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From SAIS President Debra Wilson - May 2020

Tuesday, May 12, 2020  
Posted by: Debra Wilson
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Debra Wilson
President of SAIS

Hello Friends!

I have been thinking a lot about travel lately. One of our favorite family conversations right now centers around where we will go when we can just go again. Some of the trips we talk about are domestic, usually to see relatives. However, as a family, we also love a really long trip.

A few years ago, my husband and I were fortunate enough to have sabbatical time. We took our kids to Iceland, France, and Italy. When we returned to the United States, we spent some extra time with family and friends in the northeast. These kinds of trips are different than others. You tend to stay in lower key, more local places and you spend a lot of time in the car. Invariably, you hit a window when you are just finished. You dont want to piece together directions to the next place. You dont want to eat another unusual meal. You dont even really want to be with your people anymore. You just want to be home.

We are at that moment now in our schools. I see it in every Zoom roundtable. In every email. Even the most Tigger among us is wilting a bit at this moment. You are tired of not knowing what is next. You are tired of planning for things that may or may not happen, with guidance that may or may not make sense once reality arrives. You are tired of answering questions about what next year will look like, a question that seems to be the pandemics version of Are we there yet?” As with any trip, you cant actually go home right now, and when you do get home, it will be different.

But you can take a time out.

Right now, that time out includes celebrating this years graduates of all sizes. This will be a graduation season like no other. Some schools are managing modified in-person celebrations. Others are using drive-in theaters, stadiums, online streaming, car parades, and any number of other platforms to shine a light on their graduates. We should document and revel in the unusualness of this years ceremonies, even as we miss our traditions and plan to celebrate these young people again at a later time. And, they need it. All of our communities should be celebrating their successes and those of our teams and extended families for a job heroically done this year.

After the celebration, plan for a break. A real break, for your whole team. I know it doesnt feel like you have time, but you need to give yourself permission to step away. This road has been long and intense, and the next part of this journey is going to be incredible, and incredibly challenging. It will require focus, skills, and creativity. It will also require enthusiasm and innovation to capture the full potential of the fabulous summits that lie ahead, if only you can shake off your weariness and see them.

Truly, be optimistic about the next peak of this trip. In the context of Lewins model of change, we are unfrozen and ready to take our next shape. The unfreezing is being brought about by an entirely unexpected outside force, and it is giving us the gift of additional change momentum. This momentum will help us tackle issues and problems that we didnt think we could take on for a decade or more, if ever.

Some people—much cooler than I am—are talking about this as a slingshot moment, one that will project us in an entirely unexpected way and very quickly. The question ahead for many leaders will be: Can you capture and direct that momentum to work for you, or will that momentum drive you away from your long-term goals—or fizzle on the vine?

You, as leaders, are living up to the moment. While this is a traumatic time, it is also a creative and fascinating time in leadership. Bearing in mind the north star of the schools mission and values, you are using this time to accelerate the plans you thought were years away. You are rethinking processes that were designed to work for the school administrators of many years ago. You are seizing the opportunity to really analyze how you use your campuses, serve students who cannot come to campus, and work with staff from a distance. Beyond that, you are capturing —and learning from—what is working about this new learning mode.

If you are not there yet, take this break to step away and think about what you want to see happen. Decide which obstacles you want to tackle, not because they are barriers to campus re-entry, but because they are barriers to the growth of your school. This break will give you much needed time to reflect outside of the context of the day to day. If you feel like you need an extra incentive, there is plenty of research that tells us that physical exercise and a change of scenery help us gain perspective and think more clearly.

And, once you are back, SAIS will be here to support you in any way we can.


Debra Wilson
SAIS President


Before You Take that Break…

I know, you want a to-do list so that you can feel like you have cleared your desk before you head out on your break. For some schools, this break is still a few weeks away, so you have time to get some ducks in a row while you are celebrating. As always, I really like the McKinsey model of the Next Normal, so don’t forget to re-center yourself there if it is helpful.

Here are eight steps you can take now to queue up your fall planning.

1. Identify your process for planning your return to campus.
Before you take a time out, identify your process for tackling your return to campus and set that process in motion. This will get the wheels turning and give you peace of mind.
SAIS schools have a variety of plans underway. Remember, it doesn’t matter which mechanism you use, as long as your approach:

  • is driven by your school’s mission and values,
  • clarifies the priorities through which decisions are filtered,
  • is organized around teams that can tackle the key issues,
  • provides windows for seizing opportunities or lessons learned,
  • addresses the health and safety concerns of your community, and
  • provides for the long-term viability of your school.

