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VSAC Success Story Revisited: Ashley Gray faces the challenge of “pandemic school”
Essex Principal Ashley Gray, right, with her wife, Rebecca and their son, Rio.
Ashley Gray has never shied away from a challenge. When VSAC first profiled her in late 2019, she was a young principal at Peacham Elementary School in her native Northeast Kingdom. Though she grew up just 30 miles away, in Lunenburg, her path to that leadership post had taken her far and wide, and far outside her comfort zone. With the help of her VSAC counselor, Marti Kingsley, this first-generation college student spread her wings at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts; studied abroad for a year in Spain; and worked at a YMCA in a neighborhood where people spoke Spanish more than English.
We caught up with Gray again recently to get her perspective on her latest challenge: being responsible for an elementary school during a global pandemic.
In July 2020, Gray took on a new role as principal of a much larger school in Chittenden County. Essex Elementary School serves 400 students in grades Pre-K through 2, whereas Peacham School had a student population of 83 for grades Pre-K through 6.
Gray said the change allows her to focus more on children in the younger grades. “You get so much ‘bang for your buck’ at that age, because so much growth and learning take place,” she says. And, having felt called to work with underserved populations, she’s also excited by the diverse population at Essex, which includes many new American students who are just starting to learn English.
“When I was hired in January, nobody knew anything about a pandemic,” she recalls. But by the time she reported for her first workday in July, the world was in the throes of COVID – and she hit the ground running.
The school had, of course, quickly pivoted to remote learning for the last few months of that academic year. So, it was during the summer of 2020 when the intense planning took place for what Gray refers to as “pandemic school.”
“We spent that entire summer planning out every single detail of the school day, from busing and parent drop-off to classroom spacing, to recess cohorts. Every part of the day that is typically second-nature in an elementary school, we had to redefine,” she says.
And for the most part, she says, they pulled it off – giving ample credit to her “absolutely amazing team.” Gray prides herself on the fact that school was mostly in-person during the 2020-2021 academic year, save for a couple of weeks of hybrid cohorts and a short period of time when students were remote on Wednesdays. “There were some days, toward the end of the school year, where things felt almost normal except that we were all wearing masks,” she says.
But the start of this academic year felt a little different, Gray says. “I think it’s because we had a sense of hope in the summer. We were thinking it might be a normal year, and now it’s not quite. It felt like the wind was taken out of our sails,” she says. There’s also the factor of emotional exhaustion; this summer, many of her administrative colleagues took their first vacation day in over 18 months.
“This has tested our resilience quite a bit,” Gray admits. “I’m not sure how much more they can take,” she says, referring to both staff and students. “But they’re doing it. They’re coming and giving their best every single day.”
Her biggest challenge now, she says, is around staffing. “There’s a domino effect because a lot of our teachers have children of their own. So, if their children are out of school due to a COVID exposure, they have to stay home, too.” On any given day, she says, 10 to 20 of her 100 staff members are out of the building. “People are having to step into different roles every day.”
Despite the challenges, Gray says, she still has a lot of hope. “I love coming to school. My teachers are doing amazing work. I greet the students every day coming in, and they’re so excited to be here.”
Gray also points out that, for every student in her PreK-2 school, “pandemic school” is their only frame of reference. Even the oldest under her watch – the second graders – haven’t had a “normal” experience at Essex Elementary.
“The pandemic has been really hard on adults, but for young kids, it’s just what we’re doing. I think our kids are going to be resilient and prepared in more ways than kids were before COVID. They’re learning things that we weren’t able to teach in school before,” she says, referring to the all-important social-emotional skills that, Gray contends, always have to be the foundation for being ready and able to learn.
“I actually think we’ll come out of this ahead, and that kids will shine in ways that we haven’t seen before,” Gray says. “They’re pretty inspiring.”
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