By Jenelyn Russo     10/22/2020

Returning to the classroom each fall historically includes the essay ritual of sharing “How I spent my summer vacation.” Kids telling stories filled with rest, relaxation and adventure are a reminder that those precious weeks are designed for students and educators alike to recharge before heading into a new academic year.  

But like much of 2020, summer vacation this year was anything but restful, especially for principals who saw their education delivery model change on a dime last March in the transition to distance learning. The final weeks of school morphed into a months-long endeavor to prepare for the beginning of a new school year that was filled with mostly unknowns. 

“For me personally, this is the hardest summer that I’ve had,” says Jeannette Lambert, who is in her third year as principal at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic School. “But it’s also been one of the most rewarding.”  

Lambert spent her summer bringing together a reopening plan task force comprised of administration, parents, community professionals, teachers and clergy. The work produced from this group developed the school’s waiver application, allowing their campus to open to TK-6th graders on Sept. 8. 

“We looked at it from every angle and how we could reopen safely,” says Lambert. 

This meant the task force members became unexpected “experts” in a host of new areas, such as air filtration, sanitization, plumbing and disinfecting. Lambert admits she is now well versed in products such as hand-washing stations, air scrubbers, UV light treatment and electrostatic sprayers. 

Additionally, Lambert is coordinating the logistics behind the synchronous learning platforms the school is utilizing for the 20 percent of their student body that has chosen to remain online. Add to that the permit approvals required for tent spaces to accommodate the school’s junior high students, and the role of principal has expanded far beyond what she ever envisioned. Thankfully, she is not tackling these new challenges alone. 

“What I have seen is a community come together in unexpected ways,” says Lambert. “We’re all invested in the health and wellbeing of our kids. We have amazing teachers who are so dedicated to their profession. This is hard, and they are working very hard. And I think that shows the dedication to Catholic education. It’s been impressive.”  

When Mission Basilica School principal Alycia Beresford thinks back to her summer vacation, words like “rollercoaster ride” and “putting out fires” were at the forefront during those busy months. Along with coordinating the school’s technology infrastructure upgrade, there were tasks like ordering and installing desk shields and preparing Covid protocol handbooks that were at the top of her to-do list. 

Beresford also took steps to add medical professionals to the school’s board to advise on their return-to-campus plan, and she has relied on the help of city engineers to help manage traffic flow logistics at the school site. 

“As a principal, you always have to be flexible, but I think [Covid] has challenged everything we know about flexibility,” says Beresford. “We’re trying to think outside the box and do everything we can to meet the needs of the students.” 

As most principals can probably attest, these unexpected tasks are in addition to a long list of other tasks such as keeping parents updated throughout the summer, coordinating instruction platforms and teacher training and constantly applying forward-thinking to prepare for every situation imaginable.  

But the rewards for giving up their summer break include the smiles they see on their students’ faces. 

“I know they’re super happy,” says Beresford of the students. “That’s one thing that we hear every day. We really appreciate being with the kids a lot more because it’s something that wasn’t possible for so long. And the kids appreciate it too. We’re very grateful.”