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10 ways principals can make online school work

Amanda ClarkFebruary 17, 2021

Student's hands typing on a laptop

Bring good behavior to life, in any setting.

Virtual PBIS. What is it and how does it work? Get the answers and more in our Playbook.

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Zoom conferences, student face masks, and hybrid schedules — this is all typical lingo in a COVID world. When the pandemic first started, many schools shifted to virtual learning practically overnight. Since then, we’ve seen how it played out and have had time to identify some hurdles.

Many schools that are currently conducting online learning agree that one of the biggest challenges is attendance. Rest assured: you’re certainly not the only principal across the nation (and the world) trying to figure out the best ways to make sure your students show up for distance learning.

We’re here to help — but also to acknowledge that there is no guidebook for being a principal in the age of COVID. There’s no denying that principals and administrators are facing unprecedented challenges, but there are ways you can make online learning a success.

Take a look at our virtual PBIS guide to learn how you can make online learning work for your school

What are some ways you can make sure your students show up for online learning?

Here’s an overview:

We’ll break down each of these in the following sections.

How to get students to show up to online school classes

1. Become familiar with online learning

With so much disruption and change, families want information and answers. They’re desperately seeking guidance since online learning is new for most of them.

As with any topic, you’re much more convincing when you know what you’re talking about. Some principals have a background in online learning, while others need to develop their e-learning knowledge. But with so many online options and fancy terms, where do you start?

Consider these possible resources:

  • Research on the internet
  • Technology-savvy staff and faculty
  • LMS companies
  • Other principals and administrators

The more you know about online learning, the more:

  • questions you can answer
  • confidence you can help build

2. Provide options

Online learning doesn’t need to be an all-or-nothing experience. Many schools are offering families a choice of how they would like to attend school this year. Common options include:

  • a hybrid model with a mix of in-person and virtual learning
  • full-time in-person learning
  • full-time online learning

We understand that not all schools can offer these choices, but offering families a choice might increase online class attendance by involving students in the decision-making process.

Don’t just take our word for it: In the book, Learning to Choose Choosing to Learn, educational author Mike Anderson explains that “[o]ffering students choices about their learning is one of the most powerful ways teachers can boost student learning.”

3. Frequently communicate with teachers and families 

In the article Transforming Your School with Digital Communication, former principal Eric Sheninger describes how he utilized social media to communicate with faculty and families. He found that this form of digital communication provided numerous benefits, including collaboration, connectedness, and an improvement in public relations.

You should view your online platform as an opportunity to improve your communication and use various formats like social media, blogs, email, and more to do so. And, as always, communicate often while remaining transparent about new policies and changes.

Check out our post on how to plan and manage distance education for more online communication options.

4. Provide internet access

According to the Pew Research Center, one in four Americans does not have access to high-speed internet at home. That’s right — one in four! Depending on your school’s location and demographic, students might have difficulty accessing the internet. How do you show up to an online class if you don’t have Wi-Fi?

This issue has resulted in a new trend: providing parking lot Wi-Fi at school so that all students have access to virtual classes. It has proven successful for school districts such as Marion County Public Schools in Florida.

Yes, there are tech logistics involved in this process, but if you want your students to show up for online learning, they will all need to have internet access.

Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Conduct a survey or poll with families to see who would benefit from parking lot Wi-Fi
  • Find out what you need to extend Wi-Fi to the parking lot and what the additional costs of doing so will be
  • Research and consider extra security precautions to prevent Wi-Fi snooping
  • Create a clear schedule when parking lot Wi-Fi will be available

One of the biggest complaints that students and parents have with online education is the difficulty of maintaining a stable connection with apps like Zoom. Making sure everyone has internet access can certainly improve your attendance.

5. Teach an online class

We know you’re probably rolling your eyes right now, but hear us out. Teaching an online course will give you first-hand experience with virtual learning and will help you prepare for what to expect. It’s an opportunity to see what works and what doesn’t. It will also put you in your teachers’ shoes while providing an inside perspective on the challenges your students may face. Teaching an online class is also an opportunity to better acquaint yourself with your software and resources and identify the ones you lack. 

