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With empty schools and scattered school communities, Collier principals are supporting from afar

Rachel Fradette
Naples Daily News

Jon Bremseth passes deserted lockers when he makes his way down Barron Collier High School's empty blue-and-white halls. 

He heads to the high school a few days each week to check mail and sit for an occasional socially-distanced meeting.

He’s lonely, and his students won’t be coming back to school this year. 

That's the life of a principal whose role in the coronavirus pandemic looks different with school campuses shut down and students learning from home. Collier's principals, like Bremseth, are now working to support their teachers and students from a distance.

Bremseth went so far as to post a video for his students to the tune of "Mr. Lonely" by Bobby Vinton. 

In the video, he wanders through campus to landmarks traditionally crowded with students, like the school's football bleachers, courtyard and gymnasium. 

It's a feeling most school principals can relate to after coronavirus uprooted daily life.

“It's different," Bremseth said. "To go there in April and to have it be basically just a building, a storage facility for school-related items, that's vastly different."

Supporting role

Bremseth is watching the Class of 2020 go through an unprecedented time and said district and school staff are continually working to establish some normalcy for their students.

This last week, the school district announced plans to host virtual graduations in June and a celebration event at each high school in July. 

Bremseth planned video conferences with student leadership to discuss commencement ideas and other ways to honor their class, he said. 

More:Collier public schools announces plans for virtual graduation ceremonies

Principal Jon Bremseth walks through an empty hallway at Barron Collier High School in Naples, Fla., on April 23. The school is void of students and most staff because of the coronavirus, but Bremseth comes in to work from his office a few times a week.

Most of his days are spent troubleshooting through emails or phone calls, Bremseth said. His "monitoring and support role" includes checking in on student progress.

"I'm just really monitoring the e-learning process both from a teacher standpoint and a student standpoint," Bremseth said.

From moral support to sharing resources, Bremseth said he is using all his means to reach his teachers.

"I'm on a learning curve myself when it comes to this," Bremseth said. 

At Everglades City School, Cherie Allison is closing out her first year as principal. It's not what she expected. 

"I don't think about it too much," Allison said. "I just want to make sure my kids and my staff and my families are OK."

Leading a rural area K-12 school through online learning is about reaching out to families, Allison said.

"Sometimes it's just a matter of reaching out and saying 'How are you doing,'" Allison said.

More:If you are a Collier teacher, Leoni's Pizzeria wants to 'treat' you with a pizza dinner

Three days a week, Allison does student wellness checks, which consist of talking to students on the phone.

She's also navigating video meetings with faculty, grade level teams and guidance counselors.

Everglades City School Principal Cherie Allison

Allison said she's watching her kids respond to online learning with tenacity.

"I have high school kids that are reaching out to elementary school kids to help walk them through the computer program process," Allison said.

Allison speaks with her staff almost every day due to its smaller size, she said. 

"I'm able to talk almost on a daily basis to everyone and so that's been a great thing to try and make us feel connected," Allison said.

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Golden Gate Elementary School Principal Kelly Bergey starts her day doing virtual walk-throughs of her teachers' classrooms.Then she moves on to check-ins with her leadership team.

"As an administrative team, we're just trying to continuously find ways to connect with our families and our students and staff," Bergey said.

This connection includes personal letters to every staff members, phone calls home to families each week and school spirit week. 

"Whether it's texting me, calling me, FaceTiming, email, I'm communicating with them (her staff) about every single day," Bergey said.

Bergey is also watching as her school is going through another transition.

Golden Gate Elementary is in the process of becoming two separate schools after the  board voted on a split months before coronavirus. 

More:Two new elementary schools planned for Golden Gate

Golden Gate Elementary Principal Kelly Bergey

Bergey said plans are still underway and discussed in weekly video calls despite outside circumstances.

"We're just working through whatever we can work through, virtually, until we are able to get back to campus and physically start some of those changes that need to occur," Bergey said.

Facilitating from afar

For school principals, face-to-face conversations quickly moved to video and phone calls.

It's hard, Allison said.

"I'm not one to perpetually sit in my office, ever," Allison said. 

Once a week, Bremseth puts together a video for his students on different topics, like time management and communication. 

Bremseth sets up virtual meetings with teachers' teams every week.

Principal Jon Bremseth works on his laptop at Barron Collier High School in Naples on Thursday, April 23, 2020.

More:Few weeks into online learning, Collier teachers are trying new things, adapting

"I have been amazed at how adaptive they (teachers) have been and supportive of each other," Bremseth said. "I think in some respects it has brought our staff closer together."

Bremseth said his teachers are working together to better understand and operate Canvas, the district's learning management system.

All three principals said distance from their students is the most difficult part of this period.

"We miss that personal interaction more than anything," Bremseth said.

Principal Jon Bremseth, left, talks to Assistant Principal Sean McAndrews from the opposite end of a conference table during a morning staff meeting at Barron Collier High School in Naples, Fla., on April 23.

In normal circumstances, Allison would take time to visit both her secondary and elementary wings at school. It's no longer a part of her day.

"I just miss them so much because you become connected just on such a different level at a smaller school because you know them all personally," Allison said. 

Bergey said she started in education to make an impact on students. Now that's shifted to a virtual impact. 

"The biggest shift is not being able to have that one-on-one connection with students on a daily basis," Bergey said. "We're continuously trying to find ways, so that they know we're still here."

Rachel Fradette is an education reporter for the Naples Daily News.

Follow her on Twitter: @Rachel_Fradette, email her at rfradette@gannett.com. Please consider subscribing to support journalism in your own backyard.