Steering the ship, as local schools navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, are the principals. When local school districts shut down in March 2020, principals jumped into action, taking charge to ensure the safety of the students and staff, organizing staff to design a virtual curriculum, and supporting the school community through a global crisis.

“It was a unique challenge,” said Half Moon Bay High School Principal John Nazar. “It was a lot of learning and trying to figure out how to best connect and educate our students virtually. Our teachers had to learn how to present and how to engage with students on a different platform.”

Nazar is in his seventh year as principal at Half Moon Bay High School. The principal taught high school social studies for 17 years, including six years at Half Moon Bay High School, and served as the Cunha Intermediate School assistant principal for nine years. Nazar was also a principal in San Carlos for five years.

“This has been just such an amazing job,” said Nazar on being principal. “There are so many aspects that I just absolutely love about it. To really see the developmental progress that I’ve seen of so many of our students, coming in and really maturing and growing into fine young adults that are great members of the communities in which they live in. I feel that in addition to hopefully establishing a culture at the school where learning and respect of learning are priorities, we care about each other and we respect one another and we create an environment where learning can happen.”

He is a sitting member of the California Interscholastic Federation Council, the body that oversees all high school athletics in the state, and he is the San Mateo and San Francisco region secondary council representative to the Association of California School Administrators. His two children are graduates of Half Moon Bay High School.

“We’ve learned a lot about how to educate kids in a different way, but we’re also seeing the importance of physical face-to-face interactions right now,” Nazar said. “For most students and most of our community, it’s really hard to replace that.”

Cunha Intermediate School Principal James Barnes came to the Coastside in 2001, fresh out of a master’s program from which he earned a degree in education. For 14 years Barnes taught history at Half Moon Bay High School, serving as chair of the school’s social studies department for nine years. In 2015 he became the assistant principal for student services at the high school, a position he held until 2019 when he became the principal at Cunha.

“You get to see what you can do to improve the whole school,” said Barnes, on his position as principal. “It’s a slow process and, of course, we’ve had some real challenges this last year and a half. But working with the teachers and students and figuring out where the issues are and trying to right them, everything you can do to make this a better education experience and a more cohesive school, that’s what pays off. And it gets better all the time.”

As principal, Barnes noted the difficulty of learning online, and also faced the challenge of guiding the school and its students and staff through the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It was huge trying to design a virtual program that would work, getting the technology and the things we needed for teachers and students to be able to succeed, making sure kids and families were OK, making sure kids were coming to school and meeting virtually,” said Barnes. “All these things were a huge challenge.”

The curriculum had to be adjusted to accommodate virtual classes and the school community had to adjust to a global pandemic.

“The pandemic shifted our understanding of how to run a school,” said Barnes. “We learned things and changed things as a result of everything. It’s never static, everything is always changing. We had to keep on updating people, fixing problems, pivoting, it was constant motion. We’ve learned to be more comfortable with constant change and figuring things out as you go along.”

When it became safe for students to return to the school campuses, the staff continued to ensure the safety of the students and families by monitoring cases and state safety guidelines as the school adjusted to the new normal.

“There’s no playbook for this,” said Barnes. “We just did what we needed to do and tried everything that we could and communicated that as well as we possibly could.”

Emma Spaeth is a staff writer for the Half Moon Bay Review covering community, arts and sports. Emma grew up in Half Moon Bay before earning a bachelor’s degree in public relations from the University of Oregon.

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