There are many planning guides out there. SAIS has this plan mapping document, which we update as we hear from more schools. Education Elements has this one. NAIS also has this scenario planning session (the first of a set of four). Whichever approach you use, this SAIS resource on key considerations may be helpful. All schools should also develop a de-escalation grid. Here is an example and here is one that you can tweak to make your own.

2. Get a good feeling for what health and safety will look like.

By far, the health and safety of the school community is —and should be—the number one concern among schools. This is a complex topic, as there is a lack of cohesion in the guidelines schools have to work with; schools will likely be wrestling with differences in federal, state, and local guidance and regulations. This piece can help schools think through the conflicts. All schools should be watching the CDC, including this guidance (which was leaked when the administration decided not to release it) and this updated guidance. The American Federation of Teachers also put forward this comprehensive guidance. These are three resources that will likely have a big impact on state guidelines and public school mandates.

These sources of guidance, as well as that from some states, are generally enough to help schools understand what the limitations might be when returning to campus. These will include the expectations for maintaining a degree of social distancing and/or making changes to maximum capacity. School leaders should work to understand the limitations of their physical campuses soon. Some are looking at leasing, acquiring, or creatively using space to ensure they maximize the number of students who are on or near campus while maintaining distancing requirements. Some schools are also looking creatively at their calendar, for example by building in additional days at the end of the year or identifying days that might be taken off in the event that schools must intermittently close next year.

Some schools in the same geographic areas are working together to identify the guidelines and assumptions from which they will build their plans. As a result of this coordination, parents in these areas are hearing consistent messaging, even if the way specific schools implement the guidance may differ. There are instances, too, of independent schools actively engaging with local cities and public school systems to be part of the overall planning process.

3. Order supplies ASAP.
Prioritize ordering technology equipment or any supplies needed to equip your schools for health and safety. These orders may take a lot of time. In some states, state associations and/or public school districts are helping to secure these resources.

4. Get that initial return to campus communication out the door.
Most schools are finding it incredibly useful to release an initial communication to parents that conveys their commitment to return to campus in the fall, as long as it is possible. Most of these communications do not include a firm or detailed plan. However, they help the community understand the priorities the school has set and the process in which it is engaging. (This example from Grandview Preparatory in Florida is a particular useful one.) These communications give families a degree of comfort and may also help secure those straggling enrollment agreements. Some schools have reported that taking the step to communicate this commitment gives the school leadership and board permission to start really focusing on the next steps and setting the schools trajectory.

5. There is still only one way to eat an elephant.

What many schools have found is that planning is just too complex to take on all at once. Some schools break topical areas up around the teams and identify steps and questions that need to be addressed within various timelines. These timelines typically include a “sooner” timeline (e.g., to do by June 1), “a little later” (e.g., early July), and “eventually” (e.g., before school starts). Again, take an approach that works for your team.

6. Establish a way to capture and hold on to change and innovation.

As with any trip, if you arrive home and haven’t learned anything, your time is largely wasted. And, home is still a long way off. Make sure that your plan involves having a committee or task force that is charged with capturing the good that has come out of the crisis; in addition charge all committees with capturing the lessons learned. Schools have learned so much about how we use time, how we think about assessment, what true student growth looks like, how different learners thrive, and how our internal processes serve the needs of our schools or our customers, just to name a few. Don’t let these be lost lessons.

7. Understand how wellness will affect your plans.
Finally, schools are designing plans to address wellness concerns. Some of the best wellness resources to consult are those put out by independent schools in Australia; these schools went back to school this week. Any re-entry plan should include time for reconnection, building community, and nurturing the wellness of staff and students. Dedicating this time may affect your school calendar and plans, so agreeing on this work as a priority is important.

8. Multitask through service providers.
This entire crisis—and all of the changes it has brought—are requiring schools to put in place new policies, contracts, trainings, procedures, and systems. Get your attorneys and other service providers working on anything that needs to be addressed, so that you can implement changes over the next few weeks. Many law firms are creating “return-to-campus” packages to help schools address issues such as compliance with federal laws triggered by the Paycheck Protection Plan. Now is the time to get these efforts rolling.

What’s Next?

If your school has not moved into full-on planning, that is okay. There is time. Many schools are not gathering to build a full plan until after school lets out. At this point, there is no shortage of publications and recorded webinars to support your process. Before putting the finer points in their physical plans, most schools are waiting for the guidance and clarity that will only come with time. That being said, taking the steps outlined above may help relieve pressure. Focus in particular on your schools process, key priorities, and the resources needed. Identify the key windows for planning, set timelines for the decisions you need to make, determine who must be involved, and identify what resources you will need. These steps will ensure that you have what you need when you get to a place where you and your team can come together with clear heads and mission-focused minds.

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