If this were a normal school year, students at Lutie Lewis Coates Elementary School would be preparing for the joys contained within the last days of school, said Jesse Kraft, principal of the Herndon, Va., school — field day, sixth-grade promotion and end-of-year parties. Teachers and staff would be finding creative ways to repackage old content so that it’s fresh in kids’ brains as they depart for summer vacation. “Summer slide is real,” Kraft said.

But this is not a normal school year.

The classrooms are empty, the teachers are recording lessons in their living rooms, the students are learning online. And Kraft is sitting alone in his office, trying to figure out the future, including how he’ll carry out his after-school ritual of high-fiving each student as they spill out the building.

Maybe, once they’re back on campus, he’ll just stand outside with his hands in his pockets, Kraft said. But he’ll still make eye contact with every child, say each of their names and tell them goodbye.

Kraft’s leadership — in the best and worst of times — has earned him the title of The Washington Post’s 2020 Principal of the Year, chosen from 19 finalists from the District, Maryland and Virginia.

The transition from an in-person environment to a virtual one hasn’t been easy. Fairfax County hit serious snags in its online rollout. Blackboard, the technology platform used by the school district, saw massive technological glitches that left students and teachers throughout the system unable to log on or facing poor audio and frozen video once they did.

But Kraft and his team have weathered through, a testament to his leadership, colleagues said.

“I am someone who really wanted to have good, live lessons,” Kraft said. But “when that was struggling, we still had these other components of a distance learning program.”

The school’s psychologists, counselors and social workers had mental health resources ready for students and their families, the principal said. And teachers joined Kraft in posting lessons on the school’s Facebook page when Blackboard wasn’t working. Students were sent home with assignment packets, too, he said.

Along the way, Kraft said he’s stayed connected with families, checking on students and making sure staff have the tools they need.

“The perspective I try and maintain is, if I worked here — if I was a teacher here — what would I want to see happen?” Kraft said. “If my kid were a student in my school, how would I want things to be?”

Through that philosophy, he assuages the fear many parents have when they leave their students in his and his teachers’ hands: Will my child be okay?

“He makes sure that everyone in his staff, including him, know your name, know your family, know your child,” said Tisha Bowman, the school’s PTA president. “You don’t feel like you and your family are just a number.”

When the pandemic closed school, Kraft quickly shifted focus to make sure every student had what they needed, Bowman said. The needs at the school are as diverse as the students who attend.

“It became less about the academics and more about treating them as people and human beings,” Bowman said.

Kraft started working with children long before he considered a career as an educator.

“It started in high school with running a kids karate program in downtown Philadelphia,” he said. “I was a shy kid with pretty low self-confidence. At the time, the karate program I was in really helped me deal with those issues.”

He continued building relationships with children at the University of Pittsburgh, where Kraft got a federal work-study job at a preschool and spent summers at youth camps.

Originally set on finding any career that would bring him more money than he had growing up, Kraft realized: “I could have a career where I’m actually doing something purposeful, doing something that is fulfilling to me and serves society.”

Although Kraft shed the “teacher” title years ago, his students still see him as one, he said. He visits classrooms and runs public speaking seminars called “Talk Like a Boss,” designed to help fourth- through sixth-grade students at the school tell compelling stories and use body language to show confidence.

“It’s a life skill that transcends what the curriculum is,” he said. “We do a lot of things as a school to deal with the emotional … needs of our community.”

The end of the school year isn’t what Kraft imagined. Instead of celebrating with his students, he’s staggering teachers back into the building to pack up their classrooms.

But he’s lucky, he said. And there is still much to celebrate.

“We’re going to try our best to do a version of that virtually,” he said. “We still have to commit to putting out a well-planned, well-executed learning experience for kids.”