Charting the Coronavirus

We are closely monitoring a number of sources for accurate, up-to-date information about how the novel coronavirus is spreading around the world. Triangle Associates believes that facts are of the essence in times like these, and here are the places we turn for trusted data:

Financial Times – https://www.ft.com/coronavirus-latest

worldometers – https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/#countries

And for a quick tutorial on the difference between linear and logarithmic scales, see this item in the NY Times – https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/20/health/coronavirus-data-logarithm-chart.html  

Data matters now more than ever.

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The Coronavirus and School Governance

We are receiving questions from board chairs about governance issues involved in the coronavirus situation. They are asking what savvy boards should be talking about at this point in the ongoing crisis–a point where most schools have shifted to remote learning and are planning for canceled proms and virtual commencements. These are the subjects that should be consuming management (heads and their teams). Boards should hear from management about how the transition to remote school is going, but do not need to be involved in firefighting the emergent situation.

Instead, boards need to pivot to a forward-looking focus on the longer term existential challenges looming ahead. There are a raft of “what-if’s” that need scenario analysis, even as the future remains at best an impressionistic image:

  • What if  25% (or more) of students fail to return next year, regardless of their parents having signed re-enrollment contracts?
  • What if a large share of newly admitted students request financial aid (or “flexible tuition” in the contemporary vernacular)?
  • What if school as we know it–180+ days per year of students with teachers–is no longer possible, given repeated cycles of in-school and remote learning as the virus waxes and wanes; how then does our school justify its tuition premium?
  • How can this epic Lewinian moment/opportunity of “unfreezing” be used to our school’s advantage?

As this train wreck plays out, these questions will become a lot more relevant for a great many schools.

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How Bad Is It?

This graphic from The Conference Board tells the economic story being written by the coronavirus. As bad as the Lehman Brothers collapse and probably much worse, since there are many months left to run. As with all traumatic events, the psychological impact extends much farther in time, so we can expect the sequelae of this to play out long after the dust clears. Assuming that it clears.

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Do Schools Have a Life Cycle? Maybe So, but Some Leave a Legacy

For a richly rewarding break from a relentless barrage of Coronavirus and election (at least in the U.S.) news, see Josie Holford’s article “The School is Dead, Long Live the School.” Besides making a compelling point about private schools, Josie reveals much about the history of progressive education and about private education in New York City. Best longread I have come across in a long time.

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Preparing for Coronavirus

We start by assuming that each school already has a disaster plan in place. This may be for how to handle a weather event or how to deal with a measles outbreak that affects a quarter of the school, or it may be related to post-9-11 events. Dust it off. Now.

Here are the basics we suggest for school leaders:

  • Be calm so that those around you will be calmer;
  • Let you parents know you have a plan to do school remotely;
  • Get your faculty working on how to do the rest of the year when you can’t teach in person – pair them up or work in small groups and brainstorm ideas and share approaches;
  • Get your technology ready and test it;
  • Think about how you will pay the bills and make sure your faculty and staff get paid when the business office will be closed;
  • Once your plan for teaching is clear, share it with the community;
  • Link the community to reliable resources on preparation- CDC website and others – and suggest they follow the advice there; and
  • Remind families that every year there is a flu epidemic and every year kids and parents survive it by being smart.

Above all else, remember that people take their lead emotionally from the leaders. Exude calm and confidence that your community will support each other, and school will go on one way or another. Assure high school juniors that their college admissions will not be affected by learning remotely. Assure the seniors that there will be a way to honor their success. Teaching and learning are not inextricably tied to bricks and mortar, nor to any one specific location. Learning opportunities often present themselves in unlikely and sometimes unwanted ways. It is the responsibility of school leadership to identify the opportunities and to marshal resources effectively to ensure that learning continues unabated. The norms and expectations that your school has established will sustain the community throughout a crisis as long as leadership is visible, processes and procedures are in place, and communications are clear.

[NOTE: NAIS members can view a special live stream on coronavirus this evening, Wednesday, February 26, 2020, at 8:00 pm EST.]

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How Bold Strategy Gets Watered Down

The authors of Strategy Beyond the Hockey Stick, Chris Bradley, Martin Hirt, and Sven Smit, McKinsey consultants all, tell us that the biggest problem with strategy-making is that it usually results in strategies that are insufficiently bold to do the job. We have seen how the usual sort of strategy-making process grinds away at the bold until it is rendered bland or worse.

This blandification of otherwise bold statements happens when qualifiers enter the words on screen as the result of an iterative cycle of draft and review by various stakeholders to the result. Take, for example, the following draft strategic goal: “The [school] will create a unique, differentiated educational experience for every student.” This is ambitious and aspirational; it has many implications, including that every student be known well as a learner and as a person. Now consider what happens when an academic administrator objects that it sounds like the school isn’t already doing at least some differentiating. “Maybe we could say, ‘Continue the school’s efforts toward a differentiated learning experience for students’.”

Look at what just happened: The word “continue” crept in while “for every student” got pushed out. Qualifiers such as these water down the strategic verbiage and make it sound to the reader like the school will just keep doing more of the same. It’s like telling the audience to keep moving along as there is nothing to see here.

To those inside the school complaining that strategy too seldom takes their already good work into account, I would say that their good work is terrific, but totally expected, and that strategic statements must name the aspiration behind the effort. To use qualifiers like “will continue” or “maintain” in goal statements renders strategy meaningless, not to mention insufficiently bold for the challenges facing today’s schools.

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