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Managing the Coronavirus Crisis: Next Steps for School Leaders

Wednesday, April 8, 2020  
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By SAIS President Debra Wilson

As schools take a collective breath and then start to look ahead, where should we focus our time and efforts? How do we frame the work we are doing? The following thoughts are coming together for me as I read the onslaught of well-being advice, optimism, pessimism, guidance, and the occasional cartoon. They might be helpful to you.

School leaders should, of course, continue to watch two factors: the projected spread of the virus and the potential impact on the economy. Both continue to be difficult to get a handle on; the resources around these forces seem to be almost a peloton between major sources. However, my current favorite source for tracking the virus is this one from the Institute for Health Metrics and the University of Washington. The economic forecasts also vary, and will ultimately be fairly localized. In the meantime, the World Economic Forum has a COVID-19 map that covers all aspects of the virus’s impact around the globe, including a section on the economy. Too intense? Try McKinsey. Or start with this article.

Beyond this basic tracking, it’s time for schools to lay out the plan to get to the next normal. I love this article from McKinsey. It breaks down this period into five key areas:

  • Resolve (to act to meet the needs of your community);
  • Resilience (set yourself up for resilience now and in the uncertainty ahead);
  • Return (make a plan to return, including being ready to roll back through your pandemic/distance learning matrix);
  • Reimagine (using all of the insights you have learned through this shift); and
  • Reform (making permanent policies and insights for a more supportive structure).

I see our schools as largely having made our way through the resolve area by making the shift they have in the last few weeks. For many schools, the last part of the resolve stage may be the final decision on whether they will be able to return to campus this spring. A recent SAIS pulse survey shows that 64% of SAIS have not made a decision about returning to campus for the remainder of the school year. Six percent of our schools plan on returning to campus before June 1st. Twenty-one percent know they will not be returning to campus this school year, and 9% will not be returning for regular classes but will hold voluntary community events in June if they are able.

The following steps should help feed the resilience and return stages, and —I hope—will start you on the path towards reimagine and reform as well.

  • Schools should be planning on being bimodal come the fall, with classes easily moving to remote delivery as needed. COVID-19 may very well affect the fall semester for brief windows, or potentially the whole semester. How can you prepared for this and how might the school year be tweaked to limit disruption? Track virus peaks in your area and start thinking about your school calendar. Does school start later than in previous years? Earlier? Will fall break align with a potential outbreak window? Looking to higher ed can help. Schools might also consider how delivery might change on the physical campus. How might the school put more social distancing in place at school? Is there a delivery system where half of the campus is present on some days and half on other days? Now is the time to start really looking at what is possible.

  • How do you make emergency remote learning better? It is important for your school to be clear about its objectives when it is delivering in person and how, the focus shifts in the remote learning mode, and to pay attention to the quality of what is being delivered. This article on emergency remote learning can help your school be clearer about what this new mode is and how the school prioritizes its work during that window. The point of “launch and learn” is, indeed, the learning. Schools have bought a lot of good will with families by actually executing on a learning plan, but I have yet to run into a school that feels like what it is delivering now is exactly what it would hope to deliver under better circumstances. While tweaking what you have in place now, also convene a team to figure out what systems you need in place to make it better. Articles like this one are out there, and they help create a road map. Global Online Academy is running its free course for distance learning again. It might be helpful to have a teacher leader or two become mentors for your learning community by going through the course. One Schoolhouse offers online meetups for academic leaders. Find more at

  • Make sure that you and your board are on the same page when it comes to the school’s financials. Which financial bucket your school is in (do you have questions around viability, stability, or sustainability?) will drive a lot of decision-making in the 24 months ahead. If there is misalignment among the school leadership and the board, then there are opportunities for breakdown when substantial decisions are made.

  • Get a handle on your school’s dashboards now, and for the year ahead. The recession of 2008 is not a perfect comparison by any stretch, but your school’s data from that time period can help you get a handle on how your community has behaved in the past when it comes to financial aid, giving, and enrollment. It is also a good time to talk through the policies that went into place then, and how the outcomes might have been different with different choices.

  • Build your models. You need one model for the rest of this year, and potentially three for next year. This year will be mostly about any additional financial aid you may need to provide, uncollected debt, and other unanticipated expenses or loss of revenue (summer auxiliary programs, revenue from sporting events, etc.). You should anticipate at least three different variations for next year, including a holding steady scenario, a middle-of-the-road loss scenario, and a less optimistic scenario. Next year’s models should be able to include or exclude any funding that school has applied for from the federal or state governments, as well as any credit lines that you are tapping. What should you consider? This piece might help. Remember, these are models. Next year might throw some curve balls at us, so schools will need to be flexible as the year unfolds.

  • As you build your models, you might consider different pricing models, including models for when your school is in remote emergency learning. This is especially important for lower grades, as most requests for refunds tend to be for younger students. Schools are starting to look at whether there should be a discount for periods of time in emergency remote learning, particularly when limited services are being provided and parents need to be more involved. This will not be the right approach for all schools, but schools considering these changes need to model them out and draft contract addendum language to ensure clarity on the financial obligations. Communicating these tweaks and changes now can build good will and enrollment for next year.

  • Really focus on retention, particularly for newer families. Create as many opportunities as possible to bring new admits into the fold now and during the summer months ahead. Both are times when schools tend to build more connections. Being in the virtual environment means we have to create these opportunities in a much more deliberate way. Ian Symmonds’ April 8 SAIS webinar explores strategic responses to the enrollment challenges we are facing. The Enrollment Management Association (EMA) has several webinar recordings and an online course. The Association of Independent School Admissions Professionals (AISAP) also has resources to help.

  • Understand the strengths and capacity you are building and use them. Moving out of reaction mode and into pro-active mode is empowering and healthy and can help counter lost revenue. Schools are modeling how to create remote learning modules for students whose own schools might not provide remote learning during a shutdown. Some schools are developing remote summer courses to help students get ahead or make up for lost time. Other schools are looking at how they might change the school day, delivery systems, or assessments once they are back on campus. Everything is on the table right now. As grim as our global situation is, the speed and flexibility our schools are exhibiting also make this an inspiring time in education.

  • Begin to identify what you need to return to campus. We are starting to see more resources that give us insights into how countries will ultimately release social distancing constraints, and they can be helpful as we think about what a return might look like for schools. This one from McKinsey is particularly useful. If you do not have a crisis management matrix for your school, definitely build one. Start doing tabletop exercises to see when different levels of risk are triggered and what it will take to move to the next level. Which staff are affected? Who may or may not be on campus? When may staff and/or students come back? When may they not? What are the school communications around these decisions and who is responsible for delivering them? What do you need now that you did not have before? Include things like quarantine rooms, deep cleaning capability, the ability to deliver on-campus services with some degree of social distancing, and more. This piece may help you think through some of the bigger-picture steps ... and who doesn’t love a checklist?

All of these steps together can be overwhelming, so start just by grouping, mapping, and prioritizing the projects ahead, and then work with your team to move them forward. Now is the time to use your team, both in and outside your institution. While this pandemic is the largest crisis anyone has seen in a very long time, the creativity, professionalism, and leadership coming to bear are very similar to what is often required to lead, support, and steward our schools forward. You have the tools to do this work and we are here to support you as we all work forward to a time when we can bring our communities together again.

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