Leading Amid COVID-19: Reflecting on the Early Weeks of School Closure

As the Summer 2020 issue of Independent School magazine was in production, the COVID-19 situation was intensifying. One of the first independent schools to close its doors and shift to online learning was Eastside Preparatory School (WA), where the author of one of the issue’s articles, John Stegeman, is head of upper school. In the Summer issue, focused on crisis leadership, Stegeman wrote about his experience of leading through a financial crisis at another school. As the issue’s content—which had been planned and created months before the pandemic was named—was in the final rounds of editing, Stegeman was again thrust into leading through crisis. Kirkland, Washington, was on the leading edge of the outbreak—the first deaths occurred just 5 miles north of campus—and the school was in the precarious position of having to make difficult decisions before other schools.
As Stegeman highlights in his article reflecting on the lessons he learned, leadership in times of crisis requires flexibility and responsiveness. And one of the ways in which he demonstrated those qualities was to reach out to his fellow leaders to collect their thinking and strategies to share with the broader independent school community. As a crisis unfolds, he learns, measures of courage, encouragement, consistency, and sustainability are necessary. School leaders need to rely on faculty members willing to adjust quickly to new ways of doing things, the willingness to change as new information becomes available, and the support of families and students. Growing through relationships built over a long period of time shows the ability to survive a crisis—and it stems from the work educators do in our school communities every day. Eastside Prep’s head of school and several administrators reflect on their roles, response, and transition to remote learning.   

Leading in the Face of Uncertainty

Terry Macaluso, head of school

First it was “coronavirus.” Soon it became COVID-19. Then there were phrases like “social distancing.” The message: Get people away from one another—and keep them away. On February 28, our senior leadership team met. We knew we needed to get everyone out of the classroom and off campus. Closing seemed like a drastic choice. 

For the next several days, the email chains among our colleagues and parents alike grew longer and louder. Independent school colleagues in the region wrestled with a narrowing range of options; some preferred to sit tight, suggesting that closing was an overreaction. On March 2, we made the call to close our school and shift to remote learning. What first seemed radical to some at first, turned out to be prudent. Ten days later Washington Gov. Jay Inslee ordered all public and private schools in three counties—and then the entire state—to close.
In those last days of February, as they melted into the first days of March, I had to act without knowing anything about what the consequences might be. As is often the case when people have to make decisions that impact other people, this was a moment in which the capacity to live with ambiguity—to not know—was a requirement. Without a team of trusted colleagues who have worked together every day for more than 15 years, I’m not sure I would have mustered the courage to be the first institution to take action in such a public and definitive way. I remember clearly: We were seated around a large boardroom table, and someone said, “Let’s lead.” And so we did.

Leading with Confidence

Jonathan Briggs, director of strategy, technology and innovation

Over the years, we’ve built a strong, trusting team willing to explore and implement new technologies. We earned the trust of the faculty through dozens of walk-throughs of solutions and answering questions big and small. In this way, we developed an agile, tech-forward faculty culture, which has paid dividends when we really needed it.
After deciding to implement a remote learning platform, EPSRemote, as a response to the crisis and school closure, our challenge was to create it quickly. Normally, we think of any rollout of new technology as a measured and reflexive months-long process during which we conduct a range of tests and train people extensively. Yet in order to respond effectively to this situation, we had to get people off campus immediately. We were left with just days to put together the systems, training, and support mechanisms for 600 people, ages 10 to 70.

We looked for digital tools that would most accurately recreate the physical classroom experience. We sought to change as few things as possible and limit new technologies. We already had many of the systems in place for online delivery of course materials, submission of assignments, and collaborative group work. But we really needed a video conferencing system to recreate the interactive experience of the classroom. We set up every class on Microsoft Teams and quickly trained faculty. Teachers had confidence in our school’s ability to implement new technologies, and when they felt uncertain, teachers knew the leadership team would be there to coach them. What would have taken weeks without those strong foundations, we accomplished in just three days.

