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Association of Washington School Principals
Washington Principal | Volume 2– 2022-23
The Impacts of COVID-19 on School Leadership
Lessons Learned to Support Teachers and Students
Steven Stein, Ph.D.
Senior Lecturer Mathematics, Math Liaison for High School Partnerships, Central Washington University
Kyle Carrigan
Director of Concurrent Enrollment, Central Washington University
Richard Trudgeon
Senior Lecturer Mathematics, Math Liaison for High School Partnerships, Central Washington University.
Evaluation Criteria: Creating a Culture; Planning with Data, Improving Instruction, Closing the Gap
Disruptions at school are a common occurrence. A fire alarm goes off, an assembly goes too long, a field trip is canceled, mother nature brings a snow day or five. Disruptions are everywhere for students in the K-12 system but has not been a disruption like that of the COVID-19 pandemic before, or was there? The flu in 1918, commonly known as the Spanish Flu, was a significant disruption for students across the United States [Barry, J. M. (2018). The Great Influenza: The story of the deadliest pandemic in history.] Penguin Random House.. In fact, in 1918-19, absentee rates were high even when local schools had in-person learning during the health crisis. Schools faced similar circumstances as we faced during the COVID pandemic; some schools stayed open, and some closed. School leaders could not agree on whether schools should remain open or not. The average closure rate in 1918-1919 was 36 days. Compare that to what most schools did during COVID. That is a significant difference, but then again, circumstances are much different now than they were one hundred years ago.
As we were planning this paper over the summer of 2022, we thought we were preparing an “after-action report,” but as we began talking to classroom teachers in the fall of 2022, we realized that while the storm may have passed, the clean-up has only just begun.
During the spring of 2022, the High School Partnerships program at Central Washington University surveyed 250 math teachers from across the state. We intended to learn how school leaders’ decisions impacted teachers and their classrooms and share that with our teachers and school leaders.
The purpose of this article is to simply provide insightful information to our hardworking school leaders across the state. We applaud you all for your hard work in general but, more importantly, the work that went on during COVID to ensure the education of the children in the State of Washington. This article will focus on a survey sent to high school math teachers across the state. While the survey contained many more issues, we will examine student apathy, catching students up who fell behind academically, and the significance of teacher burnout.

Before we get into the results of our survey, we wanted to share about the response of teachers. We have used surveys numerous times but have yet to see a response rate as we saw here. After one week, 70% of the teachers responded, indicating the continued level of teacher concern.
There is an idiom that we will use to gain some perspective on what just happened to our schools: Can’t see the forest for the trees. We think you need to pause, take a breath, and consider all you were put through over the last few years.
In one question, we asked our teachers to consider all the pressures and concerns school leaders faced, to reflect on how they managed the challenges of COVID, and consider what worked and what didn’t work, but to do so with the big picture in mind.
Question: In light of all the pressures and concerns school leaders faced, as I reflect on how our school managed the challenges of COVID, I was: 54% responded very satisfied or satisfied, while 33% responded neither satisfied nor dissatisfied. That means only 13% were dissatisfied or very dissatisfied. Here are a few “cherry-picked” items:
Question: My feelings about the amount of input requested from teachers:
44% were satisfied or very satisfied, and almost 30% were somewhat or very dissatisfied. Question: Teachers overwhelmingly felt the technology needs of students and teachers were met: Only 15% felt the training provided for teachers did not meet their needs. Almost 90% of teachers felt decisions regarding homework and contact time were harmful or very harmful to learning. So in the midst of navigating new policies and guidelines handed down from state and district officials (along with other influential stakeholders) and trying to make these one size fits all policies fit unique situations, all the while changing the way learning is delivered (which meant new technology and training for teachers and students - and we all know we can count on technology to work), trying to figure out assessment in this new “reality,” and oh, let’s not forget we are doing this because of a pandemic where our teachers and students are dealing with either their own or their families health issues (and helping their own children learn), how did you do? We go back to the 13% number from above representing those dissatisfied or very dissatisfied.
