April 7, 2020

A Principal's Take on Remote Learning

Joel Cook
A caregiver sits at the dining room table with a student going over homework

In this story from the frontlines of remote learning, a school principal shares his experience with transitioning his secondary school into a remote learning environment, focusing on student mental wellbeing first.


On Thursday, March 12, I listened intently as our Governor, Gretchen Witmer, announced that schools in the State of Michigan would be closed for a minimum of three weeks. Earlier this week, Governor Whitmer extended this order for another week. As a former teacher and a current building principal, my first thought was, “How in the world are we supposed to educate and engage our students remotely during this tumultuous time?” Schools were not going to be closed until the following Monday, which meant students and staff were still expected to report on Friday as if it were a normal school day.

I was very concerned that our attendance would be very low and that our students would be out of sorts. Before school started, I met with my entire teaching staff to clarify our expectations and let them know that we would need to see how this situation develops before determining how to remotely educate our students. When I was doing my walkaround that morning, I was surprised that most of our classrooms were packed. Furthermore, students were dialed in and listening intently. When the final bell was about to ring, I expected students to rush out to their newfound freedom, but I was surprised to find that the mood was very somber. Students were hugging each other, and some were crying. These were tears of uncertainty, not tears of joy.

What I realized at that moment was that students need school for their social and emotional connections as much as they do for the academic component. Now these students would be expected to lose out on those connections but still maintain the academic progress. Without their social and emotional needs being met, it is nearly impossible to teach the Pythagorean theorem or Bill of Rights.

Given this information, I believe it is imperative that schools allow students to seek out educational resources at their own pace, rather than assign them work to complete during this hiatus. Though schools are officially closed for three weeks (and Spring Break), I believe there is a very real possibility that the leave could be extended even further.

The biggest challenge for a school district like ours is to ensure access to education for ALL of our students. Not everyone has the internet, not everyone has an appropriate device, not everyone has a positive environment in which they can learn. We have many special education students that are required, by law, to have certain accommodations to assist with their learning.  How do we possibly provide these accommodations electronically? What happens if the internet isn’t working? How will students use a learning management system if they have never been shown how it works? As you can see, there are many possible challenges that have to be considered.

At this point, the advice we are giving to parents and students is to continue to learn. That doesn’t have to come in the shape of a robust lesson online. It could mean reading a book for 45 minutes. It could mean going to the basement and building a fort. Learning comes in so many different forms, and we are encouraging our students and families to explore all of those options. Our staff has been great about providing resources to our students and their families, but we want our students to have the autonomy to seek out educational resources. I have three daughters, and I want them to be bored. I want them to use their creativity and critical thinking skills to seek out activities. What I don’t want is for them to sit on the couch and watch TV or play on phones and tablets all day.

As both a parent and an administrator, this has been a challenging time for many reasons. The most difficult aspect of this entire situation is the unknown variables that seem to change like the weather. I have been inundated with questions from students about sports, prom, graduation, etc. I have been inundated with questions from teachers about lesson preparation, payroll issues, possible summer school, and more. I have been inundated with questions from my own children about spring break plans and class trips. My answer has consistently been, “I don’t know.” The truth is that none of us know where this situation is heading, and until we do, it makes advanced planning very difficult.

My suggestion for other administrators, especially in areas of high poverty, is to worry more about the whole child and less about proficiency scores. Right now I want our students to feel safe and to know that our district is one big family. If the three weeks is extended, I think administrators need to really think out of the box on how they are going to provide a quality education remotely. I think about that prospect constantly, as I am sure other administrators are doing the same.

These are complicated times, and my biggest piece of advice would be to take care of yourself mentally and physically. With so much uncertainty in the air, it is important to keep your blood pressure down and your motivation up! Try to make contact with as many students as possible, and let them know you care. Try to keep in constant contact with your staff, and let them know we are all in this together. This, too, shall pass; and when it does, I cannot wait to reconnect with staff and students and do what I love!

Visit GoGuardian's Distance Learning hub for more stories like this one and for resources to support your schools during closures.