TORRENCE R. WILLIAMS
COVID-19: The Principal Perspective Torrence R. Williams
2017 Louisiana High School Teacher of the Year
Principal at Bains Lower Elementary School,
West Feliciana Parish. Grades PK, K, and 1st
Friday, March 13, 2020, is a day I will never forget. I was hearing that school might be closing on Monday due to COVID-19. So many things went through my mind. My district called a leadership meeting at the school board office to discuss all of the possibilities and all of the potential solutions should schools close. Although my district did a fantastic job of communicating, this new situation was tough, and I walked out of that meeting filled with anxiety, knowing I had to go back to my school building and explain that everything would be okay. COVID-19, or coronavirus, was now dictating the decisions I needed to make as principal of my school.
I put on my brave face and shared one of the toughest messages to my faculty and staff. Though schools hadn’t been closed yet, teachers immediately began asking questions. Questions that I couldn’t answer. I called a meeting in my office for all of the “key teachers,” shared the speculation, and we commenced our planning. The problem is…being a new principal, I hadn’t yet built a “key team,” but I did have a strong group of “grade-level chairs,” and this mighty team suddenly became my “key teachers.” Twenty minutes after our meeting, Governor John Bel Edwards issued his statement to close schools. Immediately, our mighty team went into preparation mode. I’m still thanking God for my diligent and hardworking faculty and staff.
I’d like to be able to say that I took the news in stride and made all of the necessary adjustments, but that is not what happened. Imagine being a first-year principal, and being told that school will shut down because everyone must quarantine for a month. My cell and office phones wouldn’t stop ringing, the office was full of people who were full of questions, and I was thinking about hiding under my desk (I didn’t.)! COVID-19 reared its head at a time when I thought I knew what my job entailed, for the most part. This was an incorrect assumption, though I’ve learned through it all thus far that together, all things work out.
That March day, a million questions were going through my mind. The question that continued to surface was, “How do I get every student, teacher, staff member, and parent prepared for – school closure as peacefully and productively as possible?” I wondered about the safety of my students who come to school for meals and to be loved. I pondered how I could support parents who would have to become teachers in addition to doing their actual jobs. As principal of this school, how can I make sure that these students will have everything they need if I can’t see to their well-being each day? When the questions stopped for a moment, I realized that I had to gather myself as there were lots of people depending on me for answers! Why now, COVID-19? Why now?
I suddenly realized that I needed to breathe. At the end of the day, the pressure that I was carrying on my shoulders was also being carried by teachers, parents, other principals, supervisors, and the superintendent. The pressure was being shared all across the state and nation and the world. Everyone was in the same predicament. COVID-19 is uncharted waters for us all; though I was feeling overwhelmed, so was every other person. The lack of knowledge concerning what to do and how to proceed was ubiquitous worldwide. This thought, for some eerie reason, gave me peace. I realized that I just needed to focus on the present. The rest would undoubtedly work itself out in time. The students in my school needed my undivided attention. We needed to make sure that everything we could do before they left school on Friday, March 13 was done. Teachers and paraprofessionals were working in overdrive to prepare practice work, goodies, and more. All within a matter of two hours, every child was prepped to begin school in the home environment. Thinking back, I am pretty sure it was the first day every child got on the right bus in quite some time. Ha! I’m sure teachers were feeling much like I was at the end of that day…exhausted and discombobulated, but accomplished, to some degree. Together, we were able to equip our students as best as anyone could.
Going into our third week of being home, I’ve come to realize a few things. First, we all need to take a deep breath and give ourselves a break. To the educators out there, especially the new ones, including parents now teaching at home, please take care of yourself and do the best you can. I’ve had to step back more than several times to do this. Also, there aren’t answers to many of our questions, as this is an uncertain time. It is an educator’s way to have a plan for everything, but COVID-19 wasn’t a part of the plan.
Most importantly, we should make sure that the children – and we ourselves – are healthy physically, mentally, and emotionally. Yes, we sent homework, practice, lessons, books, etc., home with the students. These things are important. However, none of these things are as important as our well-being.
Having been in the profession for ten years now, I can appreciate the fact that students don’t always remember everything they were taught each day, but they do remember how we made them feel, and this is a powerful thought. It’s so important during this time that we take care of each other, check on each other, and be there for each other. Before leaving school, my school family and I discussed at length ways to reach out to our students as often as possible. Our kids need to hear our voices and see our faces. We are connecting with students and talking about schoolwork. That’s important, but it is not our priority. Right now, our students need us. Their parents need us too. Some of them are NOT okay! I tell my team to please check on your students and check on their parents too. During this time, we must also check on our friends, our parents, our loved ones, and our neighbors.
It is apparent that this pandemic will bring changes. Changes to our school families and changes to life itself. School may look a little different after the passing of this virus. Life will likely look different too. As I greet each new day, I pray for my family and my faculty and staff. I also pray for my students and their families. As I ponder about school, I’m wondering what will happen to first-grade graduation? Will we go back this semester? Will parents need more materials to teach at home? Will my students have enough to eat? And so on, and so forth. I have just learned to prioritize—I’m taking it one day at a time.
No, I don’t have all of the answers. I do know, however, that love and faith will get us through. As a former history teacher, I always revert to the past to find comfort in the present. We have overcome world wars, slavery, economic hardships, plagues, and more. We shall overcome this time of great uncertainty as well. The “new normal” has already begun bringing families and strangers together. It has brought many folks closer to their respective faiths. COVID-19 has made many of us reflect on our purposes—I have found so much hope in humanity as the days of quarantine continue. This too, shall pass.
Let me leave everyone with this. The late Maya Angelou said that you should “let faith be the bridge you build to overcome evil and welcome good.” With this in mind, know that from my quarantine, I am building a bridge of faith for us all. There is not a day that passes that I don’t pray for everyone’s well-being, strength, and hearts. It is not unknown that I take my work very personally, and because of this, I struggled in the beginning. Now, however, I have found enough faith to carry us all. I will be working every day from the solace of my home to make sure that I can do everything within my power to help humanity. Everyone needs to remember that this time of COVID-19 doesn’t define us. I very much believe that in order for us to appreciate all of the good in the world, we have to experience times of trouble. But don’t make a mistake in your thinking… trouble doesn’t last always! Though I miss my school family more each day, this time is for the safety of us all. I know we all miss our people, but we will be back to the normal soon enough…when the time is right.
As I end, I would like everyone to know that I send love and hope and pray for the world each day. Alone we can do so little, but together, we can conquer anything. Rest assured that, from my corner of the world, I am working for us all. Work from your corner! Together, we’ve got this!
To My Family, My Students, My Faculty and Staff, My Colleagues, My Community, My State, My Country, To the World–