Daily new cases of COVID19 in the United States, as in much of the world, are either leveling off or declining slightly after reach a peak within the past few weeks. This graph from worldometers.com shows that, apart from day-to-day variability, the number of new cases in the world has essentially found a plateau around the 20K mark. The importance of this is subtle but strategically significant for private school leaders pondering the 2020-21 school year.
Under other circumstances, a plateau might be a good thing, but in the case of disease prevalence within a population it means that COVID19 is going to be hanging around for a long time, perhaps with a non-zero base rate punctuated by periodic spikes here and there across there across the country. A safe, effective vaccine would drive the base rate down, possibly to zero, but that is a long way in the future and certainly not a factor for 2020-21.
What school heads and boards of trustees need to work on this summer (in the Northern Hemisphere) are strategies for a world where COVID19 stays in circulation, much the way polio and measles once did. Head-in-the-sand is not an effective strategy; nor is hope or optimistic thinking.
The world is in a headlong rush to resume “normal”, where normal is defined as January 2020 before COVID19 swept into every inhabited part of the biosphere. Schools are re-opening in Japan (primary grades first), Korea (secondary grades first), and elsewhere, and everyone wants to know whether classes will be in person or online come September. Some schools, particularly in the southern United States, are planning to open summer camps in July. The remote learning experiment began as cool, shifted to nice, then became tedious, and now is reviled by many parents who, more than anyone, long for a return to normality.
While understandable, especially among those pressed to manage their own work from home while serving as part-time teachers, we fear this rush is problematic for schools on two fronts, only one of which is epidemiological. The jury will be out until the data come in about whether a wholesale re-opening of the economy triggers the much-feared second wave of COVID19. For this, time will indeed tell.
What worries us just as much–and we are worried about second, third and fourth waves–is that simply rushing toward something that approximates normal elides the essential point captured by McKinsey: “The future is not what we thought it would be only a few short months ago.” January 2020 is a lifetime ago in COVID19 terms. That “normal” is forever gone; how can we make the next normal work for schools? Hint: it won’t look like the old normal.
That’s what everyone wants to know: come fall, what will back-to-school be like anywhere in the world? The real answer, of course, is that no one knows and any prognostication that ends up being right will be just a wild guess that got lucky.
Despite the seemingly endless ambiguity, we are starting to see some portends of what might be in these articles:
The weird future of work from the NY Times; unlike anything we know.
The remote future of higher education, heralded by this announcement in the Chronicle of Higher Education by the chancellor of the California State University System.
From the International School of Beijing.
Fall is likely to bring a strange new world to our schools as well.
Tom Peters is one of our favorite management gurus. For the better part of 40 years, Tom has been relentless in pursuit of one theme: the people matter. Whether “the people” are employees whose job it is to satisfy customer demands or the customers whose demands modern business exists to satisfy, Tom is a singular voice in support of the position that people matter most.
Now, amid COVID-19, Tom is addressing the unique needs of this moment by issuing an updated version of his management imperatives entitled, “Excellence 2020 Observations: Leading with Compassion and Care in Troubled Times.” Most important to us is the observation that people are not “working from home;” rather, they are “at home, during a crisis, trying to work.” Also, “This is the defining moment of your career. You will not be remembered by the contours of your balance sheet. You will be remembered by the way you supported people.”
Discerning the implications for managers is up to you.
What makes the coronavirus pandemic especially significant for private, independent schools is first and foremost because the mechanism of transmission sits at the very center of the way we do school. The massive economic impact is secondary, despite the threat it poses to the viability of schools as businesses. This particular communicable disease spreads through the exact way our schools operate: by transmitting person-to-person via close proximity in shared space. The closer the degree of engagement between an infected and non-infected person, the higher is the likelihood of transmitting the virus. Close engagement, whether one-to-one or in groups, is how teaching and learning happens AND how the disease transmits.
In effect, this means that our “secret sauce” has become at best dangerous and possibly even toxic. Parents BC (Before Covid) told us that the magic happens for their children through relationships with teachers and each other. What, then, do we offer of value when those sorts of connections are rendered onto a flat screen rather than in person? Is Zoom a decent (put aside good) proxy? And how does this work for younger children, say, pre-K through about grade 6?
Absent a scientific miracle (an oxymoron if there ever was one) leading to a safe, effective vaccine in vast quantities before September, school leaders need to work through with faculty the value proposition options:
- Replicate enough of the in-person experience and inter-human connections to make remote learning worth the premium independent school price;
- Forget replicating and go for something new–a unique value proposition based on a new way of teaching and learning; or
- Hang on by one’s teeth hoping for a vaccine in 2021 or 2022 allowing a return to school as it used to be (and the forbearance of parents in the meantime).
We think the first and second options are not mutually exclusive and probably offer our clients their best chance of survival. The open question is whether we can get teachers to tackle the second option until the third proves impossible.
A few lines in a recent Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) newsletter captures perfectly the moment in which we live:
In his book, Leaders Make the Future: Ten New Leadership Skills for an Uncertain World, (Robert) Johansen says that leaders increasingly will face challenges that have no solutions. Of course, they will have to make decisions anyway.
The reality of making decisions despite uncertainty is the next normal for independent and international school leaders. Some will find their True North and navigate accordingly while others will wander.