Don’t Turn a Crisis into a Catastrophe

As a new, but extraordinary, school year gets underway in the Global North, we want to remind board members of the lives their heads of school find themselves living. Education is one of the most rhythmic and cyclical of industries. The start of school, grading periods, sports, exams, theatrical productions, and, of course, graduation ceremonies occur at the same time every year. Until they don’t, such as last spring and now.

A recent study by McKinsey found some factories running at 90% production capacity with only 40% of the typical workforce. Much the same is true of schools. Even though we are not in person, every school is keeping a facsimile of learning up and running while teachers and staff learn how to work without face-to-face contact. Heads tell us they are working vastly harder and for more hours per week than ever. As one head said, his partner at home says she sees him less now that he works from home than when he was in his on-campus office.

This is a recipe for burn-out, plain and simple. Days, even weeks, spent at multiples of the usual effort are possible; months and years are not sustainable for ordinary mortals. We don’t have a solution, but we do have three recommendations for boards to prevent a crisis for the world from turning into a catastrophe for your school:

  1. Recalibrate your expectations for success–the world has changed and the way you measure school performance should as well;
  2. Don’t try to “fix” your head’s stress–instead ask what support management needs from the board now and as the crisis continues to evolve;
  3. Double-down on your advocacy on behalf of the school–relentlessly support the work that administration and faculty are doing to keep school going; remind complaining stakeholders that this is not business-as-usual because these are not the usual times and to reset their own expectations.
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How Long Is the Long Tail?

The COVID-19 pandemic is disproportionately affecting some industries more than others. Arts, entertainment, recreation, and restaurants are among the hardest hit industries while technology flourishes in a WFH era. This chart, drawing on research by McKinsey and Oxford Economics, a forecasting and quantitative analytics consultancy, shows the COVID-19 impact through another lens: how long it will take for industries to recover to 2019 levels of contribution to GDP.

The analysis uses two scenarios—those deemed most likely to occur—one being “virus contained, slow recovery,” and the other a “virus recurrence, slow long-term growth, muted global recovery” model. Neither of these is considered best nor worst case; rather, somewhere in the range of “most likely to occur.” As of this writing, much of the world seems to be following the virus recurrence and muted recovery scenario.

The time horizon for recovery in the education sector ranges from early 2024 to early 2025, an astonishing and sobering 3.5 years from now. Even if the virus is contained sooner rather than later, the analysts see the “long tail” of effects stretching over at least the next three school years. We believe the long tail will be long indeed (Triangle featured the long tail in its recent webinars on “The Shape of What Comes Next,” and now the McKinsey/Oxford Economics research reinforces the point.

What does this mean for school governors and leaders? We have been writing about the importance of a strategy for your school to emerge from the pandemic stronger, where strength may not be measured in size. This is still very much an imperative, but we also suggest that schools combine an emerge stronger strategy with one to hold the enterprise together as the weeks of last spring that turned into months begin to turn into years. We will be writing more about this in the week ahead.

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Time to Rethink Governance

It is July 31, and the world is now well into the second half of the first year DCE–During the COVID Era. Along with mastering new recipes, watching and listening to dozens of podcasts and webinars, and figuring out how to navigate Zoom (and Teams and more), we are gradually realizing that COVID-19 is less a crisis that comes and passes and more one that lingers so long that it becomes part of the way we live. Hand sanitizer and masks are probably with us for a very long time.

Likewise the remote board and committee meeting. What if in-person, face-to-face meetings becomes a relic of a bygone era, January 2020? What if Zoom (which will be supplanted someday by something else) is the de facto medium through which those of us on private, independent and international school boards will govern, not just now but long into the future?

This is certainly true for the 2020-21 school year, and much longer if vaccine development and therapeutics lag, so we think there is merit in governance and executive committees asking two questions now:

  1. Given that we will be meeting remotely this year, how can we organize our work and materials to maintain trustee engagement and ensure effective governance; and
  2. What advantages might there be in doing some or all of our board work remotely, even if a time comes when we can routinely meet in-person again?

