Teacher having a video chat online on laptop with a student.

Equity, Leadership, Well-being

“Does It Have to Be That Hard?”

Principals’ stories of supporting students with special education needs during emergency schooling

Among the many things that were interrupted by the pandemic shutdown in March was a cherished weekly food program for high-school students with developmental disabilities. Prior to the shutdown, the students in the program talked about nutrition and made grocery lists at the beginning of each week. On Wednesdays, they travelled to the grocery store where they used their numeracy skills to buy the groceries that they needed. Thursdays were for food preparation, and they spent Fridays cooking and eating their special meals. In addition to learning to prepare food and use money, the program provided opportunities for physical activity, collaboration, and planning – important life skills for these students!

The educational team decided that the food program, as a much-loved and beneficial component of the classroom, was too important to be allowed to wither at the start of the pandemic. Even though the students could no longer travel to the store and cook together, perhaps the teacher could use video conferencing software to host a class where everyone could see the cooking? And, if the students had the ingredients at home, could the students cook along with the teacher? It seemed simple enough. An easy workaround here, a little extra time and energy there, and soon enough everyone would be cooking together remotely. And yet, it was not to be.

The first challenge they faced was the security of the video conference software. The principal, Peg Harper (all names are pseudonyms), told us: “We weren’t supposed to use Zoom because it’s not safe, so then we had to get them onto Microsoft Teams.” But the safety features of the new software program came at the cost of “lots of layers of security.” For many of the students, the new video software was difficult to access and navigate.

Another challenge was finances. Not all families had the money to buy they groceries they would need, so Harper offered to pay for the groceries: “Let’s take away the equity problem… whatever you need, we will just buy it.” It would require quite a bit of extra work, but the teachers said they were willing to wear the masks, buy the food, and then deliver the ingredients to the students’ houses.

Having worked through challenges related to technology and equity, safety policies from the board office raised the final obstacle. Even if they used contactless delivery, teachers were not allowed to deliver groceries. As Peg Harper was told, “What if a teacher dropped off a bag of groceries at the door and then a student gets COVID… so no, you can’t do that anymore.”

In the end, the barriers were too much. In spite of creative problem solving and everyone’s willingness to contribute extra support, the food program ended. We could hear the frustration in Harper’s voice when she told us:

“My story has to do with all the barriers. You think it’s really simple, that you are going to create this experience for your students remotely, and then just bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, everything was hard. I kept thinking, ‘Does it have to be that hard?’”

The story of this food program typified many of the stories we collected from principals across Canada about their experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic from March to June of 2020. We interviewed 38 principals to find out what it was like to lead schools during those first four months of emergency home-based schooling. We asked them specifically to reflect on their efforts to support students with special education needs (SEN). Many of the principals told us their success stories, of how the school rallied together to support the students and the community more broadly. But the principals also told us stories where even their teamwork and the best of intentions were not enough to overcome the complex interlocking barriers related to technology, equity, and safety.

Work intensity

It has long been recognized that principals work extended hours. Nearly 70 percent of Ontario principals recently reported that they work more than 50 hours a week, with one in five working more than 60 hours (Pollock & Wang, 2020). In fact, substantial literature on principals’ work intensification has demonstrated that principals find it increasingly difficult to keep up with the pace of work. And yet, in addition to the amount of work that already comes with the job, the principals we spoke with told us that the pace of work exploded during emergency schooling. Their efforts to develop meaningful educational spaces outside of the school building became a second full-time job, on top of their regular responsibilities. Sanaya Cresswell, a principal participant in our study, told us that emergency schooling increased her regular day of work by about 8.5 hours: “When this started to happen, [my day] was anywhere from 6:30/7 a.m. to 11 p.m. – I just seemed to be continuously trying to figure out how to create some consistency when there really wasn’t any.”

Technology tools and essential supplies

One of the first challenges that principals faced was getting the tools of school into students’ hands. “It took a while to mobilize these people, give them tools, tell them how to synchronize with the family technology, and everything,” said Lily-Mae Lord. Online schooling was especially difficult in rural areas, where access to high-speed Internet tends to be inconsistent or unavailable; many rural students had to use a parent’s cell phone as a hotspot hub to stream data to attend online class. The switch to online schooling was also difficult for students from homes with few digital devices: “If you’ve got three siblings in the house who are all fighting over one Chromebook, that becomes a challenge,” noted Priyanka Brookes.

 The challenge was not just to provide the technological tools that one might expect students would need (laptops, microphones). The pandemic also interrupted programs set up by the schools to provide essential items and services for families, such as reams of paper, craft supplies, food vouchers, gift cards, and even food. “We have a hospitality program that often will feed kids during the day… so these things are absent to these families and we worry about that,” explained Brookes.

Students’ academic needs

Students with SEN were at great risk of not being well served by the emergency schooling provided through online platforms. As one principal, Nicholas Cairns, stated, “These are the ones who are going to fall off the cart and get left by the wayside.” Watching students with SEN struggle was difficult on the school team: “[It is] really heart-wrenching to watch them go through this, and to listen to the parents who are calling almost in tears because they’re frustrated,” said Lochlan Figueroa.

