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As America continues to deal with a public health emergency, The Miner Agency talked with leaders across sectors of the local economy to find out what they’re doing, how they’ve changed, and how they’re leading through unprecedented times.

These are their stories.

Class was out of session. Recess was cancelled. Homeroom was actually at home.

At the height of the COVID pandemic in late March, schools across the country were left with the difficult, if not unexpected, decision to cancel in-person instruction and stay at home.

But, by August, the new question was what to do next? Return to the classroom, give parents an option, or stay completely virtual? 

For local leaders in education, like Principal Al Chromy at Sacred Heart Catholic School, it led to tense decision-making late this summer.

“I can honestly say my 25 years of Air Force, as a leader in the Air Force, prepared me for managing and handling that 8 weeks of under-fire, for a lack of better words, work environment,” Chromy said with a smile.

Chromy, an Air Force veteran in his 5th year as Sacred Heart’s principal, says 2020 had waves of different challenges to overcome.

He listed when the pandemic hit, deciding to move classes online in the Spring, changes to staff and student life, virtual school and printing packets, preparing for the Fall, and other unknowns headed into a new academic year.

All of it created mixed emotions for both Chromy and parents at the school.

“I made the decision in the middle of July to go in-person only and that’s when the fireworks really started to fly,” Chromy reflects.

He said parents were balancing a passion for continuing a Catholic education against the benefits of a virtual education with the public school district, creating difficult decisions for many families.

Chromy says Sacred Heart specifically waited to make sure the Houston County Public Schools were offering virtual and/or in-person instruction so families deciding not to return to Sacred Heart for health reasons could still access virtual education in the County.

But Chromy’s decision still had its supporters, detractors, and critics.

“Very, very stressful, and then from the middle of July, part of that stress also was creating our re-open plan,” Chromy says.

Sacred Heart Catholic School examined ideas from across the country and put together its own protocols, procedures, and criteria for a return to the classroom, according to Chromy. 

Even then, the Air Force veteran and principal, with 10 years of experience in education, had his doubts.

“There was a little bit of breathing room once September hit, in about that fourth week, saying ‘We can do this.’ With, knowing in the back of my mind at any moment, the virus could enter the building. But yet, breathing a little bit easier that things were going well,” Chromy says. 

Chromy calls the 6-8 weeks students returned to campus in the Fall the most stressful two months of his education career.

The tired, but more relaxed principal says the best advice he has as the pandemic continues is to follow your own compass.

“Each person, whether it’s a staff member or family member or student, had to make decisions on their own. I could not be influencing them from the angle of trying to twist their arm that they must come back to work here or I really need them to come back and register,” Chromy explains.

“In the Air Force we learned all the time the balance between the mission and the people. In this particular case, yes, I had to make some strong decisions to ensure the mission continued, and safely, the mission would continue for all those who chose. But I really had to walk a very fine line with people as well to ensure that they felt supported and protected,” Chromy continues.

Some staff members are on a ‘pause’ for the current semester and others quit before the school year. 

“I had to understand each one of these individuals and not make the mission more important than the people,” Chromy explains.

It is an important lesson in leadership during COVID, flexibility in the aftermath of tough decision making.