Between ever-changing COVID-19 guidance, teacher shortages and students' escalating mental health needs, these are extraordinarily stressful times for California's school principals. But there's hope that these challenges will lead to permanent, positive changes in K-12 education, especially for students who faced inequities long before the pandemic, according to a panel of school principals who participated in a webinar last week. The webinar was hosted by EdSource, a nonprofit news site dedicated to educational issues in the state.

"Right now we have a tremendous opportunity to transform what we expect from schools and what schools expect from students," said Vito Chiala, principal at Overfelt High School in San Jose. "If we take advantage of it."

The roundtable, "California school principals: Leading staff and students through uncertain times," covered a wide range of challenges that principals are facing and how districts and the state can support them. The stakes are high: Recent research shows that 1 in 5 principals quit every year, and 4 in 5 say they experience frequent job stress.

But as schools struggle to stay open during the pandemic, principals' jobs are more important than ever. Greg Moffitt, principal at Fairmont Charter Elementary School in Vacaville, said that his day starts hours before the opening bell as he tries to juggle staffing shortfalls and ensure students and staff are safe. On any given day, he might be filling in as crossing guard, special education assistant, playground monitor, classroom teacher or cafeteria server — in addition to his regular duties as principal of his 591-student school.

"It's like solving the staffing Rubik's Cube all day long," he said. "And this has been going on for almost two years."

Julie Giannini-Previde, principal at Dow's Prairie Elementary School in McKinleyville in Humboldt County, said her job is as chaotic now as it normally is in August, just before school starts.

"It's Groundhog Day August, all the time," she said. "I'm planning and making schedules and throwing them out and redoing them. ... And a lot of the problems I'm solving won't exist in a month. Over and over again, I'm dealing with logistics and staffing, like it's the beginning of the year."

To help principals cope with the stress and succeed at their jobs, school districts and the state can create networks for principals to learn from each other and provide moral support, and provide long-term solutions to the teacher shortage, said Marjorie Wechsler, principal research manager at the Learning Policy Institute. Mental health services for principals are also important, she said, just as schools provide them for students and teachers.

"The research is very clear. Principals matter. They matter a lot," Wechsler said. "We need to be alert to principals' workload and make sure that schools are appropriately staffed and that there are mental health counselors to alleviate some of those stresses."

Another persistent challenge is student behavior. After more than a year of learning from home, many students' social skills plummeted, and they feel disconnected from their classmates. Fights, tantrums and aggression are more common than they used to be. Giannini-Previde described it as "extended toddlerhood," at least for the youngest students.

Moffitt noted that when "anxiety goes up, empathy goes down," so schools need to help everyone — students, teachers, families and even communities — to handle the stress of being back in school and with each other as the pandemic wears on.

Leyda Garcia, principal of UCLA Community School in Los Angeles, said that seeing students every day gives her an emotional boost. And she tells her staff to take time off when they need it, regardless of the staffing shortage. Physical and mental health is the priority, she said.

"We just have to be honest. If teachers need a day, they should take it. Even if we can't find a sub, we'll deal with it," Garcia said. "The day will end somehow; 3:30 will be here, and then we can see what tomorrow will bring."

One way to alleviate stress on campus is to fix some of the inequities that existed long before COVID-19, said Kilian Betlach, principal of Elmhurst United Middle School in Oakland. The state can start by boosting school funding — permanently, not through one-time relief funds — so low-income students have the same opportunities as their more affluent peers. And on a broader level, society needs to eliminate barriers that hinder Black and Latino students and their families.

The inequities are deep-rooted and have been in place for decades, and will take more than one-time funds to fix, Betlach said.

"We need to not lose sight of the generational shortcomings, particularly facing low-income and communities of color, that have to be structurally and systematically addressed," he said. "That would take generations of (COVID relief funds). That would take generations of educational reparations that are, frankly, owed."

Still, despite the hardships and relentless stress, these principals said they still love their jobs. Seeing students learn and grow, and helping teachers thrive in the classroom, propels them through the most frustrating days.

"I can tell you, I still love working with young people," Chiala said. "And I still believe education is the answer to creating a more just society."

EdSource is a nonprofit news source covering the state’s educational opportunities.

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