Back in March, when coronavirus first forced the shutdown of Hawaii schools, a group of four principals huddled together in a virtual setting to provide support to one another during an incredibly challenging time.

They talked about how to reach students remotely, deliver engaging content or deal with lack of connectivity or device availability as schools suddenly found themselves having to offer instruction in a completely new way.

These informal meetings have since happened weekly under the banner, “Pau Hana for School Leaders,” which co-organizer Janice Blaber describes as a “safe and courageous space.”

“We’re creating distance learning guidelines ourselves,” the Big Island Keaau Elementary principal said. “School leaders, teacher leaders, community leaders will come in, dialogue, collaborate, and (ask), ‘What’s everybody doing?’”

Kaneohe Elementary School Principal Derek Minakami.

Kaneohe Elementary School Principal Derek Minakami says principals “need each other at this point.”

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

While these meetings are limited to school and community leaders and not open to the general public, a weekly Google RSVP form asks participants what “hot topic item” they’d like to talk about for that upcoming week.

“When the workload is high, you don’t see a lot of people coming (to the discussion),” Stacie Kunihisa, another co-organizer and principal of Kanoelani Elementary, said. Though she added that it seems there is never a lull in the high workload these days.

Every Thursday from 5 to 6 p.m., the online forum might host anywhere from several attendees up to a dozen.

The model of “Pau Hana for School Leaders” has spread to the mainland. At the annual National Principals Conference in July, held virtually this year due to the pandemic, the idea caught on with conference organizers.

Winston Sakurai, Kaohao School director and a Hawaii co-organizer, is now leading a chat for principals all over the U.S. every Sunday over Zoom, where attendees talk about health and safety protocols in their states or school reopening models.

“It’s lots of, ‘What’s going on in your state?’” Sakurai said. “The hardest thing is explaining a ‘pau hana’ to the rest of the nation.” 

Sakurai — who also moderates a weekly Twitter conversation under the hashtag #PrinLeaderChat — introduced the first national chat in this July 15 video.

“Pau Hana? What does that mean?” he starts off, before explaining the phrase so woven into the culture here.

“So when you’re done with work, join us for a conversation with other great principals all across the nation, and that includes you as well,” he says in the video. “Maybe you can chat a little bit, make new friends, and commiserate about all of the things that have been happening over these past few months.”

Brian McCann, a 17-year principal (and 1980 graduate) of Joseph Case High School in Swansea, Mass., located about an hour’s south of Boston, is one of these national Pau Hana attendees.

“I loved the ability to debrief and kind of collect thoughts of other people. It also is a forum for your reflections,” he said. “All of that positive energy cannot help but come into your school the next time you meet, whether physically or virtually.”

McCann, adding that he now understands “pau hana” to mean “the time after work,” said he finds the concept refreshing, because “so much of the professional development we (principals) do, is on our own time.”

Now, the veteran principal says, it’s not uncommon for him to get an email or direct message from someone he connected with during a Sunday night pau hana who might say, “‘Hey Brian, I really enjoyed you talking about canceling final exams, can you tell me more about that? Do you have any resources?’”

“It’s a wonderful network and pau hana is just one way that we can make these connections,” he said.

Extra Demands Of The Job

The solidarity being forged now, school leaders say, is ever more important due to the extra demands of the job caused by a health crisis that’s strained all facets of the education system. Already long days can stretch to 16-hour work days. Often, weekends and holidays are devoted to school planning.

They’re navigating this terrain amid an alarming surge of COVID-19 cases in most regions of the country right now; the death toll in the U.S. has surpassed 250,000.

New York City Public Schools, which as the nation’s largest serves 1.1 million students, closed Thursday for an indefinite period until the case positivity rate stabilizes, after just eight weeks of opening back up for in-person instruction to about 300,000 students.

Plastic bags on entrance to the administration office at Sanford B, Dole Middle School during COVID-19 pandemic. September 8, 2020

Principals are often the ones coordinating informational videos for parents or guiding safety protocols.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Though McCann’s school of 550 students has been partially open since mid-September with no interruption, the virus “is knocking on our door,” he said.

“You’re constantly being compared to your neighbor, ‘How come you’re not doing this,’” he said, of the pressure facing principals, especially those belonging to a smaller conference of school districts.

Back in August, when the Hawaii Department of Education was struggling to offer clear, consistent reopening guidance at the start of the school year, it was principals who often had to trust their gut on whether it was safe to reopen school doors or conduct that risk analysis on their own.

Today, Hawaii school leaders have done everything from creating videos explaining new safety protocols, to hosting virtual town halls to fielding parents’ questions and concerns. There is also a “Principals Helping Principals” website that’s been established to serve as an online forum.

Kaneohe Elementary has even come up with its own unique way to remind a student to socially distance from the next student over. A staff member will call out “anana,” referring to the Hawaiian unit of measurement, according to the school’s instructional video.

Nationally, more principals are thinking of earlier-than-planned retirements due to the pandemic-induced stressors of the job. That’s anticipated to happen in Hawaii, too, as principals approach retirement age.

“We need each other at this point,” said Derek Minakami, principal at Kaneohe Elementary, and a Hawaii pau hana co-facilitator.

That’s why it’s helpful, he said, to build relationships, keep things positive and also be very solution-minded regarding challenges that come up.

Blaber said these weekly discussions are not limited to just principals, but anyone in an educational leadership position — that extends to community leaders, nonprofits and public, private and charter schools. She pointed to the #808educate dialogue on Twitter among Hawaii teachers as paving the way for what’s possible in an online setting.

“Now, more than ever, communicating and collaborating with community partners and especially parents helps,” she said.

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