The institutional nature of upper secondary education during the COVID-19 pandemic crisis. New experience and changed agency of school leaders


  • Guðrún Ragnarsdóttir
  • Jón Torfi Jónasson



COVID-19, upper secondary education, school leaders, work experience, stress, neo-institutional theories.


In the spring of 2020, the closure of upper secondary schools was authorised, and all on-site teaching was transferred to distance settings due to COVID-19. The schools were closed almost the entire spring semester. In the autumn, the organisation of schoolwork changed repeatedly concurrently with ever-changing regulations. The aim of this study is to gain understanding of the work experience, tasks and the cooperation school principals and assistant principals had with different stakeholders outside and inside the upper secondary schools during the first year of the pandemic and reflect changes in their agency. The results are based on a mixed method, relying on two questionnaire surveys submitted to all upper secondary school staff in Iceland, as well as interviewees with six school principals and assistant school principals from three upper secondary schools. In the light of neo-institutional theories, de-institutionalization in some degree was identified. The findings show that the tasks of the school leaders increased in complexity, and so did the workload. As the pandemic progressed, contact with the external environment, staff members, students and parents increased. At the same time, they had to lead the most extensive changes that have been made to schoolwork to date on top of their traditional working duties. Certain aspects of schooling changed significantly during the pandemic, at least temporarily, while the centralised and institutional-oriented emphases of external stakeholders harmonised with the schools’ institutional framework. Concurrently, school leaders responded either as organisational leaders or institutional leaders. The tasks of school leaders developed during this time. In parallel with the increased call for pedagogical support, they took the lead on certain organisational aspects of the teaching. However, they did not go beyond their agency and thus they respected the professional independence of teachers. There were substantial distances between professionals and a certain gap formed between staff members, especially at the beginning of the pandemic, which fostered isolation of school leaders. The results raise pressing questions about division of labour and mandates, work related stress and professional support. In addition, the article highlights weaknesses in communication between different groups within the school community, at least during the pandemic.

Author Biographies

Guðrún Ragnarsdóttir

Associate Professor, University of Iceland.

Jón Torfi Jónasson

Professor emeritus, School of Education, University of Iceland.



How to Cite

Ragnarsdóttir, G., & Jónasson, J. T. (2022). The institutional nature of upper secondary education during the COVID-19 pandemic crisis. New experience and changed agency of school leaders. Icelandic Review of Politics & Administration, 18(2), 283–312.



Peer Reviewed Articles