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Principals Leading Schools When Instruction is Virtual — May 2021


Could you provide research on principals leading their schools when instruction is virtual?


Following an established REL West research protocol, we conducted a search for research reports and resources on principals leading their schools when instruction is virtual. The sources we searched included ERIC, Google Scholar, and PsychInfo. (For details, please see the methods section at the end of this memo.)

We have not evaluated the quality of references and the resources provided in this response. We offer them only for your reference. Also, we searched for references through the most commonly used sources of research, but the list is not comprehensive and other relevant references and resources may exist. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. Access to the full articles is free unless indicated otherwise.

Research References

Abrego, J., Jr., & Pankake, A. (2010). PK-12 virtual schools: The challenges and roles of school leaders. Educational Considerations, 37(2), 7–13. Abstract available from and full text available from

From the abstract: “Building and sustaining a school and district culture that has a technology ‘growth mindset’ and the implementation of processes that support a technology-specific culture in which, ‘the role of the leader is to ensure that the organization develops relationships that help produce desirable results,’ would ensure that teachers and principals collaboratively and collectively acquire specific knowledge and skills that directly support the leadership roles, as well as assist in meeting the varied challenges that most school leaders face when leading e-learning and virtual campuses. Furthermore, the key to creating buy-in for technology, especially e-learning and virtual schools, will require that university/principal preparation programs work collaboratively with local school districts and national/state technology organizations to build capacity of future administrators and teacher leaders. This is not to say that local and national organizations are not focusing on professional development, but the focus needs to include specific training that ensures that school leaders acquire very specific knowledge and skills on how to reculture their schools and districts as e-learning and or virtual campuses. In addition, professional development for school leaders that deals specifically in addressing first and second order changes is a must. Finally, the implementation and sustainability of technology across a school would not be possible without development of an open climate and culture. In this article, an exploration of technological trends documented by organizations and researchers (what has worked, what hasn’t) in efforts thus far to create and sustain virtual schools at the PK-12 levels is presented. Additionally, the importance of leadership support is reviewed—in particular, the role of the principal and superintendent and how they influence the sustainability of online learning and the change process. A focus on the challenges administrators face and the roles they should assume when implementing and sustaining online technology for instruction are developed. These challenges include the principal’s leadership role, the need for new kinds and content of professional development, and what appear to be emerging best practices for those interested in creating and sustaining the new teaching and learning environment.”

Data Quality Campaign. (2020). Supporting students while learning at home: Individual student data and the COVID-19 crisis. Full text available from

From the abstract: “School closures resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic have left educators and families with the responsibility of rapidly learning how to support students while they are at home. This fundamental shift in the way most students receive instruction makes it critical for educators and families to be able to use data to meet students where they are and tailor instruction to their needs. This brief highlights short- and long-term actions education leaders must take to prioritize access to individual student data and empower those closest to students to use it to inform instruction and meet learners where they are.”

Giffin, J. (2020). Teacher observation, feedback, and support in the time of COVID-19: Guidance for virtual learning. Center on Great Teachers and Leaders. Abstract available from and full text available from

From the abstract: “One potential policy challenge in the COVID-19 context is how to evaluate and provide teachers feedback and support in a virtual learning environment. State education agencies (SEAs) sought to address this policy challenge by revising teacher evaluation policy during the 2019–20 academic year to lift requirements. However, given the new dynamics for the 2020–21 school year and the increased focus on virtual learning, SEAs are seeking new ways to support teachers with more relevant forms of feedback. This brief provides SEAs with strategies to adapt educator evaluation and support system policies and practices to support virtual learning. The examples, ideas, and resources included herein come from virtual high schools in the United States and from postsecondary education. We explore the standards and rubrics for virtual learning, the logistics for how school leaders can conduct virtual observations, the challenges with observing and providing feedback virtually, and resources for professional learning focused on virtual learning environments.”

Gill, J. (2020). Long-distance leadership: Principals support teachers as they dive into remote learning. Learning Professional, 41(3), 26–29. Full text available from and full text available from

From the abstract: “Four of five teachers surveyed by ‘Education Week’ in April said their job is more stressful than before the pandemic (Kurtz & Herold, 2020). Principals have been presented with a host of challenges that no leadership course could have adequately prepared them for. Chief among them: How to effectively support teachers from afar as they adjust to a new way of teaching at such an uncertain and scary time. Principals have adopted several strategies to support their teachers during the shutdown.”

Gustafson, D. C., & Haque, M. D. (2020). Uncovering the challenges and leadership practices of virtual school principals. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 23(4). Abstract available from and full text available from

From the abstract: “Virtual schools are one of the fastest growing educational options for students in the United States. In spite of the increase in virtual program options and enrollment, limited research has been conducted on how virtual school principals lead their organizations. This qualitative case study explores the challenges facing virtual school principals and how these leaders navigate these challenges. Data were collected through semi-structured, one-on-one interviews with 20 public, private, and charter virtual school principals from across California. The findings from this study identified the essential skills and ways in which virtual principals overcome leadership challenges. These factors included: Being open to new ideas, taking positive risks, staying flexible, empowering staff, communicating effectively, and serving stakeholders. The findings from this study can offer insight to many traditional brick and mortar school leadership that are holding fully online classes due to COVID-19.”

