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Post-Pandemic Health and Wellness Initiatives Become Priority for Superintendents and School Systems

The COVID-19 pandemic was a unique and all-consuming challenge for school districts across the nation. That much we know. However, the change inspired by the pandemic is now being embraced by superintendents and school districts from coast to coast. Strategies are emerging to address employee, student, and community health and wellness in a way that is urgent and unprecedented.

So what lesson did superintendents learn from the pandemic? Well, that has become abundantly clear. To have a healthy organization, school districts must prioritize the health of the people in the  organization.

During an AASA conference session Thursday titled “Leading Wellness and Caring Initiatives in Today’s School Systems,” three superintendents shared leadership strategies focused on taking care of the personal health and wellness of superintendents under stress. They all agreed, to take care of others, you must make it a habit to take care of oneself.  The three superintendents also shared strategies to take care of the health and wellness of students, staff, families and the communities they serve.

 “Since the pandemic, teachers are still struggling with sadness,” Carol Kelley, superintendent of Princeton, N.J., Public Schools, told attendees that many teachers are still just surviving.

To address the mental health issues, Princeton Public Schools, dedicates one day a month to wellness activities for teachers and other employees. Kelley said it is a time for teachers to get caught up, to participate in wellness activities and integrate good, healthy food into the work day. She has focused on “making health and wellness a priority … front and center,” so Princeton schools now participate in a wellness challenge where they earn points for taking wellness courses.

Deborah Kerr, superintendent of St. Francis, Wis., School District, said her employees are still “struggling with remnants of the pandemic.” She emphasized that all leaders  need to focus on the ongoing needs of employees and the people served by school districts. Simply put, Kerr believes that  more empathy is called for. When teachers and staff are happy and engaged, then  students will be happy and engaged.

In the St. Francis School District, restorative activities are offered each month to help the administrative team reduce stress.  Employees  also feel appreciated, which is  key to their health and wellness, according to Kerr.

Exercise, eat well and sleep. That is key to the health and wellness of school district leaders, like superintendents, according to Kristi Wilson, superintendent of Buckeye Elementary School in Buckeye, Ariz.  She advised everyone to never take their own health for granted. As a school leader, Wilson suggested attendees take time to reflect on their own health and be committed to self-care because “you cannot carry the torch forward if you don’t take care of yourself.”

At the end of the day, all three superintendents agreed, now more than ever, school districts must identify what students need. And, now more than ever, school leaders must prioritize their own health and wellness. Post-pandemic, that means not just physical health and wellness, but includes things like social, emotional, mental, spiritual wellness and overall self-care.

They say, never forget, to have a healthy organization and enhance the health and wellness of students and staff within your organization.

(Sandy Riesgraf is communications director of Jordan School District in West Jordan, Utah.)

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