Consider taking on an elective for a low-level prep class that gets your feet wet in the online learning realm. At the very least, students will have a hard time playing hooky when the principal teaches the class!

6. Revisit grading and attendance policies

When the pandemic first started, schools were justifiably unprepared. Because of this unexpected change, some schools threw out or significantly modified their grading and attendance policies.

Now, we’ve had time to see how online schooling does — and does not — satisfy students’ learning needs. Like them or not, grades and attendance are incentives for students to show up — for in-person and online classes.

Consider keeping your grading policy similar to that of your face-to-face environment since students are already familiar with those procedures.

7. Prepare and support your instructors

Engaging students begins with engaging your teachers. And during these unprecedented times, teachers have a lot of things on their plates — there’s no denying that the online shift has resulted in extra work and stress for many faculty members.

Educators have had to redo their lesson plans, learn new technology skills, and switch up their teaching style to accommodate online learning. Teachers have always needed your support, but now they need it more than ever.

Here are actions you can take:

  • Provide training for teachers in small groups or by teleconferencing, and let your staff know that your door is always open
  • Acknowledge that shifting to online learning is no easy task, but that you have their backs
  • Do your best to provide them with the resources they need
  • If possible, provide up-to-date software, templates for answers to common questions from parents, and integrated planning time

No student wants to log in to find a stressed out and unprepared teacher. But they will show up for an engaged and prepared one!

8. Be a reliable and empathetic leader

You’ve got a lot on your shoulders, but you’re also the only leader at your school to whom your staff and families turn for answers.

Becoming an expert, communicating frequently, and supporting your teachers are the best ways you can get your students to show up for online learning. But your very presence is also an integral piece of the puzzle.

Are you going to lead this ship with force, criticism, and chaos? Or are you going to do your best to exemplify dignity, calmness, reliability, and empathy? Your students and their families will show up for the latter. 

During a time when you’re taking care of so many others, make sure you’re taking care of yourself by thinking of ways to maintain your calmness and wellbeing. Make time to meditate, practice yoga, or chat with another trusted administrator in a similar boat. Whatever it may be, do what you need to do to be your best self.

9. Accept that you can’t please everyone

This one is a biggie. If you spend all your time catering to everyone’s individual preferences, you’ll drive yourself crazy!

As you’ve already learned, your student body and faculty consist of diverse populations with different needs, experiences, expectations, and beliefs.

It is impossible to please everyone, and if you try too hard to do so, you’ll sway your attention from the most critical matters.

Students and families are more likely to get on board and show up for online learning if you maintain a consistent foundation. If you shift standard protocols every week because of complaints, others will become frustrated.

Yes, the pandemic guidelines are always changing, and faculty and families need to expect flexibility, but it’s up to you to impose changes only when necessary.

Try your best to establish some form of normalcy. This is a heavy task since there is so much uncertainty around you. So, refer to the experts when possible and trust your intuition when guidance is lacking. 

People show up for influential leaders. Try to be that leader.

10. Learn from your mistakes

Remember: You’re human and navigating uncharted terrain. Not every decision you make is going to be right, but it’s up to you to make those decisions. When a misstep happens (and it will), acknowledge it, find a solution, and move on.

Your faculty and families will respect this. Be transparent about any virtual learning modifications and communicate these changes clearly.

Do this, and your students will continue to show up.

To make online school work, your mindset matters

You are the bridge between your staff and families. The good news is that solid bridges are crucial to success. Instead of seeing this pandemic as a devastating downfall for education, try viewing it as an opportunity for innovation. 

As mentioned above:  Mindset matters, and by seeing the positive side, your students won’t just show up for online learning — they’ll actually enjoy it!

Photo: Google for Education

Bring good behavior to life, in any setting.

Virtual PBIS. What is it and how does it work? Get the answers and more in our Playbook.

Learn more
Virtual PBIS Guide on a tablet

Distance Learning - Student Engagement - Virtual PBIS

Bring good behavior to life, in any setting.

Virtual PBIS. What is it and how does it work? Get the answers and more in our Playbook.

Learn more
Virtual PBIS Guide on a tablet