Leading with Clarity and Consistency

Matt Delaney, director of academic design and integration

The traditional school format—desks, tables, chairs, whiteboards, period schedules— provides consistency across the school experience. Layered on top are the unique, creative, and innovative ways that independent school teachers design and deliver instruction. In many ways, the predictable and uniform provide a foundation upon which disparate experiences rest and help members of a community have an identifiable shared experience. When EPS shifted to remote classes, we needed a new set of shared practices to guide instruction in a virtual classroom.
In the past we had used the Canvas learning management system as a place where teachers posted class assignments and students looked at calendars and submitted those assignments. In combination with Microsoft Teams, that system now became each teacher’s classroom. We created simple guidelines to connect class segments, standardized the suite of digital tools, and specified when and how assignments would be posted.
Most important in our transition was a baseline expectation for what a class period looked like. While we retained the 85-minute class schedule, concerns about an unhealthy amount of screen time led to a split block format, in which teachers and students were engaged synchronously for roughly half of each period, and students were released to complete independent work in the other half. We also asked teachers to assign work that could be completed by most students within the class period, effectively freeing up student schedules after school to support their well-being. In making the transition to a wholly new concept of what a classroom is and how it functions in the virtual world, both teachers and students needed clarity and consistency to frame their experience.

Leading by Listening and Responding

Sam Uzwack, head of middle school

Within the first week of remote classes, we began gathering feedback from parents, teachers, and students. For practical and functional reasons, it was essential to understand what was working for people and what was not, and to adapt to changing circumstances as needed. On an emotional and psychological level, as the national response to COVID-19 escalated, members of the school community were increasingly isolated, uncertain about the future, and weary of hours interacting through screens. People needed to connect with one another, express their concerns, and be heard. On both levels, their responses informed our evolving practice.
Community feedback made clear that the pace of instruction needed adjustment. The amount of planning time teachers logged was immense, and online instruction simply moved more slowly, with lags in communication. Although we intended the 85-minute class period to include both synchronous and asynchronous activities, both teachers and students wanted more flexibility to use class time in various ways.
After three weeks of remote instruction, we adapted our schedule to shorten teaching blocks to 60 minutes with 30-minute “passing periods” in between. Some students used that time to complete assignments, while others found it valuable as a break from their screens between interactive sessions. Making the effort to stay connected with our community, ask how they were doing, and respond substantively let people know we were in touch and cared.

Leading with Care and Sustainability

Paul Hagen, director of student well-being

Schools are more than just the sum of academic credits earned—interpersonal relationships are the foundation of any strong and vibrant school community. Operating remotely, it became evident that simply shifting our classes online was not enough. To truly serve our students we had to provide emotional support, organize social activities, encourage students to get outside and stay active, and strengthen community connections.
As days stretched into weeks, we focused more and more on the sustainability of instructional practices and the delivery of support services. Many teachers were now leading classes from home, while simultaneously caring for and coordinating the remote schooling of their own young children. Students, isolated from their peers and unable to spend much time outside the home, required guidance and support to maintain their own well-being.
One way we stayed connected with students was by reviving a weekly student email filled with tips on maintaining physical and emotional health and promoting community-building activities. We provided resources for students who needed additional support, including online counseling, one-on-one check-ins with advisers, and an online library of timely mental health articles. Members of our well-being team (school nurse, counselors, and others) developed outdoor lessons, social-emotional learning activities, and virtual social events. A spring photo competition, a virtual talent show, and an all-school scavenger hunt brought connection and levity to an otherwise lonely and scary time. Tips on how to reduce eye strain, how to minimize the spread of illness, how to setup a successful workspace, and stretches that could be done while sitting at a desk served practical functions and helped people maintain their well-being over the long haul. All of this supported the learning that was taking place online, but more important, it helped people remain connected to the learning community.
John Stegeman, head of upper school at Eastside Preparatory School in Kirkland, Washington, contributed to this article.

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Jonathan Briggs

Jonathan Briggs is director of strategy, technology and innovation, at Eastside Preparatory School in Kirkland, Washington.

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Matt Delaney

Matt Delaney is director of academic design and integration at Eastside Preparatory School in Kirkland, Washington.

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Paul Hagen

Paul Hagen is director of student well-being at Eastside Preparatory School in Kirkland, Washington.

Terry Macaluso

Terry Macaluso is head of school at Eastside Preparatory School in Kirkland, Washington.

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Sam Uzwack

Sam Uzwack is head of middle school at Eastside Preparatory School in Kirkland, Washington.