What do teachers mean when they say student apathy is higher, or what do teachers have in mind when they think of student apathy? The literature is not always precise. Several articles offer a short list of student behaviors to describe apathy. Here is our description: the absence of interest in class or activities, or a lack of energy or enthusiasm.
Student Apathy — Since returning to the classroom this year, I have noticed the apathy of my students is much higher than in previous years.
Nearly 80% of the teachers agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, 12% were neutral, and 8% disagreed.
One author identified six responses typical of students during COVID: overwhelmed, tired, bored, stressed, depression, and anxiousness. Which of these six responses is at work when a teacher identifies apathy in the classroom? We think using “apathy” for describing student behaviors is too broad, and we see value in teachers distinguishing between things like being overwhelmed and bored, or being anxious or tired. We suggest collecting data using informal, simple-to-use assessments to determine what is at work in students; this way, teachers can determine the best tools to help the situation. (This could be as simple as asking students questions at the beginning of an assignment to gauge where the students are.) The same author identified tiredness as the most frequent experience by high school students; this was often a result of sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation has been identified to affect students’ abilities to concentrate, learn, and regulate feelings. Teachers have at their disposal tools to aid them with students, and by identifying the specific issue, teachers can better identify the tools to use.
Boredom in the classroom is not a new phenomenon brought on by COVID. This battle is one educators have forever faced. While many things influence student interest, our experience is that bored students are most often in teacher-centered classrooms (think lecture). In our roles, we visit 200 classrooms each year and estimate that just under half of our classrooms are still primarily teacher-centered (lecture & homework). While there are benefits to some lectures in the classroom (where the teacher is at the front of the room doing most of the talking), there is a plethora of research indicating most students perform better, enjoy the class more, and have more long-term motivation when they are cognitively engaged in the lesson (student-centered).
We will end this section with a thought, not about student apathy, but teacher apathy. Teachers have experienced many of the same influences that students have. We should not expect that our teachers are immune from these symptoms. If the teachers are battling apathy, they will have difficulty helping students overcome their own apathy. For that matter, school leaders also experienced these things, and we encourage you to continue to consider your own health.
In our High School Partnerships program, we offer a Summer Institute every summer, and we require our teachers to attend once every three years. Due to COVID and loosening attendance requirements the previous two summers, we had higher attendance this summer, seeing about 150 of our teachers. As difficult as it might be to believe, some teachers shared that they were all caught up in their curriculum compared to other years. However, most were not, and our survey showed about 90% were not caught up.
The question for school leaders is not, “Are your students behind,” but “How much are they behind?” Plenty of data shows we have work to do to catch up. One tidbit from the National Center for Education Statistics shows the largest average score decline in reading in 30 years and the first-ever decline in mathematics. One challenge is to find and fix the gaps while, at the same time, not falling any further behind.
We have 250 teachers in our program that we visit each year. Discussions with our teachers this year convince us that there are still significant struggles with gaps in student learning, along with a feeling of urgency about being able to catch up. One of our takeaways from our survey results, combined with these discussions, is to remind our school leaders that it is going to take longer than we think to overcome all the influences of COVID. Which raises the question, how do we catch up and fix gaps in learning and not continue to fall behind?
Our first suggestion is for school leaders and teachers to consider if aspects of the Flipped Classroom (FC) could be advantageous to get caught up. COVID has put us into a new era of potential regarding instructional practices. Consider that before COVID, there were major obstacles to implementing FC in our schools. These included a lack of technology for teachers and students, a lack of training for students and teachers with both hardware and technology, and generally a lack of understanding of effective instructional practices using technology. COVID caused schools to speed up that transition for putting technology into the hands of teachers and students and a crash course in using these.
Teachers can provide recorded “lectures” (of less than 10 minutes) for students to view outside of class so that the teacher can use classroom time for engaging in activities and helping students. We were encouraged by the quick transition by many teachers and students, but we all recognize that not all classrooms experienced success. While most of our “virtual observations” of classrooms were encouraging, and we saw teachers use practices that engaged students, we still observed classes that did not. Truth be told, we are reluctant to recommend using aspects of the flipped classroom because we think too many teachers will only use one part of it. It is clear to us that when used correctly, FC is a powerful strategy that could help teachers to make up for lost time.
