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Cottonwood Heights Journal

Area high school principals reflect on lessons learned from COVID-19

Sep 15, 2021 01:08PM ● By Julie Slama

At Bingham High, like at many schools, signs were posted last year reminding students to social distance and wear a mask. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

High school students aren’t the only ones who research, study and learn from their lessons. This past 18 months, most every high school principal had a crash course in how to operate a school successfully and keep students engaged and learning during a pandemic.

Now, even as a new variant of COVID-19 emerges, administrators took time to look at some of the lessons they’ve learned in addition to overall improved technology and incorporating it into teaching and learning.

Cottonwood High Assistant Principal Jeremy Brooks saw faculty and staff members bond more through the pandemic.

“I feel like staff members have been willing to be more vulnerable with each other, which has helped foster relationships within the school,” he said. “Having a sense of belonging can help us achieve our collective vision of cultivating excellence and fostering a global community.”

Former Jordan High Principal Wendy Dau echoed those sentiments.

“I think the most important thing is that we really came together as a school community,” she said. “We understood that the expectations for everyone increased, and we tried to help one another out and to be appreciative of the contributions of everyone as we tried to have as normal of a school year as possible. I think we learned to be more flexible, and that the new norm was change.”

Administrators also found people willing to help, including parents and those in the public and private sectors.

“What was really interesting was how many parents stopped by and recognized all that our teachers were doing,” Dau said. “We had doughnuts delivered. We had treats and oranges and thank you notes dropped in teachers’ boxes. While certainly there were many who were critical of the restrictions, for the most part, our parents were super supportive and actually took the time to write positive emails thanking staff members for their efforts and expressing that they understood that we were in a tough spot as we navigated the new norm.”

She also appreciated donations from businesses for masks and hygiene items which were “super helpful.”

At Cottonwood, there was a greater help from community businesses and community members in terms of food, clothing, and entertainment (card games, board games, decorations, puzzles and more), Brooks said.

“Our food pantry saw an overabundance of food that we were able to give to local families that were in need. We also saw the greatest display of our Christmas Extravaganza that we hold each year right before the holidays. Students were in awe of the things they were able to take home for their family,” he said.

Brighton High Principal Tom Sherwood appreciated the help his school received not only from the PTA and seminary next door, but also from the community.

“We had plenty of people asking how they can help and be of service,” he said. “I think everyone just wanted to lighten the load.”

Murray High School Principal Scott Wihongi was grateful for his community.

“We had several donations from Kids Eat that provided extra food for our students throughout the year, as well as goody bags for all faculty and staff,” he said. “We also had a company donate $10,000 in cash to be used for highly impacted families. We had several families lose a parent to COVID, so the donations were gratefully received.”

Even with the community support, there were some lessons principals learned.

“We’ve recognized the need to have student engagement specialists to help connect students more readily to school,” Dau said. “We lost a lot of students as a result of online education in that they didn’t engage with their learning for an entire year. We are now putting in place support staff to help with this, which is a resource that should likely continue. We have increased our social and emotional supports for students, which should absolutely be continued.”

Sherwood added that there were more students who were credit deficient than before the pandemic because they weren’t engaged as much in school because of remote options. So, this past summer, “we’ve had a bigger effort with student remediation.”

Wihongi also saw a need to increase student engagement after these past 18 months.

“I think we underestimated the number of students that would not show up to school, even though they could. Many went missing, and many took advantage of the hybrid attendance and curriculum even though they were not doing well academically and should have been in class,” he said, adding that his teachers are focused to re-establishing relationships and student engagement in what he hopes will be a more normal year.

Brooks, too, said re-establishing those student relationships is an important part of his school’s attention.

“We are in the process of accreditation this year and our focus will be literacy and relationships. In previous years we’ve had elements of each of those in our professional development, but it has been a focal point this year,” he said.

Dau said there was a rocky start to the quick adaption to online learning “because information was just coming at us so fast and was changing so quickly.”

However, one area her school could have improved was “in communicating effectively and in a timely manner to families where English is not their first language. We got much better at it as the year progressed, but it could still be better.”

Some positives, in addition to more personalized learning whether it’s online, in person or a hybrid, was online ticketing for athletic events, performing arts shows and concerts, school dances and more, said Wihongi, as well as Sherwood, who both said those services will continue past the pandemic.

“The pandemic forced us to online ticketing, and streaming for events, as well as demonstrated the importance of in-person learning. It was clear that nothing can replace the direct instruction and help of a teacher, counselor or mentor,” Wihongi said, adding that the school will likely continue with sanitary practices like hand sanitizing, mask wearing when sick and possibly contagious with a cold, and air purifying as all classrooms are equipped with a purifier. 

Corner Canyon Principal Darrell Jensen said his school will continue to have air filtration, hand sanitation stations around the school and directional walking in the hallways. 

While things were “spinning on a dime” during the pandemic, Jensen said he felt schools rose to the occasion with the test to stay.

“I felt the community and the students were very supportive and understanding why we had to do that and that’s still on the table, in fact, if we get to a 2% threshold, then we’ll have to do tests to stay,” he said. 

Wihongi, too, said that COVID-19 testing, tracing and protocols improved during the year and can be quickly put in place if necessary.

Sherwood appreciated not only the emphasis placed on academics, but also athletics.

“I hope people recognize how unique Utah was amongst other states. Utah was one of only five states in the country that played all their state championships in every sport last year. There was a lot of effort to pull that off…to make sure the kids got the experience they want and deserve to have,” he said.

Dau saw students appreciate the efforts made by teachers and others.

“I think our students did a great job of showing their appreciation for all that the school did to try to make the school year as normal as possible. It was such a hard adjustment with no dances and several extracurricular activities canceled, but when they finally got to participate in these, they were so kind and so appreciative because they understood how lucky they were,” she said.

Jensen said that overall, everyone has become more grateful.

“I learned, ‘don’t take it for granted,’” he said. “Don’t take being at school or being in your workplace or being with your colleagues for granted because when the schools shut down, there was no life in the building. It wasn’t a good feeling; I missed the excitement and livelihood that students and teachers bring to this place. So then, it was just a big empty building. It’s not good.”