McKee, R., & Bowman, M. (2020). A new paradigm for collaboration. The Learning Professional, 41(6). Abstract available from and full text available from

From the abstract: COVID-19 has presented many new challenges for educators, not only in teaching and connecting with students but in their own learning from one another. The necessity of physical distancing has required all who engage in networks to be nimble and adapt strategies to an online environment. Although frustrating, this need can be turned into opportunities to productively change the way we work. Now is the time to redefine not just how students learn, but also how we as educators create systems and processes to better support adult learning, collaboration, and collective impact. This article highlights a tool that helps network leaders plan for and implement techniques for engaging collaboration in virtual settings. The tool can help to create an online space that makes it possible to focus on continuous improvement with an equity lens.”

Project Tomorrow, & Blackboard. (2018). Trends in digital learning: The new learning leader — The emerging role of the agile school principal as digital evangelist and instructional leader. Author. Full text available from

From the abstract: “The Future Ready Framework for principals identifies six key priorities essential for school principals interested in creating and sustaining a new culture of personalized learning within their school. Those six priorities are as follows: (1) Create a vision for digital learning in their school; (2) Model professional learning with teachers that honors experimentation and new methodologies; (3) Ensure that all students have access to anytime, anywhere learning; (4) Enable ubiquitous connectivity, both at school and at home, for all students; (5) Advocate for a diversity of approaches and strategies to meet learners where they are; and (6) Communicate a shared vision within the school community including engaging parents. To be able to address these priorities, today’s principals must demonstrate the type of agility and drive that Bill Gates refers to as a requirement for success. Based upon research from Project Tomorrow, a new class of school principal is emerging. This new school site leader brings to the challenge of the position a set of skills and values that inherently emphasize the importance of personalized learning and effective school to home communications. The report calls this emerging principal profile the ‘New Learning Leader’ as they embody the dual capacities of instructional leader and digital evangelist initiating and nurturing new modes of online and digital learning. The New Learning Leader values the potential of technology to create more personalized learning while at the same time appreciating what it takes to bring their teachers along in the process. They have a clear vision as to how to translate a district mission of equity, achievement and outcomes into actual practices within the classroom, working to motivate their teachers to adopt these new methodologies while at the same time being the cheerleader and communicator to the parents on the value of these new learning environments for their children. They are also ahead of the pack in terms of rethinking existing instructional practices and energizing their staff and community to be bold in visioning for the future, while at the same time reacting effectively to new challenges and reinventing educational outcomes that meet both student and community needs. Understanding the activities, attitudes and aspirations of this emerging cohort of school principals helps to drive both enhanced expectations and appreciation for the critically important work of school leaders today. The report examines the trends revealed through analysis of data collected in the Fall 2017.”

Sterrett, W., & Richardson, J. W. (2020). Supporting professional development through digital principal leadership. Journal of Organizational and Educational Leadership, 5(2). Full text available from

From the abstract: “A core role of the K–12 school leader is to support and nurture the growth of others. That growth is commonly thought to be at the student level. However, school leaders must also focus on the growth of their teachers. School leaders are adjusting to a world where technology has crept into many aspects of the profession. And sometimes, technology innovation comes during a time of sudden disruption, such as the COVID-19 pandemic in Spring 2020 where digital learning and leadership become the new norm, even when uncertainty and change were omnipresent. As such, while it is clear that principals must be collaborative instructional leaders, and that principals must develop their faculty and staff, what is left to be known is ‘how’ principals use technology to engage in such activities. This study is guided by the question, ‘How do principals leverage digital leadership to transform their school into a professional learning organization?’ The findings are organized into three themes of how these principals lead in this work.”


Keywords and Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used:

[(“Instructional leader” OR “school leader” OR “leader” OR principal OR “site leader”) AND (remote OR virtual OR online OR distance OR COVID OR pandemic) AND (setting OR school)]; [(“instructional leader” OR “school leader” OR leader OR principal OR “site leader”) AND (remote OR virtual OR online OR distance) AND “instruction”]

Databases and Resources

We searched Google Scholar and ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of over 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When searching and selecting resources to include, we consider the criteria listed below.

  • Date of the Publication: References and resources published within the last 15 years, from 2006 to present, were included in the search and review.
  • Search Priorities of Reference Sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published and/or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations and academic databases. Priority is also given to sources that provide free access to the full article.
  • Methodology: Priority is given to the most rigorous study designs, such as randomized controlled trials and quasi-experimental designs, and we may also include descriptive data analyses, survey results, mixed-methods studies, literature reviews, or meta-analyses. Other considerations include the target population and sample, including their relevance to the question, generalizability, and general quality. Priority is given to publications that are peer-reviewed journal articles or reports reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations. If there are many research reports available, we select those with the strongest methodology, or the most recent of similar reports. When there are fewer resources available, we may include a broader range of information. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance.

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the West Region (Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory West at WestEd. This memorandum was prepared by REL West under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0012, administered by WestEd. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.