My COVID-19 Diary: Principal in the Coal Mine

Governor Cuomo of New York State has repeatedly said that with respect to the impact of the Coronavirus on the nation as a whole, we here in New York are the “canary in the coal mine”. 

One of our English teachers posts the “idiom of the day” on her classroom bulletin board every day.   So, for the sake of clarity for my middle school students, here’s an explanation: According to Smithsonian Magazine, this expression relates to a mining tradition dating back to 1911 and the use of canaries in coal mines to detect carbon monoxide and other toxic gases before they hurt humans.  Miners would carry these small birds into the tunnels with them. If dangerous gases collected in the mine, the gases would kill the canary before killing the miners, thus providing a warning to exit the tunnels immediately.

(Source: )

As a middle school principal in the New York Metro area, I guess that makes me a  “Principal in the Coal Mine”.  So I’m going to offer just a few ideas for my colleagues who may be a week or two behind us here in New York (leaving open the possibility and the most ardent HOPE,  that we can ALL avoid the dire consequences of this pandemic).


Don’t get too far out over your skis  (this can be the idiom of the day for tomorrow)  

Few historical events have been as unprecedented in modern history as the one we are experiencing now. Stay on top of what to anticipate this week, but this situation evolves very quickly.  In NYS, individual districts wrestled with the prospect of closing schools for days before the governor stepped in and made the decision for them. It’s impossible to say with certainty what will be a month from now, or even three days from now.  Don’t send emails and letters to parents about what will happen in June. Be transparent and honest in your communication but leave open the prospect that things will likely change.   

Use “One-Stop-Shopping” for communication with stakeholders 

Because of the need for frequent updates and for resources, stakeholders can be easily overwhelmed.   Teachers, students, and parents are on social media, they have Wi-Fi, you don’t need to send to them every post you see on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest about how to survive the pandemic. 

I have found it effective to create a “One-Stop-Shopping” system for communication. There’s a simple Google Doc for all our staff communication and a Smore newsletter for communication with parents.  This way, if they need to refer back to information from a previous communication, all they need to do is scroll down. Include a section with resources targeted at YOUR families.  With so much information out there, parents will appreciate the items that you’ve vetted and curated. When I update these, I send an email to the appropriate group with a few bullet points highlighting what they will see when they read them. 

Virtual Face-to-face is better than phone calls; phone calls are better than email  

In the absence of face-to-face contact, parents and students are inundated with electronic communication.  Although this is useful, the impact of a phone call or a video chat with a parent cannot be overstated. There’s a give and take and a “human” aspect of your voice and facial expressions that are sorely missed at this challenging time. Also, it’s critical to get parents’ perspectives on how well their kids are coping. Remember, under normal circumstances, you would be merely a phone call away or parents would simply stop by your office. Try to devote a good chunk of every day to making phone calls to families. Keep a spreadsheet that you share with your building level support staff,  with notes. Follow up.


Many of my colleagues, far wiser than me, have shared ideas and strategies for coping with this crisis. I apologize if I’ve been redundant.  These are just a few of the insights I’ve gleaned as a Principal in the Coal Mine.  I’d be eager to hear from you.  What strategies have you used as an educational leader to cope with these trying times? 



About dfgately

Middle School Principal Jericho, NY
This entry was posted in Best Practice, Educational Focus, Leadership, learning, Parenting, Personal Best, Random Thoughts, Reflections, relationships, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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