A Local Principal Shares Her Experience Leading School Virtually This Year

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This past academic year has been an unprecedented one to put it lightly. Schools across the country and globe transitioned their curriculums to accommodate online learning for students of all ages due to COVID-19 — think preschool all the way up to a graduate level.

The unique position schools and educators across the board {pun intended} have transformed the way traditional learning is experienced, turning the computer screen into a virtual classroom. Veronica Florez Avery is one such educator and principal — who had to spearhead an entire spring and summer of school {KIPP Newark TEAM Academy Middle School} through this unique time. Hoboken Girl had the chance to speak with Veronica to learn more about how she adapted, her take on virtual learning, and what might be in store for the upcoming academic year.

Interested in sharing your story / experience at your job during the pandemic? Email us: hello@hobokengirl.com.

veronica florez avery

Where do you live?

Union City.

How many years have you been in this profession?

Principal for two years, 17 years in education.

What is the name of the school you work at?

KIPP Newark TEAM Academy Middle School.

Where is it located?

Newark, NJ.

Read  More: A Guide to Virtual Summer Camps for Kids

What are your feelings about virtual learning?

It definitely is not the same as in-person instruction, but it’s pushed the team and students to grow in new ways and strengthened family communications even more.

What would you say is the toughest part about educating students virtually?

The toughest part is not being able to connect with students face to face. TEAM’s vision is grounded in love. We are intentional about creating a supportive and communal school environment. Virtual learning has removed the experience of school routines from arrival, to breakfast with your advisory, to collaborative learning, to team building, etc.  Our interactions, hallways, walls, and steps are all used to promote love and care for our students. We pride ourselves on relationship building, so virtual school limits social interactions which can be a challenge to ensuring our students all feel loved, known, and celebrated.

What has been the most challenging part of the school year so far?

The most challenging part of the school year was when the pandemic hit causing us to make so many important decisions in such a short period of time. Do all kids have remote access? What will we teach? How will we teach? How will we grade students? In addition, how do I meet the needs of my staff, while balancing home instruction for my own two children?

 What have you yourself or your staff learned about education and the learning process now that you’ve done so virtually for some time?

The Zoom meetings with parents have been really fun! While building relationships and partnerships with families has always been a priority, moving to virtual learning has helped us to improve our communication with parents. Due to all of the changes, the need to engage families more afforded us the opportunity to connect with parents and build upon the commonality of us all trying to find balance during this pandemic. It has also been eye-opening to see how school at times can be overly structured, I have been amazed at my students’ level of independence.

Technology does provide opportunities to differentiate learning for students, but in order to drive student achievement, it required us to adjust what we considered to be most important in our instruction. Once we ensured 100% of our students had access to technology, we needed to continue to grow the teachers’ skills to effectively leverage the technology to drive learning and academic outcomes. We have seen our teacher’s creativity grown tremendously.

What do you expect from the upcoming school year?

At this moment, a lot is still unknown, but I have been leading a number of step backs with my team to identify the instructional moves that have worked well. We have also reflected on the effectiveness of our communication structures, strategies to maintain high student attendance and engagement. We are identifying the most effective teaching practices that drive student achievement in case we begin the 2020-2021 school year remotely.

Is there a reasonable path to reopening?

We have a team planning for a number of scenarios with updated policies and procedures so we can continue to provide quality instruction while ensuring the safety of our staff and students.

We just surveyed our families to ask them for input on a couple of different reopening scenarios, but at the moment we do not know for certain if we will be required to begin the school year in buildings or start the school year with remote learning. As of now, we are planning for virtual onboarding/professional development for teachers and leaders to launch the school year.

How will this upcoming academic year look different from others? 

I imagine this school year will be a combination of virtual and in-person learning. In addition, I am imagining us never needing a snow day because even when the building has to close, we are prepared to teach remotely.

How are you, teachers, and administrators preparing?

We have been watching each other do live instruction via Zoom and we are creating spaces for our students to speak openly about this experience and provide us with feedback. We have also surveyed parents to gain further insight.

What was it like leading a school and an education system in the middle of a pandemic?

Challenging! I got into this profession because I love kids and I love my staff that loves kids! I get my energy from the high-fives in the hallway, the warm good mornings, and the silly dancing in the cafeteria during morning arrival. We work extra hard to get smiles from sleepy pre-teens at 7:30AM. I miss the interactions!

How worried are you about the lack of social development that students of a young age have now experienced {due to the school being closed}?

At this moment, a couple of months removed, I don’t feel too worried. My students have communicated that they too miss the interactions. We also know that social development doesn’t just happen at school, many of our families have been intentional about creating cooperative workspaces for their children, engaging in family game nights, and we also have found opportunities to do wellness check-ins and virtually host open forums for students to connect.

See More: Remote Learning 101: Resources for Parents to Use While Homeschooling

What is the protocol if and when you do reopen?

Assuming it is safe to reopen — we are working diligently to have several plans that all prioritize the safety for our staff and students! These scenarios include everything from a shortened school day, alternating A/B schedules to reduce the number of students in the building at one time, along with new safety policies and protocols that meet the CDC guidelines. All is of which is quite daunting, but we have a great team in place to make it happen.

What resources do you recommend for educators during this time?

As educators learning is our lifestyle. Finding educational summits, which are relatively cheaper since everything is online, keeping connected with other educators, engaging with the training webinars on Zoom and Google, continuing to do self-work to deepen one’s own awareness and grow one’s critical consciousness.

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Arielle is a born-and-bred Jersey girl and like a true NJ native, half her diet consists of bagels and the other half pizza. As a graduate of both American University and City, University of London, she’s been a passionate writer ever since she wrote her first “book” in the first grade. When she’s not furiously typing away at her keyboard, she spends her time ticking places off of her “to travel to” list, trying any and all new foods, and trying to stop herself from spending too much money at Zara.


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