Up Front and Personal

Principals at Forefront During COVID-19

By Christina Sama-Bommarito and Laura Rogers

Storms can hit unexpectedly and with great force. Meteorologists are usually the harbingers of these virulent weather events. This past spring, a tsunami — COVID-19 — hit New York without much warning and its impact still exists to this day. 

It was then that COVID-19 fastened the door shut on almost all aspects of what is defined as everyday life. It devastated economic growth, interrupted travel, drastically increased the annual death toll, and wreaked havoc in the educational community. 

In just a few short months, COVID-19 created the perfect storm which uprooted the stability of many individuals’ mental health and sent the educational world into a tailspin. Almost overnight, there was a universal new normal, although there was nothing normal about this newness. 

For principals working under these demanding and chaotic circumstances and still continuing to do so, the pressure is incalculable, the options are limited, and the sleepless nights have become the norm. 

As we come to the end of National Principals’ Month (October), it is morally imperative for those who have been guided by strong leadership to bring our experience to the forefront. The survival of school communities depends on such leadership. Principals are among the hardest working, yet often least recognized individuals in education. 

Summarily, they are often the unsung heroines/heroes. One principal in particular, Mrs. Ann O’Hagan-Cordes, Principal of The Mary Louis Academy, deserves accolades for her exmplary performance during this global pandemic. 

In a time that has brought about upheaval to many communities, ours was particularly hit when COVID-19 took the life of our beloved colleague, friend, and assistant principal, Mr. Joseph Lewinger. 

Mrs. O’Hagan-Cordes executed her role as the consummate professional as principal of TMLA while also grieving the loss of Mr. Lewinger. 

She served as “Comforter in Chief” during this tragic time to the entire TMLA community and surrounding communities as well. Mrs. O’Hagan-Cordes suffered an immense personal loss with the passing of Mr. Lewinger but always put others’ needs before her own. Her selflessness during such a trying time could only be carried out by someone of the highest character and illustrious moral stature. Through the waves of uncertainty and grief, Mrs. O’Hagan-Cordes has acted as our life vest, keeping us afloat when the waves of life hit. She has been a source of strength and faith; she reminds us that even though, at times, we are apart, we grieve together as a family. 

Principals like Mrs. O’Hagan-Cordes help us to see leadership qualities that are needed every day: they nurture faculty members; they strive to assist each student’s emotional and social well being. The stress of COVID-19, as well as issues of social and racial injustice impact our everyday lives. In the school environment, principals are needed as models of respectful, open communication between the students and staff, which helps us understand that we all need to work together for the common good and so achieve a more just world. 

COVID-19 changed the reality of education. The closing of schools in March was very surreal and unsettling. The world as we had known it was disrupted and replaced with remote learning and a myriad of additional challenges. Leading and operating in challenging and unpredictable circumstances is the norm for school principals, but the COVID-19 pandemic came crashing down with little time to prepare or plan. 

The role of a principal has been redefined. They have to continually keep abreast of all health-related issues and restructure the school to adhere to health guidelines. In addition, the ways students learn need to be revamped on a daily basis. The top priority is for the safety and overall well-being of all the students in the building. This is no easy task, and we have seen first-hand how physically and mentally exhausting it can be on an individual. Let us be reminded of this each day and give our sincere thanks to all administrators. 

Currently, we are all faced with things that might not make us happy. We do, however, need to realize that happiness and joy are not synonymous. Joy is acquainted with that which keeps us anchored. The Anchor, when properly applied, will not allow the boat to sink. Happiness relates more to the transient occurrences in our lives, those that are positive and those that are not. These events affect all people without prejudice.

The negative events may rock the boat and cause us a symbolic type of seasickness. We will not sink, however, if our anchor is properly employed. The events of the past ten months have tested the strength of our Anchor, Mrs. O’Hagan-Cordes, but with it all she continues to get us safely through the storm and with much resolve. 

These are the reasons it is important to celebrate principals whose leadership has a positive impact on their schools. But the broader view of celebrating principals should include recognizing that every school — and every student — deserves such a principal. Their perseverance is something to admire and love.

Christina Sama-Bommarito is a school psychologist and Mrs. Laura Rogers is the chairperson of the religion department at
The Mary Louis Academy.