A Check-in with Dr. Dirda

With humility and compassion, the NASH Principal continues to navigate the challenges of leading a school during a pandemic.

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photo by Anthony Duzo

Many decisions that impact NASH students on a daily basis are made right behind this door.

Anthony Durzo, Staff Writer

It has been a tough three months for students and teachers. Since September 8th, the North Allegheny School District has switched multiple times between remote learning, the hybrid model, and for young kids, even fully in-person instruction.

Leading staff and students through such turbulent times are the administrators and principals in the district. North Allegheny Senior High School Principal Dr. Natasha Dirda has been managing many obstacles throughout this unique school year. After all, keeping a school with over 1,000 students operating safely is a massive challenge that has required a lot of sacrifices.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of Dirda’s job this year has been the limited amount of time she has had to make important decisions. With unpredictable information being announced rapidly, it can be hard to plan ahead with ideas that will assist the student body. Many of the major decisions this year have involved transitioning to fully remote learning due to a rise in COVID-19 cases, but Dirda believes that NASH teachers have lessened the burden.

“Our teachers have had to spend an unbelievable amount of time recreating lessons that they have made for the in-person and remote models to fit the full remote model,” Dirda said. 

Finding enough substitute teachers this year has also been a struggle.

According to Dirda, NASH has hired approximately eight new staff members, which is very out of the ordinary for any school in the district. Three out of the eight hires have gone from part-time substitutes to full-time teachers. Some have even switched positions midway through the 2020-2021 school year due to the high demand.

Most substitutes who unfamiliar with Blackboard Collaborate had to be shown how to log on, interact with students, and record attendance. It wasn’t like a normal year where they could walk into a classroom and help students work through their assignments.

Fortunately, no staff member has resigned from their teaching position amid the new and challenging learning process. 

“Our teachers are beyond dedicated to making sure that our students are supported in every way,” Dirda concluded.

Dirda also explained how the entire staff has been impressed by and proud of all the students at NASH. “Appreciative” is one of the many positive words she used to describe her gratitude towards students and teachers who are committed to making the most of the unideal circumstances.

There is nothing I, as the principal of NASH, am not willing to do to make sure our students are supported, seen, heard, and valued.”

— Dr. Natasha Dirda, NASH Principal

Dirda often discusses the students’ dedication to flexibility and patience to North Allegheny’s Central Administration Offices, and she is certain that the NASH students are leaders throughout the district. 

“The work and the serious ways that students have navigated through this has made us unbelievably proud,” she said.

Although some form of remote learning was necessary to help fight the pandemic, it has taken a toll on students academically. Dirda and the other principals at NASH have seen a broad spectrum of student grades, attendance, participation, and engagement. The principals have noticed reports of students who thrive with the virtual learning process, expressing their enjoyment of the at-home environment, but they have also seen students who struggle to learn online.

Dirda expresses that the school administration wants to help as much as they can.

“I do encourage any student who is struggling to reach out to myself, a teacher, or a school counselor,” she stressed.

North Allegheny recently announced that, taking into account the surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths, after this week, NASH would be closed for the remainder of 2020. Beginning Monday, December 14, Dirda and the rest of the staff will be faced with empty hallways, classrooms, and chairs until Tuesday, January 19, 2021.

Before this decision, a significant amount of families had made the decision to keep their students home or move to the North Allegheny cyber academy. However, many students remained in the hybrid learning model.

Dirda respects families’ decisions and uses them to make recommendations to district officials, who ultimately make the executive decision about closing schools.

Despite knowing that the school is doing what it has to do to control the spread of COVID-19, Dirda finds the lack of connection to students heartbreaking. It has also been hard to hear that many of students are overwhelmed academically and can’t find help. 

But there is one thing she wants every single NASH student to know.

“We deeply care about you. We know that this has been so challenging and we’re all here. We want everyone to know that they can reach out at any time,” she said.