Education

Principals navigate turbulent times

School principals have to be versatile leaders as they are held accountable for all aspects of an institution. The principal provides strategic direction in the school system and keeps everything in line and in good working order. And over the past 10 months of the COVID-19 pandemic they have had to lead their various institutions through the fluidity that education became as it took on a new format, on a virtual platform.

With this in mind, The Nassau Guardian reached out to principals in private and public sector schools to find out how they adapted and pivoted during an unprecedented time to be able to continue to uplift and lead their staff and student body during such turbulence. A number of private school principals admitted that it wasn’t easy, and that it in turn was a learning experience for them as well.

On the public-school side, many principals responded that they could not offer a comment.

One principal likened leading his school through the thick of the coronavirus experience to participating in a pentathlon, with every turn finding a new obstacle to overcome; another said she had to learn to take it one day at a time and look at time management anew; while another principal said if it wasn’t for her staff, the process would have been more difficult; while yet another principal said being able to consult with experts and learn lessons from other schools outside The Bahamas was an amazing resource.


QUEEN’S COLLEGE PRINCIPAL

Reverend Henry Knowles, Queen’s College principal, described COVID-19 as a transformer, not a destructor.

“To journey through this pandemic and exit it the same way that we were before it started would be an unconscionable failure,” said Knowles. “The experience of the past year has been much like participating in a pentathlon event – with every turn you know there is a new obstacle to overcome; but regardless of how many challenges appear in front of you, you keep your eyes on the end goal and keep pressing forward.”

He admitted that the pandemic dealt a “shaking blow” to the institution.

“Not only were we forced to shut down our campus and revert to alternative teaching methods, but the loss of employment and income throughout the country impacted our parents, which in turn, severely impacted the finances of the school. But through it all, there were some commitments we made – we would do whatever it took to maintain the jobs of all staff, and preserve the academic rigor and mandate of excellence for which we are known.”

Knowles said he prays heavily, but that he also put prayers into action by undertaking countless hours of research on best educational practices, strategies and trends from across the globe.

“I continually tap into the experience and expertise of our staff, alumni and community partners; network with other private school principals and closely support my leadership team at Queen’s College.”

Knowles said the past year has been unchartered waters for his institution, but that he focused on the fact that he was standing at the leadership helm of the school with 14 other preceding principals standing alongside him.

“Over its 131 years of existence, the previous principals undoubtedly led the school during other challenging eras – world wars, economic depressions, social unrests, hurricanes, and even other pandemics. This truth armed me with the responsibility, courage and assurance that Queen’s College will continue to remain steadfast.”

Moving forward, Knowles said the greatest challenge remains the fine balance between knowing that students need to return to on-campus learning while not wanting to take unnecessary health and safety risks with the coronavirus still present in the community.

“With our Foundation Years students being back on campus, and our Primary Years to join them shortly, I am on my toes every day observing, evaluating and adjusting our protocols to ensure the well-being of students and staff. We have done well so far, and I am highly optimistic about the future.”

Knowles said nothing takes God by surprise and he continues to trust in God and that he called him for such a time as this to lead Q.C.

“I truly believe that God will use whatever gifts, training and experiences I have, and add them to his provisions and favor to chart the way forward for the school. I am not worried about the obstacles; I am excited for the journey,” said Knowles.


MARY, STAR OF THE SEA CATHOLIC ACADEMY PRINCIPAL

Mary, Star of the Sea Catholic Academy (MSSCA) Principal Joye Ritchie-Green said traversing the COVID-19 experience meant she learned to value her time more, to appreciate and focus on the quality of her life, and to know that she can end her day with unfinished work and just pick it up the following day.

A major personal adjustment she had to make included learning to manage time when working from home.

“Some days I would find myself putting in 15-to-16-hour days, or sitting six to eight hours in front of the computer. I had to make up my mind to shut down each day by 5 p.m.,” said Ritchie-Green.

She also said she had to keep herself organized and focused at the start of the new year, because neither of her vice principals were able to be on campus during the first two months of school.

But she said she was able to lead efficiently because she had a team effort.

“This affected everyone, and as such, we all went through challenges, and we had to work as a team to come up with solutions,” said Ritchie-Green.

