Principals’ Perspective: Starting the School Year 2020

By Shaza Khan

Deciding Early

Diana Abdi, Head of School for Austin Peace Academy (TX), which enrolls about 250 students in PreK-12, decided early in the summer that they would open the school 100% remote in Fall 2020. With constantly changing (and conflicting) information at her helm, in addition to the fact that politics appeared to be influencing governors’ decisions to re-open, she felt that her school board should make their decision based on scientists’ predictions that the virus would still be around (in a big way) even when school restarted in early August.

“Deciding early on that we would begin remote was not easy. I knew this would mean a reduction in enrollment. But, as Muslims, we have to consider the safety and health of everyone first and foremost.” By deciding early, Sister Diana was able to appoint a teacher to a new position– Director of Online Learning– and then work collaboratively with him and other administrators to decide on the best learning platform and curriculum to use in their new remote setting.

Unique Considerations

A child/young student at Islamic School of Grand Rapids (MI) building something with play dough in the classroom

Young student at Islamic School of Grand Rapids

Every school leader had to make decisions based on their community’s needs, the strength and spread of the COVID-19 virus in their county or city, and the students they serve. For Lynn Smith, Principal of the Islamic School of Grand Rapids (MI), she had to consider her largely early childhood student population, a demographic for whom remote learning has been especially challenging. They decided to open with a hybrid model, both in-person and online for those who chose it, with their first day of school landing this Monday, August 31.

When asked what her dreams for this school year include, Sister Lynn stated, “My hope for this year is that the spirit of our deen shines through in every interaction my teachers and I have with our students. I know the academics will not be the same as last year because of COVID, so I want the relationships and the heart of Islam to be our focus.”

 

Flexibility

Jelena Naim, Principal of Al-Falah Academy in suburban Atlanta, GA opened their school on August 12, fully online. 

Principal Jelena Naim hosting an online Zoom meeting.

Principal Jelena Naim at her school’s virtual graduation

“Our team of teachers were quite deeply engaged much of the summer first figuring out the details of the three scenarios we were facing (online, onsite in full, and hybrid, meaning 50% of students two days each per week).  By July it was clear that the COVID rate was growing out of control in GA and we would be online.  We were assigned training to master our platforms, had a safe Textbook Pick-Up weekend, and bismillah here we are in Week 3.”

Sister Jelena explained that she, her staff, and students all had to be flexible, knowing that there would be some adjustments they would have to make as they began school, such as adjustments to students’ schedules. In addition, they have been working hard to support staff who are not as tech-savvy to learn how to use it effectively to engage their students. Despite all of the challenges, Sister Jelena shared, “Once we saw the students’ faces and heard their voices, motivation to do our best simply skyrocketed.”

Overtime, Sister Jelena believes that the online format will get easier. Even though the school day is shorter, it still feels longer. She also recognizes the challenges faced by teachers who have young children of their own whom they are supervising simultaneously at home. 

Innovative Solutions

Magda Saleh, Principal of Bayaan Academy, opened its “doors” on Wednesday, August 25 in hybrid fashion. 

“30% of our students on-campus are eLearning with facilitators.  They will interact with their peers at recess, lunch, PE, and salaat, as well as during in-class activities. 70% of our students are at home on eLearning or Homeschooling (with Bayaan Academy resources).” She also pointed out that “All students are paying full tuition and fees. All teachers except three are teaching from home. Teachers teaching from school are also teaching on Zoom.”

Children at Bayaan Academy practicing social distancing and wearing face masks in a line heading into school.

Children arrive at Bayaan Academy (FL) on their first day of school, practicing social distancing and wearing face masks heading into school.

This unique set-up of an in-person school option with “eLearning facilitators” at Bayaan helped provide an innovative solution to Florida’s controversial executive order for all schools to offer in-person schooling at the start of this academic year.

Sister Magda admitted that the lead up to their first day has been very hectic and stressful. But just like Sister Jelena, she agreed that seeing the students is a huge source of motivation. And, like the other principals, she cannot wait to have all of her staff and students back full-time on campus. In the meanwhile, she is hoping to “maintain the highest CDC standards while providing an absolutely amazing education.”

Smooth Sailing, Inshallah!

Haroon Baqai, Principal of Pre-K-12 Al-Huda School/Hifzh School in Maryland will start school on Friday, August 28. When asked about his biggest fear, Brother Haroon answered simply, “The first day of School.” He shared an interesting analogy, depicting what it feels like leading up to that first day:

“We are basically going up the mountain, up, and up, and up and we know we will have to jump off the cliff at some point. But we also have full trust in Allah that we will be able to fly and fly high inshaaAllah, with His help. And once we fly, it will be AMAZING InshaaAllah. But just the point where we have to make the jump is hard. But we’re getting there, slowly, but surely!”

Like all of the other schools, Brother Haroon’s team spent much of the summer testing out different learning management systems, finally deciding to go with Canvas, one of the leading platforms in the industry. His teachers were trained on how to use Canvas and spent time moving their courses to this new platform. While it has not been easy moving from traditional classroom settings to online learning, he truly enjoyed seeing the teachers’ welcome videos for their students. “Little mini puppet shows; very loving and warm messages, very cute stuff. I am so proud of my staff. Allahu Akbar!”

Shared Challenges, Hopes and Duas

No matter what format our Islamic schools are using to re-open, the school leaders all share the same grounded reality that this year will be especially challenging. But they also share a strong sense of hope and deep faith in Allah. 

Sister Jelena’s dua sums up our collective hope for this school year:

“We ask Allah daily to keep our staff healthy, and to give us the strength of mind and heart to continue in this unnatural manner with patient persistence, looking forward to the day we can enter our school buildings and work with students face-to-face most effectively.”   

Ameen! We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.

©2020 Islamic Schools League of America

info@theisla.org | PO Box 6198, Round Rock, TX 78663

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