Translating in-person learning experiences to online formats was a major obstacle, especially for students who rely on a familiar adult to assist with their learning. One principal, Christine Lynn, stated, “It hasn’t been easy to even try to meet those needs when we don’t have the young person in front of us physically.” Mia Foley told us that even though she was able to coordinate teaching and support schedules so that students with SEN worked with the caring adult with whom they were most comfortable, “It’s still not the same as having the child seeing that person who sits beside them.”

Complex problems require creative solutions. Murray Brandt told us that one of his teachers “Would do basically porch teaching with these students every week. Because [the students] could not manage the technology… and they needed someone to walk through it with them.” This illustrates the level of commitment that principals witnessed as educational staff sought to support students with SEN during emergency schooling.

Emotional support

In addition to maintaining academic programs during emergency schooling, the priority for many principals was the social and emotional well-being of their students. Principals shared examples of students who were sad, upset, and unmotivated because of the fears and anxieties that the pandemic had provoked in their households. Building relational connections required more effort during the pandemic, and principals told us that they had to find creative ways to connect with students: “It is easy to get lost in the paperwork and getting the stuff done, but it is that human connection that’s really missing,” said Figueroa. To support students with SEN who were feeling disoriented by the sudden absence of familiar adults, many principals prioritized regular check-ins with students with SEN and their families.

Principals also tried to protect their teaching staff. Percy Little organized individual meetings with his teachers to check in with them and try and alleviate some of the additional workload they were facing. By taking on more of the workload themselves, many principals avoided delegating additional tasks to their teachers. As Kelan Mueller said, “I have to recognize the fact that right now they’re overwhelmed with what they’re doing in their new role and supporting all the children as best they can, making phone calls, supporting parents.”

Principals also worked hard to maintain their own emotional reserves. Even for those principals who were experienced with emotionally draining situations, the pandemic magnified the intensity of their mental fatigue. Principal Jadine Lovell explained it this way: “There are times when you close the door, and you say phew! It’s starting to go too fast, the pressure is strong.”

Moving forward

We also asked principals what they learned from the first four months of schooling during the pandemic. The principals provided three major takeaways for the future.

Incorporate distance learning in regular schooling. For many students with SEN, learning online came with some benefits: “Some of the kids that we think don’t do well in school, for whatever reason, have actually succeeded with online learning. That distance model works well for them, that they are out of the classroom, out of the distractions,” said Griffin Gamble. Facilitating synchronous learning allowed for easily formed small group interactions. Being forced to consolidate programs of study for online schooling reduced the cognitive load for students with SEN. By strengthening cross-curricular connections, “you’re reducing the amount of work for kids, and realizing that you don’t have to overwhelm them,” observed Rhiannon Prosser.

Coordinate SEN support with parents. Many students with SEN relied on parents for support when navigating technology, self-regulation, and academic development. “If you don’t have the parent helping the child turn on the computer, encouraging them to sit and work through, managing their behaviour in their home setting, [learning] is just not going to happen,” said Carson Moran. Students with SEN required intense and ongoing supports to participate in online schooling, and underprivileged families had a harder time providing that support.

Emphasize human connections. Principals had to be more explicit when it came to developing the kind of human connections that tend to happen organically in face-to-face learning: “Students need to know that you care about them and you are dedicated to their success before you move on to sharing content,” explained Figueroa.

Final thoughts

Peg Harper’s question, “Does it have to be that hard?” is one that school principals, teachers, and school board members will mull over for years to come. Many of the procedures and policies necessary for emergency schooling were in place by the time school resumed in the fall, but there is no doubt that those first intense, scrambling, anxious months took a toll on everyone in the school system, and perhaps none more than the principals at the helms of their schools. When most of us were locked in our houses and making signs to celebrate front-line workers, principals and their school teams were reorganizing budgets, scheduling virtual visits, and doing whatever they could to maintain consistency for the most vulnerable students in our system. Like bakers making cake without flour or eggs, school teams came together to make school without access to the buildings, learning resources, and in-person interactions that form the ingredients of Canadian schooling. In spite of the challenges, there is much to celebrate. After all, those months may have been messy and frustrating but, as the principals told us, students with SEN were never far from their minds.

Photo: Adobe Stock


Pollock, K., & Wang, F. (2020). Principal well-being: Strategies and coping mechanisms in times of uncertainty. OPC Register, 22(3), 22–27.

Meet the Expert(s)

Dr. Jeffrey MacCormack

Associate Professor of Educational Psychology and Inclusion, University of Lethbridge

Jeffrey MacCormack, PhD, is Assistant Professor of Educational Psychology and Inclusion at the University of Lethbridge, Faculty of Education. Dr. MacCormack's research on after-school programs, executive functions, social competence, and play-based learning is also informed by ten years of experience teaching elementary students and many years of teaching post-secondary adult learners.

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Daniel John Anderson

Researcher, Wilfrid Laurier University

Daniel John Anderson, MA, MT, is a teacher and researcher who studies various topics in philosophy, psychology, and education, including moral motivation, game-based learning, and environmentalism. Daniel is currently studying at the University of Toronto.

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Steve Sider

Associate Professor, Wilfrid Laurier University

Steve Sider is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at Wilfrid Laurier University, where his research focus is on school leadership and inclusive education.

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