After taking on the task of adjusting elementary school students to virtual learning, new Johnston Senior High School Assistant Principal Amy Burns has made the jump to guiding secondary learners through the pandemic.
Burns served the past two years as principal of Robert F. Kennedy Elementary School in Providence, coming there from an assistant principal role at Central Falls High School. She was officially appointed to fill new JHS Principal Donna Pennacchia’s vacant position during the School Committee’s December meeting.
“I left [Central Falls] because there was this opportunity in Providence to be the principal of an elementary school and thought that would be an interesting change and I loved it, but I’m really excited about working in the district of Johnston, so when this opportunity came up, I really wanted to try it,” Burns said during a December interview with the Sun Rise.
Burns said she has several colleagues who work in Johnston and speak highly of the district’s “very collaborative, warm climate,” as well as its strong leadership.
“[They say] that it’s a student-centric district, and that a lot of interesting projects are happening at the high school with the CTE Pathways. And I liked Central Falls and Providence, but I was very drawn to a position here that has that kind of collaborative environment where I have that opportunity to work on different projects,” Burns said.
She helped steward RFK through the switch to distance learning in March, and she said it is difficult for students in any grade to work on screens for long periods of time. She added that it’s an “incredible ask,” especially for younger kids who are accustomed to receiving help from a teacher to sign on to computers.
High school students, she said, have the added benefit of “more familiarity” with laptops and Google Classroom.
“I think that in elementary school, part of the challenge was keeping their attention on the screen, and part of that is that in elementary school, we didn’t spend as much time on the computer and so there was a learning curve. Back in March, it was teaching kids how to sign on,” Burns said. “A lot of that was done with assistance in the classroom by the teacher, and how to navigate to different platforms, so when you’re trying to explain it from afar, that was challenging.”
When RFK went virtual, Burns remembered that staff “were really willing to roll up their sleeves [and] learn the skills they needed to.” She has asked around in Johnston to see what the experience was like there, and the process was similar.
The early returns from her time in the assistant principal’s chair are in, too, and she’s very pleased with what she’s seen thus far.
“I have no reason to believe that the staff here is not excelling and rising to the challenge of achieving learning in a distanced manner. Does anybody prefer that?” she said with a laugh. “I don’t think so. I think we’re all really eager to get kids back in the building and to have kids be able to participate in extracurricular activities, to have more typical lunch blocks. For now that’s just where we are, and I think the school’s adjusting well.”
Like with mostly everything else in 2020, her first few weeks at the high school have been unconventional. Despite nearing a month in her new position, Burns has only actually seen students for a handful of days. Superintendent of Johnston Schools Bernard DiLullo moved the district to distance learning for the remainder of 2020 late in December.
It hasn’t been a challenge for Burns, but certainly an adjustment as she settles in.
“It’s a different way of working and communicating and meeting new people over the computer rather than face-to-face,” Burns said. “It’s been just fine and people have been very warm, very welcoming, but I am looking forward to the time I can see people in person and have conversations across a table rather than across a screen.”
As for when school life will return to normal, Burns couldn’t prognosticate. When it does, though, she will be “very eager” to get students back in the hallways and classrooms.
“I think a lot of it depends on what happens with the pandemic, what the numbers look like,” Burns said. “All I can say, not being an expert in public health, is that we’ll just follow the guidelines that are given to us by the state and certainly by the district, and my hope is that the kids come back to school.”