The first question is immediate as the next board meeting is coming right up for most schools. Many boards have held less formal updates over the past few months on a frequent schedule, so members should have a decent grasp of how management is beginning the school year and dealing with the vast uncertainty that surrounds this virus and its handling by local, state and federal officials. What then are the one, two or (at most) three things that your board must discuss now to (a) be most useful to management, and (b) put/keep the school on course to emerge stronger after the acute crisis eases?

The second question carries less urgency but no less importance. Cost is certainly one factor, especially for boarding schools whose members travel to attend meetings (some estimates from the corporate sector suggest a 90% expense reduction from remote meetings). But what about engagement? Could shorter remote meetings (there is, after all, only so long one can Zoom at a time) be a way to keep the school closer to the front of trustees’ minds than the traditional board calendar? Could remote meetings be a way to broaden and diversify the pool of talent from which you recruit new trustees?

Time to rethink governance DCE. We very likely aren’t going back.

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The Path Forward

All organizations have a mental playbook for how things work in their industry. Every school head has a playbook for the opening of school and every consulting firm has a playbook for how to engage with clients. Exactly no school head has a playbook for opening school in the midst of a global pandemic. No consulting firm has a playbook for client engagement when travel and group meetings are a bad idea.

We are all stumbling forward toward figuring out how to do in a new way what used to be routine. Spanish poet Antonio Machado’s line from Campos de Castilla comes to mind: “Wanderer, there is no road, the road is made by walking.” We are truly in a place where there is no road, yet the only way is forward.

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Join Us for “The Shape of What Comes Next”

In just five days, Triangle will conduct a free webinar, “The Shape Of What Comes Next,” on how the current moment will shape the future of private, independent education around the world. This live session will be held twice so that our clients outside North and South America may join synchronously from their time zones, and the repeat session will occur just six days after the first.

One of the macro trends we will discuss (spoiler alert!) is that the COVID-19 pandemic will have a very, very long tail, with consequences that will take years or even decades to play out. Neither we nor anyone else can predict your specific enrollment number in September 2021 or 2022 (that would be a micro trend), but we can help you see the story arc behind the big picture of how the pandemic will reshape almost everything (that’s the macro part) including demand and enrollment.

Join us at either session by following the appropriate link below.

Click here to register for 21 July 2020 at 09:00 St Louis time (GMT-5).

Click here to register for 27 July 2020 at 19:00 St Louis time (GMT-5).

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Re-Onboarding Veteran Faculty and Staff

July is almost half over, and the 2020-21 school year looms in the murky near future. While every private, independent school leader we know is spending their summer creating and modifying multiple scenario plans for how school might work as summer transitions into fall. Tempting as it may be to plow into the new year assuming your veteran faculty are ready to dive back into work, this would be a serious mistake. Regardless of which scenario ends up being closest to reality, we believe every teacher and staff member will need “re-onboarding” to your school.

Remember what has happened since school resumed in January 2020 after the winter break: every teacher and student made the pivot–some more elegantly than others–to remote teaching and learning; every athletic event, along with theater, concerts and graduation, canceled; COVID-19 grew into a pandemic that engulfed every single country on the planet at put 1.6 billion children out of school; approximately 40 million Americans, and hundreds of millions more around the world, suddenly found themselves unemployed and without paychecks; the lethality and unpredictability of the disease became apparent; personal protective equipment became ubiquitous wherever face-to-face interaction occurs, and the likely future of schools, like hotels, restaurants, gyms, and airlines, includes obsessive cleaning, social distancing, limited access, and rampant fear of infection even when precautions are taken. In this context, every school employee has experienced big changes in how and where they work and in what they find satisfying and anxiety-provoking about school.

No matter how school resumes, teachers will not simply walk back into their classrooms as if it were January 2020, and likely will never do so again in that way. Approaching the faculty and staff work period in the run-up to school as re-onboarding recognizes that everyone is starting work in a whole new world.

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