‘Everything in this world just takes longer’ and other distance learning challenges, through the eyes of a principal

By Geoff Norcross (OPB) and Rob Manning (OPB)
Dec. 21, 2020 2 p.m.

The last year hasn’t been easy for anyone — and that certainly includes people charged with running public schools.


Michael Contreras was in his first year as principal at Ron Russell Middle School when it was interrupted by a global pandemic, forcing a sudden switch to distance learning. The school is in the David Douglas School District, where many students and their families weren’t just dealing with school closures but job losses, food insecurity and a lack of Internet connection. Ron Russell is home to a majority of OPB’s Class of 2025. That’s a cohort of students we’ve been following since the first grade; they’re in eighth grade now.

Michael Contreras spoke to OPB’s Geoff Norcross earlier this week. You can listen to the full conversation by using the audio player at the top of this story. Here are the highlights:

Geoff Norcross: It’s been more than nine months since students have been in your school. How are things going?

Michael Contreras: The school building is not as busy as it used to be, you know, with all the COVID things right now. Every day in the building, we have one administrator, one office staff and one custodian, and that’s it. So we miss the kids, to say the least. It’s been a challenge for our kids, for our staff, just creating this new way to do school.

Norcross: What has it been like leading a school when everyone is at home? Except for those few exceptions that you mentioned?

Contreras: It’s very different. I mean, you think about from my role. I’m at lunch duty on a normal day for about an hour and a half. Every day we have three lunches, and now I have zero lunch duty. So that changes things. But what happens now is any sort of communication just takes that much longer. It’s not a walk down the hall to meet with the teacher during the passing period. It’s setting up a video conference when they’re available and then trying to reschedule it because the Internet went down and so just all those things happen and everything in this world just takes longer.


Norcross: What is your interaction with the kids like? I mean, you’re an administrator, and they’re at home. How does that interface go?

Contreras: Very, very little compared to obviously what I’m used to. I’m the kind of guy who’s at lunch, asking them how their cheeseburger tastes or pat them on the back. I have some kids who obviously we developed relationships with in the past year, and so there are some check-ins. I have a handful of kids that I’m checking in without every week or so on.

Kids will see me when I stop by classrooms so I can stop by every classroom right here sitting at my desk. It is very different. Like the sixth graders — I was in a class the other day and one of our sixth-grade teachers had to introduce me because the kids had no idea who I was.

A crowded hallway at Ron Russell Middle School in between classes in December 2019.

A crowded hallway at Ron Russell Middle School in between classes in December 2019.

Elizabeth Miller / OPB

Norcross: What keeps you up at night when it comes to leading Ron Russell and its students and its staff right now,

Contreras: I think two things. One is that there’s a lot of stress on our teachers. Like I said, everything takes longer from my end. But I remember, you know, when I was a first-year teacher, how long everything took, just creating my lessons and quiz and those sorts of things.

And right now everybody’s new in our building. And so there’s just a lot of stress that comes with being a new teacher. And now that’s multiplied across our building. And then the other pieces, just our kids. You know, I have four of my own children who are kind of good students, at a different school, but they’re being able to navigate. But I see some of their stress, and I know that kids at Ron Russell are having that stress.

It’s not just COVID. There’s lots of food insecurity, job loss wondering when we’re going back in the building. Fear if I’m gonna get this COVID thing and all of that just creates just a weight on our kids’ shoulders. And that’s a concern for me as the building leader, once everyone is back in the building, whenever that is.

Norcross: Do you think there will be any lessons that were learned during this distance learning time that you want to take with you?

Contreras: Absolutely. I’ve had so many teachers tell me I’m gonna be a better teacher when I go back to the building because of what I’ve learned, the way we’ve used technology has — we’ve been forced to. It’s been great thinking about how we can individualize instruction, and we’ve had a lot of kids who do better with online learning. Then they did in the building because they don’t have to deal with the middle school drama that comes with being in the building. They could just focus on their classes. So think about how might we set up an online option for some kids.