Addressing the Physical and Emotional Needs of Students During COVID-19: A Principal’s Perspective

The rapid evolution of education during the pandemic has provided an opportunity to illuminate the importance of school, not only for academics, but for social, emotional, and physical health.

During a two-week period in March 2020, our existing paradigm of education was shattered. As a result, administrators, teachers, and support staff scrambled to cram years of progress and innovation into days in order to meet the needs of students. Since then, teachers across the country have adapted in-person lectures and hands-on lessons to Zoom-delivered classes and activities. In some schools, teachers have been required to teach both in person and online — sometimes simultaneously.

In the face of criticism and pressure, educators have not faltered. Our students have also exhibited extraordinary understanding of circumstances and demonstrated patience through the revolving door of change. Young people across the country have persevered despite the obstacles in their path. Personally, I’ve been inspired by my students’ grit — and their unwillingness to quit.

The herculean effort to overcome these challenges shows the willpower of the educational community in America. At my school we lost a valued staff member to COVID-19. Heartbroken does not begin to describe how we as a school community feel about this loss. We have students who have lost grandparents, parents who have lost jobs, and families where the high school students are now responsible not only for their own learning, but for their younger siblings as well because their parent(s) have to work to put food on the table.

The death, financial devastation, and loss associated with this pandemic is nothing short of horrific. How do we as school leaders begin to address these issues and how will this change what we see in our classrooms on a daily basis? 

Chris Lineberry shares a principal’s perspective during this interview with Sean Nevills.

As a principal, I choose to promote a supportive culture of health and wellness on our campus. Our school has helped students and staff deal with pandemic-related challenges — and see the opportunity in those challenges. Here are four things we have done to establish a sense of community that promotes health and wellness:

  1. Established a Student-Led Student Wellness Advocacy Team
    Last year, we created a Student Wellness Advocacy Team (SWAT), which has worked with our student council to make meditation activities available to our students and staff. They even established a mindfulness room on campus!

    In addition to efforts to improve the emotional health of our students, staff, and community, SWAT also partnered with our local Parks and Recreation Department (Apache Junction Parks and Recreation) to provide opportunities for physical activity during our lunch hour, such as Zumba, basketball, soccer, and golf frisbee.

    Currently, our SWAT members are creating public service announcements to promote self-care, emotional wellness, and activities to mitigate the stress of our current COVID reality.
  2. Encouraged Community Involvement Through Prospector Coalition
    As part of our Prospector Coalition (our site-based improvement group), we involved community, students, staff, and parents to improve our schools using the XCLR8 model by Tom Cotter.

    We first identified four areas of focus:

    1. Academic Achievement
    2. Health and Safety
    3. Community Outreach
    4. Climate and Culture
      We then created a website to share our progress and work with our community and others. Often the population that has the least amount of input is the population we should listen to most intently — in this case, the student population. As part of our process, we made health and wellness a priority and we made student voice a priority.

      Our SWAT team leaders and our staff coordinator, Ed Matlosz, are also key members of this committee. With the guidance of students, staff, and community members together, this committee is able to make recommendations and create opportunities for health and wellness to be a focal point of our students, staff, and community.

      From establishing a protocol for check-in with students on a frequent basis to offering “Speak Up, Be Heard” sessions for students to provide unfiltered feedback to me and my administrative team, we are creating a culture where students and staff feel valued and heard.
  3. Created a Podcast
    Last spring, I established a podcast to help bring people together, to talk with students and teachers about how they are doing during the pandemic, hear how they have adjusted to the challenges of the pandemic, and share advice they have for others on how to find healthy ways to cope.

    I have interviewed Jimmy Gary, Jr., (actor, former NFL player, advocate for kids), Roman Rozell (retired Army Ranger, NCAA Division I athlete, motivational speaker, professional wrestler), students and teachers. Recently, I highlighted one of my students who has suffered from extreme anxiety and considered dropping out of school. Thankfully, she changed her mind and is not only doing well academically but is working to share her story and what she went through with others to help them realize that they are not alone.
  4. Adjusted Scheduling
    The high school schedule is a challenge — just ask any principal or assistant principal in the country about the balancing act of teacher allotment, student enrollment numbers, electives, etc. Recently we made a conscious and very intentional shift in our schedule. We have moved to a block schedule and now allow time four days a week for response to intervention (RTI) opportunities and social as well as emotional learning (SEL) activities.

Make Health a Priority

The pandemic has afforded educators across the country —and me in particular — the chance to reconnect with our “why” as educators, which is to improve the lives of our students. To me, the promotion of health and wellness in schools speaks directly to that “why.”

In “Good to Great,” author Jim Collins discusses staying true to your purpose. He states that blood and marrow are certainly essential to human life, but not the purpose of it. I will contend that testing and accountability are essential to education, not the purpose of it. Health — emotional as well as physical — must be a priority in our schools and is more important in the context of COVID-19 than it has ever been before. Our young people are only a percentage of our total population, but 100% of our collective future. We owe it to them to do the right thing and give them the tools to ensure future success.

Additional Resources

Chris Lineberry

Dr. Chris Lineberry is principal of Apache Junction High School in Arizona. He was raised and cut his teeth in education in North Carolina where he attended the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and became a principal in 2005. In 2006, Chris had a heart attack at school, which was the impetus for his focus on the education of the whole child and the importance of self-care among educators.