School Principals: Frontline Workers in the Battle Against Covid-19

Another crisis is taking deep root in our country. This crisis will far out-live the Coronavirus pandemic and its impact will be devastating.

Thus far our rightful focus has been on frontline workers and frontline issues; health, public safety, policing, nutrition and aid. Of course, those of us with children or involved in education have been very concerned about that space, but this is not considered a frontline issue.

Beyond educators

In South Africa, this must be questioned. It demonstrates how misunderstood the role of school principals and educators in our society is. Their roles reach far beyond that of educators.

A school principal and his or her staff are community leaders responsible for the well-being of the whole. Their roles are not limited to the school grounds. Their school is often the heartbeat of an entire community and they are looked to as custodians of that community. They function as community conduits, communicators, counsellors, feeders, clothers, surrogate parents and first-responders in many emergency situations.

Overlooked and devalued

Yet even before this pandemic, our school principals were often over-looked and devalued. Consequently, they were and still are, stressed, over-worked, often depressed and burnt-out. And now they must face the biggest challenge of their career: Endure facing anxious and deeply unsettled community members angry at schools closing and reopening and reclosing and reopening, the prospect of sick learners and educators not to mention their own loved ones, worries about the academic year not being completed and the massive ramifications of that prospect and worries about their own health. Right now, we are expecting them to withstand the personal and systemic trauma of one of the biggest human catastrophes of this generation, whilst being responsible for the future of our children and the careful balancing of the ecosystem of a school and its community.

Again – should we not be rethinking our definition of what constitutes the “frontline”?

Leading without support

Beyond this, the question must be, how can school principals be expected to lead hundreds, often thousands of children, staff and community members – including, incidentally, all our frontline workers and their children – with absolutely no training for an emergency such as this and no personal or professional support from government or civil society?

Now and indeed long into the future, these people will have to deal with a system that is currently on its knees and will be forced into total submission as the next 18 – 24 months unfold, resources get scarcer and support dwindles as we focus on “more important issues”.

The Covid-19 Catch 22

Of course, I understand that this is a catch22 of the highest order. How could we realistically be doing things differently? What resources we have are rightly being put into saving lives – and those are stretched to “broken point”.

Yet, this is a time to be applying our best non-dualistic “both/and” thinking. We need to begin looking to the future – a future beyond Covid-19 – whilst fighting the fires of the present. Because the future is one in which our children are safe and well, but months of their lives will have been lost, compromised or traumatised because we failed to invest in some of society’s most valuable workers during these Covid-19 months and years.

Leadership matters

Leadership and supporting leaders cannot be viewed as a nice-to-have because leaders save lives. Leadership matters especially in a crisis and especially in schools and we must urgently find the resources and invest in supporting, capacitating and energising school leaders for this fight. We can and we must work together – government, business and civil society – to mitigate the inevitable fallout in our education system from this disaster. And we must act quickly and decisively because principals – and their schools – are at breaking-point.

A change of thinking

As we budget our time, money and energy, we must name educators – and school principals in particular – as key frontline workers who need primary levels of crisis support. They don’t stop the fight because schools close. The principals we work with spend day and night stressing about how they can keep up with the education of their precious charges – our children – with little or no support on-or-offline. As a country we are unwittingly setting in motion the wheels of a secondary crisis that will have untold ramifications for many years to come.

Now that the nutrition program is once again in place and children’s basis needs are being cared for even during this period of closure, let us view school principals and their teams as a critical part of our Covid-19 recovery effort.

 What can we do?

Practically, I have noticed that as a parent, simply affirming and thanking your school principal and acknowledging the trauma of their situation (and offering to help where possible) goes a long way to encouraging them to continue the fight. Do this individually but also as a community in the form of some kind of public and regular ‘shout out’.

Lobby government at all levels, beginning with your local Ward Councillor and DoE Circuit Manager, to name and respond to school principals as frontline workers by acknowledging them and arranging support in the form of training and counselling. If this is not prioritised, engage with local mental healthcare practitioners or counsellors and/or NGO’s who may be able to assist pro bono. I include details below of one such NGO that supports school principals though partnership with business.

It is in our hands.

We cannot fail them.

Turning Challenges into Possibilities: A Process for change

A revolution of thought

Several moons ago, astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus discovered something rather disappointing to the 16th Century ego. Up until that point it was believed that the Earth not the Sun, was the centre of the universe. Mr Copernicus disagreed. He asserted that the Earth was one of several planets revolving around the Sun. What is now referred to as the Copernican Shift changed, well, everything.

Fast forward around 450 years and we are faced with the extraordinary possibility of a similarly history-defining shift. The Covid-19 pandemic is asking big questions of us and its only now – some 5 or 6 months in – that we are beginning to hear them.

The “what if” question

The questions are gritty, often intensely personal, not easily answered but whole-hearted and possibility based. As we experiment with asking these mind-bending, Copernican-style questions, the invitation is surely to begin some of our sentences with the almost magical words, “what if…”. As these questions emerge, so does the potential for a very different future. Here are some that I have heard:

  • What if we use this opportunity to rethink education?
  • What if we decide not to fly to meetings ever again?
  • What if we continue to feed the hungry, give to the poor, support local businesses – as we have during the lockdown?
  • What if our families were to remain more important than our work? What would need to change?
  • What if we fully embrace technology knowing that in doing so, we are healing the planet?
  • What if we revamp our healthcare systems to cater for everyone – not just the rich?
  • What if we allow the starkness of inequality – so evident throughout this time – to stir in us a real desire to rectify this injustice?

A process for creating shift:

There are endless C-19-gifted “what if” questions like these just waiting to be discovered and the encouragement is to take some time to unearth a few of these with family, friends, colleagues or members of your community.

When you hit on one or two that excite you, jot down a dozen or so outcomes that would result if that “what if” was to become a reality. This will stir your spirits. Then, pick an outcome you truly want to make happen and jot down a couple of micro-steps that you are going to take in the next 1 – 2 days to make that outcome come to life. Voila – your very own Copernican Shift!

The great losses endured by so many worldwide from this pandemic must not go to waste. In fact, they must be seen by all of us as the wake-up call we so desperately needed. We have been given a chance to once more remove ourselves from the centre of the universe. What we do as an expression of this shift in thinking doesn’t have to be big or impressive; it doesn’t have to solve the whole issue.

But we must do – or continue to do – something.