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How COVID-19 Safety Procedures Helped Shift Campus Culture at One Texas School

Association of Texas Professional Educators
Association of Texas Professional Educators

Date Posted: 9/29/2020

In January 2020, Jennifer Orona, ATPE member and a 2015-16 Charles Pickitt Administrator of the Year finalist, was offered a principal position in Rice CISD in South Central Texas, and in August 2020, her school opened for face-to-face instruction. Knowing other schools are starting their own face-to-face instruction, she has taken notes on what her school has learned during the experience. What follows are her personal insights. 

How COVID-19 Safety Procedures Helped Shift Campus Culture at One Texas School 

In January 2020, I was blessed to assume the principalship of Rice Junior High School in Altair, Texas. My appointment as principal meant packing up my bags and moving 300 miles to South-Central Texas from Fort Worth. When I took over the principalship, midyear, the campus culture needed discipline, and the focus of student behavior was slightly less than academic. Fast-forward five months, after students had been sequestered for that time. Our school reopened for face-to-face learning, and the campus was 100% transformed. The safety guidelines required to educate students in a pandemic instantly brought order and structure to the campus. 

Some of the safety measures we have put in place include:

  • Students eating breakfast in their first-period classrooms
  • Creating a one-way flow of traffic in the halls 
  • Walking in a single-file line, 6 feet apart in the halls 
  • Staggered dismissal of small groups for passing period transitions, spaced two minutes apart 
  • Students walking on the right-hand side of the hall
  • All interior doors to the building propped open at all times 
  • Facing all students the same direction during lunch
  • Socially distancing students while they eat
  • Implementing a strict protocol for masks and sanitizing hands upon entry into a room 
  • Installation of automatic hand sanitizer stations in every room and stocking all schools with wipes, cleaning supplies, sanitizers, shields, and masks for emergency use
  • Removing tables in the teachers’ break room (which was a small, close-quarters space) and teachers’ eating in their classrooms 

As a leader, I pondered if putting in place so many restrictions and procedures would create a negative campus culture that stifled the environment. In an attempt to be proactive and to mitigate the concern brought on by the increased restrictions, I assembled two committees: a Student Culture Leadership Team (SCLT) and a Campus Culture Leadership Team (CCLT). The SCLT is charged with the task of finding ways to celebrate student success and achievement. The CCLT is charged with the task of creating a positive campus culture, a positive morale, and a way for us to take care of our teachers. I believe in taking care of our teachers. If we lift up our teachers, then they are better equipped to lift up our students. Teachers are the heart and soul of our school. What they are being asked to do is beyond enormous. They have adapted and shifted their professional practice almost overnight. Teachers have participated in hours upon hours of guided and self-taught professional development to learn how to provide remote instruction. They are on the front lines, and they deserve our full support, appreciation, and gratitude.  

The SCLT implemented small measures that have made a big difference in making students feel welcome and at home. An immediate initiative the committee instituted was to create a space called “The Wall of Fame.” This is an area where students and teachers recognize and honor each other for exhibiting positive behaviors aligned to the campus core values. When we catch each other exhibiting one of our core values, we use an honor card to create a write-up of whom the person was and what they did to exemplify our core values. The committee also implemented a program to recognize students based upon academic performance, behavior, attendance, and attitude. This is a small celebration that takes place every three weeks and resets every three weeks. If a student does not meet the criteria, the program resets, and students are afforded another opportunity to be in on the celebration. The celebration is simple, but it allows for some social time, a snack, and music. This is an opportunity for the school to celebrate students and thank them for their achievement and hard work.  

The first task the CCLT undertook was to pull the teachers together and have them create a list of the values they thought were most important to instill in our students. The committee collected this data from teachers, grouped and organized it, and filtered it down to create the campus values: Respectful, Responsible, and Kind. The committee then pulled the teachers together into small groups and had them write action statements that align to the core values. We are coming together to brainstorm more ideas about how to maintain positive morale. 

The biggest takeaway I can offer is to listen and be careful not to push too much too quickly. My teachers are overwhelmed with learning new online resources. As a result, I am working to restructure the delivery of online instruction. Rather than every teacher being responsible for learning these new tools and delivering online instruction, I have identified three teachers who will take on this task, one teacher per grade level. My hope is that this will alleviate the stress and pressure brought on by delivering two modes of instruction and will hopefully free teachers up to do what they do best—teach. If my teachers were familiar with the online resources and had a few weeks of intense online training, I have no doubt they would be just as effective with both modes of instruction. I believe morale is lifted when operations work and when teachers have what they need to be successful. My focus for the moment with campus culture is finding the right balance with structure for delivering both online and face-to-face instruction. By reworking the master schedule, I hope to create a higher level of operational efficiency and thus ensure morale stays high.  

As many schools prepare to reopen, I think it is important to be flexible and look for ways to take care of the social-emotional needs of all students and teachers. As a principal, I wonder if students are returning with a slight bit of trauma from learning to live in a post-pandemic world. My students seem slightly shell-shocked but happy to be back. School is about learning the curriculum, for sure, but it is also equally as important to focus on creating positive and productive citizens who take care of and look after each other. It takes all of us working together to keep each other safe and to keep schools open. 


Jennifer Orona was raised in Fort Worth, Texas, during a time when opportunities were limited for Hispanic children growing up in poverty. She credits her high school English teacher, Mr. Calder, with changing her life by challenging her to want more from life than what she envisioned as a teenager. Orona started her career in 1997 and has a master’s in educational administration, a master’s in library science, and bachelor’s in history, political science, and education. She believes in service and leadership, and it is her life mission to impact the lives of young people. She understands first-hand the difference education can make by being the great equalizer for those born into less fortunate circumstances. Orona has served in the capacity of principal since January 2020 at Rice Consolidated Junior High School. Previously, she served as a high school social studies teacher, the first-ever Hispanic female high school librarian for Fort Worth ISD, and as an assistant principal.