Principals are absolute champions for their communities and are experts at juggling competing priorities. But what does a principal’s role look like in the midst of a pandemic? This week on School Stream, we are thrilled to share some insightful and practical strategies from Victorian principals on how their role has changed since COVID, and how they manage to keep schools running smoothly in an ever-changing COVID landscape. 

A very big thank you to Deputy Principal Tom Elliott from Avoca Primary School and Principal Gavin Brennan from St Margaret’s School in Maribyrnong for being so generous with their time and experience. 

Book in to chat with one of our team and watch a short video to see how School Stream works or keep reading for our interview with two inspiring school principals.

Tom Elliott – Deputy Principal of Avoca Primary School, Avoca

How has COVID impacted your role?

“It’s turned it on its head, really. It’s funny talking about it now, but in the early days, no one really knew what was happening. Everyone was looking overseas…. The next minute, things started happening here. I was getting emails from teachers saying: ‘They are going to lock us down – what’s the plan?’ There was no script.”

“The first thing we did was ring all the parents and got them all on the app we had at the time, and we were reaching every kid in the school, (Avoca Primary has 117 students). But fast-forward a little bit, the app we were using closed down and we had to start again.”

“We looked at a lot of other apps, but we liked that School Stream didn’t just do a heap of random updates where you would have to start again. They were already using it at the kindergarten too – so there was some awareness.” 

“We could get an announcement tomorrow at 4pm and we’d have to pull the pin and go back to remote learning. And we’re lucky because we can communicate that with everyone now – and when we go back to normal, we will still be able to communicate with everyone.”

“We tried some of the big apps and it didn’t suit us. School Stream has evolved even since we’ve been using it and it’s a great stepping-stone. For example, Book Week will be filmed this year so the parents can see the parade. We’re now looking at online forms, photo consent forms, and we already use the absentee forms a lot.”

“The best thing is, School Stream has the ability to inform. I can go in the ‘back door’ and look at who has been using it. If we have a parent who hasn’t been on it for two weeks – I can get in touch with them because otherwise they won’t know what’s going on at school.”

“I worked with you (School Stream) and tried to make it as easy as I could for the parents. I made videos about how the app works and I used Facebook to communicate that. I sent home paper notes, I hassled people in person and in the end, I would just pick up people’s phones and download it. I got every parent. Now we have a community group for the ladies who do the Breakfast Club – they only get information related to them. If we have a nit problem at school, they don’t need to hear about it. I also have a group for the 2022 prep parents – we sign them up on the spot as part of enrollment.” 

“The other thing I am big on is not using too many platforms. We don’t use our Facebook page anymore – it’s not really endorsed by the Department anyway – and we don’t put out reminders. We do it once on School Stream and that’s it. We don’t overuse it (the app) – we only use it when it’s important. We are not country hicks in Avoca, and everyone knows how to use a phone.”

What did you do with your students during periods of remote learning?

“We did all kinds of stuff to keep the kids entertained. We have a beautiful old building and I ended up climbing through the roof with a Go-Pro and we uploaded it with an activity called “What’s in the Roof?”  I told the staff: “If we can keep the kids busy for two hours, that’s two hours their parents don’t have to worry (about them).” 

“I use videos a lot. I film the principal and push out a video. We just wanted to make it as easy as possible. Teachers would make learning videos and we put them on the kids’ log on and then did the work that way. We could easily customise it and I would schedule it all to begin at 9am.”

What strategies have you found useful in steering your school, teachers and students through this turbulent time?

“The trickiest part is that you have to keep kids and parents motivated. Remote learning isn’t the same as school – it never will be. But we want to encourage them and reassure them. We kept the communication going – the phone is always here; the messaging service is here. We didn’t go missing here.” 

“This is the best school in Australia! People really were all in it together here and we helped each other out.”

*Edited for length and clarity.

Principal Gavin Brennan from St Margaret’s School, Maribyrnong

How has COVID impacted your role?

“COVID has changed my role in many ways. A lot of my time is now devoted to ensuring that the children of essential workers, and vulnerable children are supervised and engaging with the online content while they are here at school. It has also shifted my focus from just the curriculum being delivered, to making sure that all staff and children can access the technology, to enable them to deliver and access the curriculum. “

“While we have always been cognisant of the social and emotional needs of everyone in our community, there is a heightened awareness, and concern for the social and emotional wellbeing of staff, students and parents during this time. Being mindful of the amount of time staff are spending on ‘screens’, continuing to provide rigorous professional development through the usual platform of Staff Meetings has also been reduced.”

How do you plan when everything is changing so frequently – often with little notice?

“Planning events and celebrations has almost become impossible in the changing landscape of COVID. We have had so many important activities either cancelled, postponed, or limited in community participation in the last 18 months. Being a Catholic school, Sacraments are an important aspect of our faith development, and these too, have been adversely affected by COVID. We would normally have three Sacraments in a calendar year, but as many were cancelled in 2020, we have had to plan for five in 2021, and two of these have already been postponed to who knows when? It gets to a point where you almost throw your arms up in the air and ask: Why bother planning this or that?’”

What strategies have you found useful in steering your school, teachers and students through this turbulent time?

“Remaining positive and flexible has been a strategy that seems to help. Working with families to make remote learning as easy as it possibly can be to manage, has also been a strategy that has been well received. As is the directive from VCAA, focusing on the curriculum areas of English and Mathematics predominantly during remote learning, has reduced a lot of stress and worry for all in the community.”

Thank you again to Tom Elliott and Gavin Brennan. 

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