Out of the hundreds of decisions school leaders are faced with making at the start of this school year, one decision seems to continue to be a topic of deep discussion and reflection. This one decision can positively or negatively impact the tone for the school year, so it is important to approach wisely.

There is no doubt that the typical beginning of the year decisions regarding what to teach, when to assess, who to hire, and how to structure a master schedule are still high on the checklist, but nothing may matter more this fall semester than effectively deciding, “How will school leaders make “new” still feel “normal” when welcoming students, staff, families, and community members back to school in the midst of the pandemic.

To help you ensure everyone feels welcomed, safe, and somewhat “normal” consider the following:

Positive School Climate

  • Purchase a portable Bluetooth speaker and play upbeat music during arrival and dismissal each day. It truly makes a difference and keeps spirits high during the start and end of the day.
  • Create a school theme and decorate the building to reflect that theme so the campus is still filled with cheer and not just signs that say “6 Feet Apart” and “Out of Order, Do Not Use.”
  • Continue to hold school spirit assemblies in a safe manner by moving them outdoors or by staggering them by grade level to limit crowds.
  • Continue to have end of six or nine week recognition ceremonies, but host them virtually so parents can still participate in a socially distanced manner.
  • Pre-plan virtual field trips or guest speakers so students still have opportunities to visit and explore other places and topics throughout the year.

Updates and changes regarding safety protocols and health guidelines will most likely be ongoing, so school leaders should be prepared to communicate early and often. No matter what, remember to keep your tone upbeat and neutral because if you as the leader sound stressed, frustrated or unsure, the staff, students and parents will follow suit. Communication tips to consider include:

  • Provide daily or weekly updates that are short, clear and factual.
  • Host a weekly Zoom chat with families to answer any questions they may have.
  • Gather feedback from families and staff regarding how to make them feel more comfortable and safe during this time through surveys that are easy to complete and analyze.
  • In conjunction with the campus counseling staff, conduct weekly check-ins with each grade level to hear students’ ideas, suggestions and concerns regarding safety and health.

School Environment (Physical Space)
A clean and safe environment is key when building confidence in your students, staff and visitors this year, so school leaders should be prepared to:

  • Stock up on personal protective equipment and make a special “PPE pack” for each staff member with gloves, masks, wipes, sanitizer, etc.
  • Create and maintain a “Safety Central” space near the front of the building that allows visitors to access masks and sanitizer upon entry.
  • Schedule a morning meeting with your custodial team to make sure everyone has what they need for increased routine cleaning and disinfection. (This is also a great time to show appreciation to your custodial staff with a coffee, breakfast taco or a pastry to say thank you for keeping everyone safe!)
  • Designate specific spaces just for visitors, community partners, and parents to utilize that provide separation from other common areas frequented by students and staff.

Leader Reflection
What ideas do you have to ensure a “new” yet “normal” welcome and safe entry back to school?

Wendy Mills is a principal in Austin ISD. She has a true passion for mentoring and growing aspiring leaders and supporting turnaround efforts in schools with high populations of economically disadvantaged students.

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The Texas Elementary Principals and Supervisors Association (TEPSA), whose hallmark is educational leaders learning with and from each other, has served Texas PK-8 school leaders since 1917. Member owned and member governed, TEPSA has more than 6000 members who direct the activities of 3 million PK-8 school children. TEPSA is an affiliate of the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

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