Challenges she said her school faced March 2020 through June 2020 included trying to transition a kindergarten through 12th grade school onto one online learning platform; trying to create schedules for remote learning that would meet the needs of families who had limited devices, but multiple children across various grade levels; ensuring that all students were attending classes daily for every class; and giving assistance to those students who were having difficulty following lessons online.

“We were able to overcome these early challenges by assigning specific teachers to guide students and parents in setting up their devices for Google Classroom. We identified all the families with multiple children in our school, and ensured that there were no overlaps with live classes, by dividing the days and hours into synchronous and asynchronous lessons at the various grade levels. We had a team of teachers who were assigned to specific grade levels and students, and it was their job to follow up with those students and parents, if a student missed school. Once students were identified as having difficulties learning online, they were paired with a teacher who assisted them after school and during independent study.”

Major challenges encountered July 2020 through December 2020, the MSSCA principal said included navigating supervision for external exams while preparing for the opening of the 2020/2021 academic year; preparing documents that outlined protocols and procedures for face-to-face and online classes; preparing the campus to meet the requirements mandated by the Ministry of Health; teaching face-to-face and online simultaneously; and ensuring that they stayed on top of any possible threat of positive COVID cases linked to a member of the school.

“We were able to overcome these challenges by having the retired vice principal take the lead on the external exams [who also] organized and supervised the retirees who volunteered their time to invigilate,” she said. “Prior to students return to campus, a team of teachers along with student volunteers, painted signs, organized desks and chairs to meet social distancing protocols; at the end of the first term we requested all students to return to campus for face-to-face classes at the start of the second semester; we have been very consistent with following our protocols, and parents have been very happy about this; we have not had to shut down our campus after reopening face-to-face, and we know it’s because we have been strict about following the safety protocols.”

Ritchie-Green said she has always done a good job of communicating with parents through monthly letters, but in the era of the pandemic, found it necessary to communicate with them more frequently between March and June. She said her school continues to keep parents informed of any possible breaches.

“We have accepted that this is our new world, and all team members play their part. I am extremely proud of the teachers at MSSCA and what they do every day to ensure that they and their students are safe,” said Ritchie-Green.


LYFORD CAY INTERNATIONAL SCHOOL PRINCIPAL

David Mindorff, Lyford Cay International School (LCIS) principal is grateful for his school’s membership in international school networks, which he said allowed LCIS to consult with experts and learn lessons from other schools. Some of the best pieces of advice he said he received from principals in other jurisdictions were to plan in two-week cycles and to not make any guarantees more than a month out, and plan for the most likely scenario, rather than the best or worst case.

Mindorff said it would be difficult for the leader of any organization to claim that COVID-19 hasn’t been a challenging situation, and that he is grateful for the support he received that allowed him to lead a school that has been able to provide face-to-face learning with no outbreaks within the student or teaching community.

“Our international school accrediting bodies mandated that we have an emergency education plan in case of natural disasters or other disruptions that could prevent us from offering face-to-face instruction, so we were able to open as an online school the day after the government first mandated closure in March [2020].”

As a school, he said they have been continually challenged by the uncertainty of the situation, but he said they are a strategic organization that always plans for things well in advance.

Mindorff also said the LCIS Board of Directors also provided him with an excellent level of support in terms of being a “think tank” for making good decisions in uncertain times.

“One of our hardest decisions was remaining closed in September when independent schools were given the option to open. At that time, the level of community spread exceeded our accreditation risk matrix. The Bahamas is in an enviable position of having low rates of community spread, and this is in part due to the sacrifices made by the nation’s families with school-aged children. LCIS students have adapted to blended learning in an admirable way. We are also indebted to our teachers for their flexibility. In order to achieve the government’s density directives, and comply with our own risk matrix, we have had to provide our students with a mix of online and face-to-face learning. As the COVID-19 situation in The Bahamas improved, we were able to add face-to-face days, and this has involved constant changes with limited notice in advance.”


AQUINAS COLLEGE PRINCIPAL

Aquinas College (AC) Principal Shona Knowles said she had to learn to take one day at a time, and make the time management adjustment to avoid becoming overwhelmed.

She also had to become more tech savvy.

“I was forced to become well-versed in the use of the Google Classroom suite of products to be able to assist my teachers in creating lessons that inspire the students, [and] I had to become more technologically adept to proficiently monitor my students and teachers online,” said Knowles.

