Leadership During the COVID-19 Crisis in Rural Schools




Atkinson, Sarah J.

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In March of 2020, leaders across the globe were faced with the unprecedented crisis of COVID-19. This was a crisis with a magnitude like nothing they had ever encountered. Abrupt school closures affected about 70% of students globally, as many school building closures were highly recommended or mandated by government officials for the remainder of the 2020 school year in response to the public health crisis of COVID-19 (Grissom & Condon, 2021). As a result, school leaders found themselves in a predicament to continue supporting their students and leading their staff who were no longer allowed to come to the school building. This prompts the question of how does one lead in the midst of an unprecedented crisis? A crisis of global magnitude in which no leader had specifically experienced nor led through. A crisis that required significant systematic changes almost instantaneously with no step-by-step guide to follow. Educational leaders across the globe found themselves in this particular predicament as they led their organizations through the global pandemic while the world itself was in a state of uncertainty. As a result of this global crisis, the educational system had to pivot and change the way teaching and learning took place almost instantly. Educational leaders had to adapt and develop practices and protocols which would allow learning to continue while simultaneously keeping everyone safe from the potential deadly harm of the COVID-19 virus. The world of education has had its fair share of crisis situations; such as school safety breeches and shootings; national security threats including terrorist attacks; deaths of students and/or staff; gang violence; sexual misconduct/assault; natural disasters of hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunami's; even medical outbreaks such as flu and ebola. However, what sets these apart from the crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic is that these situations occurred in a concentrated, relatively small area which allowed for the crisis to be contained. The COVID-19 pandemic challenged just about all areas of our day-to-day lives and basic survival. Yet, as the world was literally shut down, educational leaders were charged with persevering to pivot and adapt their practices in order to forge a way to continue educating students amidst a global pandemic. The purpose of this study was to capture first-hand accounts from K-12 educational leaders in southwest Texas as they led their rural schools through the unprecedented COVID-19 global pandemic. The participants of this study were in the trenches of leading schools through a crisis of which no one had ever dealt with prior. By exploring the experiences of these leaders the intent was to identify characteristics of leadership that could potentially empower other leaders in the future as they too encounter an unpredictable crisis that has no prescribed set of protocols. This study explored the experiences of these leaders in an effort to better understand what actions and behaviors were most useful in order to continue leading their organization forward in a time of crisis rather than becoming frozen or stuck. By exploring the reflections of leaders during the COVID-19 pandemic, it was a goal of this study to allow educational leaders to learn from these lived experiences of their colleagues in order to be better prepared when faced with a crisis in the future. This research study had three participants all of whom were principals of public schools in the rural southwest Texas region. While the participants were located in the same region, each principal served a different district. Each of the three districts where the principals were from all had similar demographics to each other and served a generally diverse population. The interview process followed a semi-structured protocol in which participants responded to questions in order to support the following research question: "How did principals of rural public schools in southwest Texas lead their organization throughout the COVID-19 crisis?" The data for this qualitative study was gathered and interpreted utilizing an interpretive phenomenological approach to better understand the experiences of principals during the COVID-19 pandemic. This study attempted to identify characteristics of leadership that could potentially empower other school leaders in the future as they encounter situations of crisis that have no playbook or protocols. When we actively learn from a previous crisis event we enhance our ability to respond to future emergencies (Pauchant, 2002). This study created the opportunity for principals to reflect on and share their own unique experiences of leading through the ongoing pandemic of COVID-19. Through this study, we were able to learn from the shared experiences of the participants to be better prepared to handle crises in the future (Ulmer, Sellnow, and Seeger, 2011). This study captured each participant's detailed account of their experiences at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic when schools were mandated to close in the Spring of 2020. Followed by their experiences of reopening their schools for the 2020-2021 school year. Lastly, participants provided detail in regards to the continuation of schooling for the duration of the 2021-2022 school year. Each of the themes that emerged indicated specific characteristics that were used by each of the principals to lead their organization through the unprecedented crisis of COVID-19. The primary themes that were presented through this study captured the characteristic essence of leadership during a time of widespread crisis.


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COVID-19, Crisis, Education, Leadership, Principal, Public Education



Educational Leadership and Policy Studies