The Elephant(s) in the Room: 5 Things Keeping School Leaders Up at Night as We Endure COVID-19 School Closures

The Elephant(s) in the Room: 5 Things Keeping School Leaders Up at Night as We Endure COVID-19 School Closures


By Mike Zavada | April 10, 2020

The end of this week will mark about a month since most of us started to experience the effects of the COVID-19 and the quarantine/shelter in place orders to which we currently adhere. Several of us may have been impacted by health concerns or even the untimely deaths of family, friends, or neighbors due to the pandemic.  However, as I write to you just before Easter weekend, there are many signs that an end is in sight. In many states, it appears the curve is flattening. Testing is more readily available. Major League Baseball, the great American pastime may play in Arizona. Perhaps we will regain some normalcy during the upcoming summer.  Leaders are in the midst of planning what re-entry post-Corona virus could look like.  

Nevertheless, as I check-in on school leaders, friends, former colleagues, and clients for my consulting practice, I interpret one consistent theme: each has a proverbial herd of elephants in their room and they are not quite sure how or when would be a good time to address them.  It is almost as if addressing the realities of what COVID-19 has done to our school years would be sacrilege. Most are trying to get through today. We can understand that. We all understand now the feeling of not being in control. School leaders, however, are used to planning. They are used to being in control.  Most of all, they are used problem-solving against seemingly insurmountable challenges. 

With these things in mind, I attempt to speak for my friends, former colleagues, and clients at schools as I unpack the things they are thinking as COVID-19 has torn asunder the rhythm most educators enjoy in a school year.  Here are 5 things that are keeping them up these evenings:


  1. Learning Loss

While many schools had excellent learning management systems in place that were quickly converted into remote learning systems, it is inevitable that students will take some steps back in their learning paths.  Education Week and other knowledgeable educational outlets commented that those who could least afford an interruption in their learning path (students from poorer socio-economic backgrounds and who had less parent involvement in their educations) would now be susceptible to at least two more months of little learning progress.  Even if no standardized testing takes place this year (and while most states have said they will not test), most expect testing next year and those same students will be testing. Some systems may even attempt to test during both semesters next year to mark progress. All of which is certain to keep a school leader awake thinking about both the loss for these students and the impact on school ratings with these students even further behind.

  1. The shine of private school has lost its luster.

Great schools make it part of their practice to make their students feel special.  In the private school sector, school leaders go the extra mile to ensure the “experience” is extraordinary.  Suped-up athletic programs and arts programs are part of the value-added component to private education (this is also the case at affluent suburban public schools).  Likewise, seniors at these schools are treated as first-class customers. Schools go the extra mile to ensure the bonds between their future alumni and potential future givers are strong.  Graduation, Baccalaureate, Prom, senior pictures, time capsule openings, and even AP exams can be full of legacy moments that cement the seniors with their school. If these bonds are damaged or otherwise stunted during COVID closings, it will be as if the school has lost a whole year of connection to the students to whom they feel most beholden.  On a personal level, many school leaders have made deep connections to these seniors and feel like they are somehow letting the class of 2020 down, even when it is clearly not their fault. It stings though and is enough to keep these earnest school leaders awake long into the night. 

  1. Annual Giving and Special Events

At many schools, the fall is off-limits for a lot of events designed to contribute to the annual fundraising efforts of a school.  This is true especially in areas of the nation where college football events reign supreme (I’m looking at you SEC country). That means the spring semester is back loaded with events designed to generate revenue and giving for the school.  Last week I had the privilege to work with one school that was breathing a huge sigh of relief. They had completed their major annual fund dinner/auction just one week before the closing of school for COVID-19. The event raised approximately ten percent of the school’s annual operating budget and the school uses this money to support its significant financial aid offerings.  Imagine if that school had planned their event for April like many schools schedule their auctions and golf tournaments. What would financial aid look like at that school? There most likely will not be a government bailout for non-profit schools and no means for students accepting high rates of financial aid to pay for school. Another sleepless night for school leaders with late spring advancement calendars…

  1. Faculty Retention and Recruitment

We are sitting in the prime time of faculty contract, recruitment, and hiring season.  Generally, from February through late April, school leaders are figuring out where all the deck chairs will be lined up when the cruise ship (probably a bad metaphor in this era) pulls out of harbor next year.  While school leaders can be forgiven for putting off hires for next year under these circumstance, next school year will come. If you had a baby boomer gem of a Physics teacher lined up to retire this year and have not begged her to come back next year, you still need to find the proverbial needle in a haystack.  Even without COVID-19 hires like these were dicey. The market for strong teachers, especially in the Math and Sciences has eternally been difficult amid great economic climates such as we enjoyed during this bull market since 2009. Likewise, a school leader may have put off the difficult decision to non-renew an ineffective teacher at his own peril.  Then the virus came. Try having that conversation now. Talk about sleepless nights for school leaders in that situation.

  1. Enrollment: The biggest elephant in the room from my vantage point is enrollment.

While public schools deal with this on a limited basis, I think you will see some dislocation due to job loss or due to family consolidations going on as everyone socially isolates.  This may mean that many more students shift schools. Whether public or private, those shifts can mean more or less money in the budgets of schools depending on if they have a net gain or loss of students.

In the private sector, what if the public school in the area that was regarded as inferior by private school stakeholders somehow pulls off distance learning in an equal or better fashion than the private competitor? Could some private school parents reconsider the price of private education with the thought distance learning has evened the playing field?  What about the homeschool market? While much lampooning has gone on about parents and their ineptness as teachers of their own children and while most anticipate huge fatigue among parent-teachers, there may be a segment of the private school parent body that reconsiders the price tag of private education and sees the merit of home school. Likewise, online academies that do authentic teaching from remote, often at 20-30% of the price of a private school, may grab some of the private school market share.  

I talked with one extremely successful Christian Classical School last week in Texas.  While they have had full enrollment with waitlists in the lower school and a financial statement that would be the envy of 90% of American Schools, they were consolidating a few of the open positions they originally advertised on their employment website.  Why? Well if one reads between the lines, they are uncertain that enrollment will be as strong with the economic struggles our nation is facing. A mild contraction of 20-30 students at a well standing school of 500-700 students can mean roughly a half a million-dollar hit to the budget.  Schools with 75%-85% of their budgets tied up in contractual obligations to faculty and staff can easily pivot off of $500,000 between now and next school year. Again, this at a healthy school. Think about the melatonin a school leader at a struggling school would need to take.

Well, if this outlook sounds grim, take heart. The leaders at our schools are some of the best problem-solvers in the country.  Moreover, many folks are using this time of enormous change out of necessity to reimagine the schools of the future. @GrantLichtman, author of #edjourney and Thrive, who has been on our Classroom and Culture podcast has taken this opportunity to support schools in dramatic change while the time is right.  Today, I talked to a Florida school leader who was exuberant about how his school would be positioned to make the strides it has wanted to take for years.  The pandemic crisis has put many into the mindset that “the time is now to change the industrial model of education and make it congruent with the world our students will live within.” So with our next post, we will explore “Never to let a Good Crisis go to Waste: How the Best Schools are Reimagining School amidst Crisis for the Good of Students.”  

In the meantime, know that we are praying for the health and safety of each of your constituents.  We will get through this and we will come out on the other side growingly appreciative for the work we get to do with students and for the marvelous colleagues with whom we step into the trenches (or Zoom rooms) with each and every day. 

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 basketball.

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