Major challenges she said she faced included sustaining student interest; motivating students to participate fully in the process; encouraging parents to create a learning environment space at home; ensuring that teachers created the right online environment where students wanted to learn, wanted to participate and wanted to feel successful.

She said she overcame the challenges with her support system for students, teachers and parents.

“I had to stay in constant communication with students, parents and teachers via email, virtual meetings, and personal telephone calls – before, during and after work hours.”

The AC principal said she provided opportunities for student, parent, and teacher collaboration – and that Google meets were the order of the day. She also facilitated by providing professional development opportunities for staff to assist with well-designed lesson plans.


ST. CECILIA’S SCHOOL PRINCIPAL

Denise Cooper-Louis, principal at St. Cecilia’s School, said leading an institution pre-pandemic was quite a challenge, and it was magnified in the pandemic because she not only had to work closely with teachers and students, but parents became a pivotal part of the trifecta.

“To say that the 2019/2020 school year was one for the record books is an understatement,” said Cooper-Louis, as she noted that the unprecedented era in education continues to rear its ugly head during the 2020/2021 school year as the country remains in the throes of the pandemic.

“As educators though, the pandemic has not only thrust us into roles we would not have experienced had we remained solely in the brick and mortar setting, but it has allowed us to engage in introspection as we adjusted to the new normal.”

She said when they launched remote learning in April 2020, one of the first issues she had to tackle as an administrator was making certain that teachers were comfortable with the Google Classroom learning platform; and that with more than 50 percent of her staff comprising people over age 40, they had to ensure they engaged in extensive professional development and mentoring; and in concert, ensure that all students had compatible devices because they were determined to not leave any child behind.

As a mother of two school-aged children, Cooper-Louis said she in turn had the daunting task of adequately preparing them for virtual lessons while engaging in her administrative duties.

Upon her school’s return to face-to-face instruction, she said “all hands were on deck”, and that she and her staff again lend support to parents who felt apprehensive about the return. But that the school made certain the necessary protocols to remain safe were in place.

They hybrid model she said also required some adjustments as parents had to familiarize themselves with revised schedules. Communication via email and social media she said proved important.


ST. THOMAS MORE SCHOOL PRINCIPAL

Dr. Renee Mortimer, principal at St. Thomas More School, said she had to embrace a “sink” or “swim” mentality, but that the support of colleagues and friends helped her to take on the “swim” approach.

“In spite of the difficulties of the situation, there was no other option,” said Mortimer.

She said the pandemic allowed her to pivot and embrace technology.

“As the principal of St. Thomas More School, I personally had to oversee all aspects of the learning environment. It was important to monitor the response of parents to the Google Classroom platform. Through emails, parents were kept abreast of new developments; it was important to see how students were adjusting to the Google Classroom platform. Students learned very quickly how to connect to their classes and turn in assignments electronically. In the midst of all this, I was called to ensure that the entire school community was coping as best they could.”

Mortimer said it helped to have the listening ears of fellow principals and vice principals who offered the support that was needed to propel forward.

“COVID-19 came to our shores suddenly, and all schools had to pivot. Learning packets had to be created very quickly for all students and parents needed to collect these packets from school in a very short space of time. The ultimate goal was to move to an online platform which occurred later when our school system transitioned to Google Classroom.”

Mortimer said the challenge with the interactive approach to learning was that some people did not have devices. She said her school community banded together in support of each other. And that she personally had to deal with a child who had no access to devices, but whose education could not stop.

After liaising with the child’s teachers, the student’s weekly assignments were sent to Mortimer electronically, who in turn printed them for the student. At the beginning of each week, the principal met the child’s parent at school to receive new work for the week and to turn in assignments that were completed, which were then scanned to each of the child’s teachers so that the student could receive credit for the work done. This, she said was done on a weekly basis until the term ended in June.

“The school family continues to take one day at a time,” said Mortimer.

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Shavaughn Moss

Shavaughn Moss joined The Nassau Guardian as a sports reporter in 1989. She was later promoted to sports editor. Shavaughn covered every major athletic championship from the CARIFTA to Central American and Caribbean Championships through to World Championships and Olympics. Shavaughn was appointed as the Lifestyles Editor a few years later.

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