems with students and more aggrieved parents, fewer problems with free lunch and attendance. The life of the principal in Beverly Hills or Grosse Pointe is going to be very different from that of a principal in inner city Miami or Detroit. I’m trying to give the median case.

      I don’t think the difference from AVP to P is that big a deal in the US, in terms of quality of life. As for ambition, lots of teachers have plenty of it and zero drive to be a principal. They are entirely different things. And administration in the US is heavily driven by affirmative action, so getting to principal if you aren’t black or Hispanic is often about luck and timing. But most of the non-white admins I know are looking to be principal.

  • Hattie

    Regarding the school lunch issue, I always assumed that supervision of families was a large consideration. It’s something that the people crowing that public schools are just daycare never seem to consider. Maybe because they like it.

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