One school’s solution to catching up was adding an additional math semester for students in the 2022-23 school year. So, during the typical junior year, where students normally take Algebra III and Algebra IV, they were instead taking Algebra III, Algebra IV, and a “Math Enrichment” course. Meaning one of the semesters had two math courses. Completing two semesters of work by taking three courses helped the school get their students back to “normal” as far as the math curriculum goes, most likely at the expense of an elective.
We quickly became interested in the Modern Classroom Project — (Articles — Modern Classrooms Project) after a high school teacher introduced it to us as a way to work with students who are not all at the same place in learning. We encourage you to consider if you have the right teachers and environment and if this option could help your students.
In our survey, we collected practices from teachers they were using to deal with gaps in learning. We have a concern and want to raise a caution. While we are familiar with Standards Based Grading (SBG) and see value in it, we are concerned with opportunists pushing a change without the necessary study. Our article is about the stress placed on our teachers and school leaders due to COVID, and we want to point out that the influence of COVID should still have our attention. While we will always encourage school leaders to consider research-based solutions to meet needs in our schools — which we think SBG is, the middle of recovering from COVID is not a good time to evaluate a new instructional paradigm.
There is much that has encouraged us by talking with and observing teachers over the last few years. Our encouragement to school leaders is not to conclude that teachers or students no longer need extra support to overcome the influences of COVID.
Teacher recruitment seems to be a hot topic in the minds of K-12 and higher education administrators and state legislators, and there is good reason for it; their workforce is leaving, and in high volumes at that (MSU Professor Stefanie Livers). COVID has magnified the area of hiring and retaining high-quality teachers. This is a challenge in normal years, but throw COVID into the mix, and this area likely rises to the top of concerns for school leaders.
Even before the pandemic, the teaching profession had been identified as a particularly stressful occupation due to heavy workloads, time-intensive teaching methodologies, limited autonomy, role ambiguity, and the need to manage the expectations of administrators and parents. Mandated online teaching, although necessary to promote the continuity of education during the pandemic, has entailed significant shifts in a teacher’s job scope, potentially impacting professional identity and job satisfaction. Teacher burnout has always been something that administrators have dealt with. It was a challenge in normal years when there was a decent pool of applicants. It seems that more teachers are leaving the field of education, and the applicant pool is getting smaller (Economic Policy Institute). As we all know, COVID was not easy for those working in education. Teachers nationwide were at work Friday and asked to work from home the following Monday. We cannot think of a time when such a radical and quick shift was asked of those that educate our youth. Changing everything that was once done in person to an online environment was not an easy task for teachers. On top of this and the million other asks, shifts, alternations, pivots, or, or… has exacerbated an existing problem. According to Madigan and Kim (2021), teacher burnout is directly linked to the likelihood of the teacher quitting their job. They described the symptoms of burnout as exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced accomplishment.
We think the data on years of teacher experience below, where about 40% of teachers are likely near or could retire, shows the importance of supporting teachers in ways that weren’t necessary in the past. We are concerned that COVID could upend the normal cycles in education. Who will fill those vacancies when they retire or worse, burnout at year 15?
Here are some questions that were asked in the survey to math teachers in the CWU College in the High School program for you to consider:
Teachers are the heart and soul of K-12 schools. COVID had a destructive impact in schools across Washington state, and only time will tell how serious of an impact it made. Our teachers got us through these difficult years, but we should be clear that COVID was destructive not just to students and learning but also to our core of teachers. Too many are leaving the profession, and in this article, we have tried to share insights into the why and provide thoughts about things that can be done to support teachers and their students in the aftermath of COVID. How much our students have been set back in learning has become clear. There is a lot of work ahead to get our students back to where they need to be and support our teachers. But we will do it. In Washington, we have overcome volcanos, flooding, and wildfire, so we know we will overcome this. We were encouraged by the many things teachers told us they were doing to identify and help students. Our teachers shouldn’t try to do things independently, nor should our school leaders. As we did with our teachers, we encourage you to reach out to others for ideas, help, and support!”◼︎