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Harry Sherman is principal of Castle Hill Middle School in the Bronx, New York. Credit: Harry Sherman

The job of middle school principal has often felt impossible — but never more so than during Covid-19. I remember sitting in my Bronx, New York, office with my assistant principals on March 13 speculating about if, when and for how long we would close. That moment feels like a lifetime ago, before this deadly and contagious pandemic took almost 200,000 lives and robbed a generation of a year of in-person school. Now, as we prepare for brick-and-mortar instruction for the first time since then, I understand a little more the enormous impact Covid has had on our educational system and the terrible Catch-22 we really face.

Before the pandemic, preparing for a new school year was a litany of planning for instruction (data analysis, curriculum and assessment, professional development) and logistics (scheduling teachers and students, hiring, formulating a budget). Now, with New York City schools pursuing a plan of hybrid learning, each of these tasks must be done with blended and remote instruction in mind, and new requirements arise daily. The unspoken but inescapable truth is that I have had to become an amateur health expert as the development and implementation of protocols for screening, social distancing, ventilation, personal protective equipment (PPE) management, contact tracing, and more have been added to the list.

While I try to deal with the pressure of keeping a school of 1,000 students and staff safe, hanging over me is the knowledge that many of my students need school to be open or they will fall behind. I have large numbers of students with disabilities, students in temporary housing and students learning English as a new language. As capable and resourceful as my students and families are, remote learning simply cannot meet the needs of every household, many of which lack reliable internet, a stay-at-home parent, and adequate space.

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Over the summer I mentioned to a teacher that I’m rarely “in” (the building), but never “off”: The demands of preparing to run a hybrid school are unending. One recent late-August day, my morning began with a scheduled Zoom interview of a job candidate (who was a no-show) and morphed into a scheduling session with the teachers who were also on the call. Then I met remotely with 60 of my staff members to talk about schedules, health protocols, testing, contact tracing, lunch in the classroom, and other reopening details. After this, I met on Zoom with the literacy team, prepped with summer school teachers, and dropped in — in person — on my crack team of schedulers, grouping students into cohorts for alternating days of instruction. The next day I would collect computers loaned to graduated eighth graders and hand the students their diplomas. I’d also check that every window in the school building could open; open windows are our primary means of air circulation necessary for keeping staff and students safe. Every day begins and ends with countless calls, texts, and emails from students, parents, staff, colleagues and the district. A colleague and I mused about how amazing it would be to turn off our phones for a couple of days, or even hours!

The schedule has become the stuff of nightmares: Some teachers are staying home on medical exemptions, hundreds of students are opting for all-remote instruction, students who are attending in person come in only every other day, and certain key labor questions have been left unanswered until recently.

Recently I received an email about ordering PPE from the city’s central Department of Education (DOE) office. I was told I could place orders for masks (adult and student sizes), gowns, gloves, face shields, and hand sanitizer (bottles and wall-mounted) through my school’s custodial engineer. I had questions: How many masks per student? Is there a limit on what I can ask for? Should I find out who wants face shields? How many gloves in a box? Without this guidance, I concocted an order on the basis of rough estimates, rounded way up, and emailed it to the custodial engineer. He answered my email by informing me that the DOE had already made a delivery of PPE, and at the moment he did not have any way to order more.

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A lot of things are like this right now. I feel responsible for so much, but don’t have sufficient guidance, and there is so little certainty about what will happen a few weeks, or even days, from now. For example, the schedule has become the stuff of nightmares: Some teachers are staying home on medical exemptions, hundreds of students are opting for all-remote instruction, students who are attending in person come in only every other day, and certain key labor questions have been left unanswered until recently.

Logistics are also almost impossible. Students must be divided into cohorts for the specific days they will attend school, and then into “pods” — groups small enough to fit in a room with social distancing. These student pods are designed to spend all their in-person time together to limit exposure. Teachers must be scheduled across the different cohorts and days, they must support all the students who will be home on the off day, and the hundreds of students who will be in remote-only instruction.

It has taken all of my experience, the ideas and feedback of my principal colleagues, and the ingenuity of my staff to finally get us to a point where I think we have it figured out — and it can all change at any moment. 

I had several meetings with other middle school principals in my district this summer at which we shared ideas and talked about how we are making sense of all the directives (often we are “awaiting guidance”). The last time we met, I mentioned that, as the longest-serving principal in the group, I still didn’t know how we were going to pull this off in September. I don’t know if that was reassuring or terrifying to the newer principals. The truth is, we have good reason to be scared — we are going back to school during a pandemic. The more I read about PPE and protocols and precautions, the more I realize that the danger is real and the burden of responsibility is overwhelming.

This is the Catch-22: What if we open and, despite all these precautions, someone dies? The DOE has already lost 74 staff members to Covid. I have staff trying to reconcile their fears about their health and that of vulnerable family members with their sense of duty to the students. What if we don’t open, and we lose some kids academically forever? Remote instruction does not meet all the needs of our students, and the gap is felt most acutely by our most vulnerable students who cannot afford private pods or reliable tech. If we do not go back, they will bear the brunt of academic loss.

When and how to return to in-person school is an impossible decision framing an impossible job — both for me and the system at large. If every city and district employee, principal, teacher, staff member, student and family member puts health and safety and the needs of the most vulnerable students first, perhaps together we will make the impossible possible. In an environment with no good options, perhaps we will simply do the best we can.

Harry Sherman is the principal of the Castle Hill Middle School in the Bronx, New York. He has served in that role for the past 15 years.

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