School Leadership, Care, and Trust in COVID-19 Era

—By Dr Brian Fleming

Dr Brian Fleming, School of Education, University College Dublin.

Dr Brian Fleming, School of Education, University College Dublin.

An issue of major concern is what principals should do in the event of a confirmed case of COVID-19 in the school community.

One thing we have learned about COVID-19, even in its early stages, is that a month is a long time. So when an announcement was made in July that schools would re-open at the end of August, I was surprised. It wasn’t so much the decision itself – it is hugely important for our children and young people to resume normal schooling, if at all possible. Rather, the decision a month in advance that re-opening should incorporate all pupils, every day, struck me as a bit ambitious, though well-meaning. Time will tell.

In the meantime, school principals got stuck into the task in hand, though I’m sure many of them had similar misgivings. Yes, they would be the first to acknowledge the help they received from colleagues, but there is no doubt they were subjected to a huge workload and a lot of pressure. I can only imagine what it was like, but I’m glad to see that their efforts and the efforts of all who assisted them are widely acknowledged and commended. Those working in our education system at school level have responded magnificently to the many unprecedented challenges they have faced in recent months.

Whether the Department of Education and Skills (DES) can say the same is a moot point. Certainly, the recent announcement that DES inspectors were to be sent to schools to check on health and safety issues prompted widespread anger. Damian White, president of the Irish Primary Principals’ Network (IPPN), clearly had enough by then. He issued a fine-detailed statement in which he raised very pertinent points about the level of support that school principals received in recent months from the DES. The optimist in me hopes the leadership there is suitably embarrassed.

Now that schools are up and running, albeit in difficult and worrying times and facing huge difficulties with teacher supply and other problems, it is appropriate to look at other COVID-19-related issues facing school leaders. One that I know is of major concern is what principals should do in the event of a confirmed case of Covid-19 in the school community. The current position is that the Health Service Executive (HSE) will inform staff and parents when and where a diagnosis of Covid-19 has been made. Principals and staff have no role other than to follow HSE instructions; staff and pupil confidentiality are essential. I can understand the logic of this approach, but I fear it is simplistic and that unintended consequences are likely if a staff member or one of their family might be impacted.

Something I enjoy doing is to follow the wonderful work being done by principals and their staffs across the country. So I used Twitter to see how principals felt about this issue and what they might do if faced with a particular case. In normal times a school principal would be aware in general terms of any serious health concerns affecting colleagues. I am presuming that, in the current climate, this knowledge has extended to include anyone in the colleague’s household for whom infection by COVID-19 would pose a significant challenge. So what does a principal do if they become aware of a COVID-19 diagnosis in a student or staff member that might pose a threat to the health of a colleague or a member of their household?

I received a large number of responses to this question, and while I am not claiming my survey to be scientific in any way, a number of interesting themes emerged. Firstly, principals are very worried about such a case arising and clearly hope that lady luck spares them. Secondly, among those who offered a definitive answer, all indicated an intention to act immediately.

So what about patient confidentiality? Some made the practical point that such a diagnosis was unlikely to remain confidential in any event. Indeed, it’s not obvious to me why a recipient of such a diagnosis would hide the fact. Beyond that, it seems to me there are two factors that need to be borne in mind in addition to confidentiality.

The primary responsibility of a principal is to exercise a duty of care to all those in the school community. Inevitably, this is mentioned most often in the context of pupils and their needs, but it also certainly includes staff. I cannot see how a principal, believing the health of a colleague or their family member to be in danger, would not or should not act immediately. Secondly, there is the question of trust, in this case the trust placed by staff in the school leader. It’s over thirty years since Warren Bennis made the point that without such trust, ‘the school leader cannot function’. Nothing I have experienced or read since suggests he was wrong. In fact, even more emphasis is laid on this in more recent research on leadership.

So imagine the scenario where a principal declines to act and a colleague or their loved one gets COVID-19, with possible long-term or indeed fatal consequences. It seems to me that not only would the one-to-one trust be broken but also the trust between the principal and many, if not all, of the staff. It takes time to build trust within and across an educational institution. It can be destroyed in an instant by a single event.

This pandemic, we hope, will pass, but the impact of such an episode would last for years and have a very detrimental impact on the education provided to successive cohorts of pupils in that school. Does the duty of care and the preservation of trust outweigh the importance of confidentiality in such a scenario? In my book it most certainly does.





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