By Mike Zavada | May 7, 2020
Some of our early high school students probably studied Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities this year. The parallels to what we are collectively enduring are striking. Dickens could have been thinking about 2020 as easily as the French Revolution when he wrote “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.” It has been the best of times because schedules have slowed down, families have drawn closer, and in some respects, the world has been drawn together through fighting a common enemy. On the other hand, the deaths, economic hardships, separations, and inconveniences have had an immeasurable impact on each of us.
Like the French Revolution, the difficulty with chaotic change is in the lack of stability. The Revolution begot violence. Then it begot Napoleon. Like a top spinning, we have been in a predictable stream of chaos for the last two months where we have known we had to stay home, we learned we had to deliver education online, and we continue to hope forcefully that this pandemic would end. Now we are starting to see our hopes realized. The spinning top of chaos is starting to wobble. The Coronavirus captivity is starting to slow, it will soon topple, and we can predict that shortly the top will be laying on its side. We think that we will have fewer variables to plan for in the fall assuming the virus flattens this summer.
So what should we be thinking about as school leaders as we plan? It is like we have a complicated jigsaw in front of us and we aren’t sure exactly where to start. I have always found that it works best to put the corners and the edges of the puzzle together first before I get to the center of the puzzle. We might consider COVID-19 reentry similarly. Since we are not equipped to put the full puzzle together yet, let’s look at these 8 thoughts. By looking at these corners and edges we can begin to lead our schools into the fall.
1. Empathy First, Empathy Always.
Each of us comes at this problem differently. Some of us and some of our school families have been hit with COVID-19, displaced from work, maybe displaced from homes, and generally may be frayed at the edges with the tasks of teaching from home while also leading our own children at home. For some of us, the peace of being at home and the lighter schedule has been a blessing. We may have found our blood pressure is down and we may have had the opportunity to exercise each day. We enjoy quality time with our spouses. Each of these extreme perspectives bears merit and can likely be found in each of our schools. Wise leaders will acknowledge this and season each conversation with empathy. Throughout the summer, it will be important to check-in with your staff and your teachers to see where their headspace is. I recommend doing this on an individual basis and perhaps by phone versus email. Honestly, you may have some faculty seriously considering an unexpected retirement or career change because this has been so hard. Others may be so invigorated by the change that you may be able to use this energy to propel a special project like remote learning protocols or hybrid courses. Better to find out these thoughts amongst your faculty early in the summer than in late July. You might find that a personal, thoughtful check-in is enough to elicit the honest thoughts of your team. Proverbs 27:23: “ Know the condition of your flocks, and give attention to your herds…”
2. Understand Where You Are.
The start of school in the fall may look a lot different depending on whether your school is in a heavily populated area or rural. It will look different if you are in a blue state or a red state. It will be unique based on how congested your campus spaces are (think about your hallways during a common class change time frame). Consider if large numbers of your faculty are over sixty. It will look different if you are K-6, K-12, 6-12, etc. It will look different if you have international students. These are the cultural touchstones and demographics each school will have to navigate as it starts to put the edges of a plan together. Purdue University President Mitchell E. Daniels did this with an email to his stakeholders recently that is well worth a read to prime your thinking.
3. Establish a medical task force for your school.
For a while, our Christian schools tried to save money by not staffing the school with a full-time nurse. Those days are likely over. I cannot imagine not having a full-time medical professional on staff going into the fall of 2020. Additionally, I would recommend that you set up an ad hoc board-level committee that studies medical guidance, plans, and decides issues like potential school closings if a new outbreak develops. They would create safety measures to take in the fall to avoid unnecessary exposures of the children and faculty. This committee might even weigh whether to allow an overnight school trip once the school year gets going. Members to include on the committee would be the nurse, potentially a principal, and medical personnel in the community with ties to the school who also have strong connections to the best medical information in your state or region. This group would not make decisions based on the news or default to the public school decision-makers. This method also will help shield your Head of School and board from having to think through these things on a continual basis, wasting time and strategic capital. Better to have the medical task force make informed recommendations for your school and then have the Head/Board decide.
4. Assess Your School’s Access to Medical Supplies/Tests.
This ad hoc committee could also study another consideration: what will be your school’s access to testing kits, antibody testing, and eventually vaccines. All of these will be very helpful ongoing conversations as you flesh out the extent to which your school can go back to normal, go back to a hybrid launch, or stay with a remote learning plan as you open. Grant arrangements or donated items may possibly be developed through this ad hoc committee and your advancement team. Plan to need items like hand sanitizer, wipes, masks, and plastic shield structures like our retail establishments have to protect teachers during student-teacher interactions. Picture a 3-5 foot plastic shield at the teacher’s desk so that when a student comes forward with a question in class, both the student and teacher might have a protective separation.
5. Draft and Consider Multiple Scheduling Options.
Another group of administrators and teacher leaders at your school should be gathering intel over the next three months to develop and continually tweak plans that would bring smaller numbers of students to campus each day. Like restaurant openings this week in Florida, Texas, and other states, schools might have limited capacity soft openings where a high school might only bring students with last names A-L to school on Mondays and Wednesdays. M-Z would follow on Tuesdays and Thursdays and Fridays could be used for remote learning, selected learners on campus for resource help, or special projects. Another route may be to schedule half of the students from 8-11:00 and the other half from 12:00-3:00, but this would probably require faculty to teach all of their classes 2 times a day and mess with the daily schedule. Likewise, the industrial model of changing classes on a bell schedule should probably be put into retirement. Have your team consider staggered start and stop times, even allowing for the opportunity to send small groups of students to the library or other expansive space while a teacher works with a smaller group. Consider any possible measures to avoid large congregations of students early in the school year.
6. Think about how to make Large Groups Small.
Nearly every plan will restrict large gatherings in the fall, so we need to be thinking about how to hold things like our chapels, pep rallies, parent nights, and other traditional large group gatherings in a manner that is safe and also builds community. For Christian schools, this is a great opportunity to have your Chaplain/Director of Christian Life, Dean of Students, or other delegate create or dust off that plan to have advisory or small groups do breakouts after perhaps receiving a broadcast message in your classroom. There are some excellent examples of the ways to break out into smaller groups from the churches our families attend. Consult with churches in your area or online through YouTube and Facebook live for some examples. Consider this the Hebrews 10:24-25 part of your plan: “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
7. Set up Plans for the Safe Delivery of Value-Added Programs.
Your Director of Athletics and Fine Arts Director/Chair should be working on creative plans for training while maintaining distance. Consider a phase-in-plan as follows:
8. Customize your School's Calendar with Built-In Contingency Plans for Time Away from School.
As you plan, I hope that you will consider the next few months a unique opportunity to reimagine what your school could be rather than holding a paralyzed mindset due to COVID-19. Our world is being transformed in many ways and the speed with which our faculty are willing to accept change has lept substantially since we entered into this pandemic. It is a great time to have a Romans 12:2 mindset: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Let’s capitalize on this historic time and create something outstanding for our students as they prepare to carry out His kingdom work.
Oh, and that center of the puzzle— the area we left open. Well, of course, that is Christ and the powerful work He will continue to do in these best of times and even as we endure the worst. He is sovereign and as we plan, let’s lift our plans to him. As always, we should enter into this planning time with the mindset of Proverbs 19:21: “Many are the plans of a man, but the purpose of the Lord will stand.”
Michael Zavada (@MikeZavada) has spent the last 20 years in schools, the better part of that in school leadership roles. He is also a writer and the Founder and Chief Strategist at Roundtable Educational Consulting. Mike resides in San Antonio, TX with his wife and three kids, where he enjoys biking, fishing, reading, and coaching hoops.