How an Indiana Principal Leads Her School with Grit, Grace, and a Whole Lot of Hand Sanitizer
Lila Jay, principal at Smoky Row Elementary in Carmel, Indiana, needed a game plan. It was summer, 2020, and the COVID-19 pandemic had raised all kinds of unanswerable questions about what the fall would look like for schools. “Every day I kept thinking, ‘What am I preparing for?’” Jay told me.
According to Principal Jay, her school district was one of the few in the state that advocated for in-person classes in addition to offering families a virtual option. Amidst growing concerns about the rising number of cases in the state, in August of 2020 the school year kicked off. Roughly 140 Smokey Row students attended virtually and the other 560 attended in person.
In order to make the environment as safe as possible, the school had developed an arsenal of new procedures and protocols, including daily screenings, required face masks, social distancing, and frequent cleanings of high-touch surfaces.
With the pandemic raging around them, Principal Jay was skeptical about how long they could make it last. “I just hoped we could get a week or two of in-person classes.”
But overall, the fall semester went off with relatively few hiccups, Jay told me in December. The school had a handful of situations where they had to close in-person classes for a couple weeks due to exposures. But only recently did the school get its first positive COVID case.
Principal Jay with a group of 3rd grade students.
When students finally stepped foot on campus that August, Mrs. Jay admits it was a little awkward. “I walked by classrooms, and they were silent and apart from the teachers. It was so quiet.” Students weren’t quite sure how to act under the new COVID protocols.
To their credit, Principal Jay told me, the students have done remarkably well at adapting to the new normal. “Our kids have done an amazing job of adjusting to a very unusual year.” Seeing them come back and come out of their shells, she said, has been incredibly rewarding.
The pandemic has also challenged the school to be more creative in its approach to community-building. Many of the schools clubs, activities, and events have had to be modified to make them COVID-friendly. In the process of adapting and using more technology to collaborate, Mrs. Jay told me, the school has saved a lot of time and still found ways to create a positive culture.
One example is the school’s “leadership blast,” a monthly assembly where Smoky Row staff teach students on various leadership principles. Since the school couldn’t gather all the students in person, they held a virtual leadership blast and found a top-notch speaker to talk about leadership and positivity. Smoky Row also hosted a virtual convocation for students to wrap up the 2020 school year.
Principal Jay with her office staff.
This school year, Principal Jay has made it a priority to be a visible presence on campus. “The kids want to see you and reconnect with you,” she said. This fall she even popped into a few virtual classrooms to connect with her remote students.
Like many administrators around the country, the pandemic has forced Mrs. Jay to take on extra work and responsibilities—mainly data collection and paperwork. “As an admin, you’re really at COVID’s beck and call,” she said. “If there’s an exposure or a positive case, you have to go in and contact trace.”
But through it all, she still recognizes the privilege and opportunity of being able to provide students with on-campus instruction.
“I certainly haven’t taken it for granted. I feel really fortunate to be able to come to school and have those face-to-face interactions. I think my biggest goal this year has been to maximize the time I have here on campus.”
A group of Smoky Row teachers, pre-pandemic.
In a profession that is already notorious for burn out, Principal Jay has sought to do everything she can to care for her teachers as they deal with the added workload and stress of COVID. Over the past year, she’s taught on the topic of resilience during the school’s weekly staff meetings.
And according to her, the Smoky Row teachers have shown a tremendous amount of grit this school year.
“Where I’ve seen the beauty is seeing people working together and leaning on each other.”
Mrs. Jay told me she’ll often see her teachers eating together (safely distanced), and taking the time to catch up, decompress, and support one another. Jay said her teachers have also collaborated a lot more this year to make each other’s job easier, which has created a sense of camaraderie among the staff.
Before the pandemic, Smoky Row Elementary held numerous community-building events, like the outdoor movie shown above. Many events this school year had to be modified or cancelled because of COVID safety concerns.
Despite the ups and downs, Principal Jay maintains that her biggest hope for the school year is to be able to hold in-person classes as long as they safely can.
Like many others, she’s concerned about the long-term effects of the pandemic on students—especially those who aren’t able to attend classes in-person. “I worry about the kids—about how all this will affect them,” she said.
Although there are many unknowns with life in a pandemic, one thing is certain: Principal Jay and her team at Smoky Rise are doing everything they can to serve their students with excellence, care, and grit.
“I’ll consider this year a success if we can provide a stable and loving place for our students in the midst of a very weird and unstable time.”
To all the administrators and staff who, like Principal Jay, have navigated the many challenges of the past year with grit and grace, we salute and celebrate you! Thank you for all the ways you’ve served your students and communities.