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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Is COVID-19 an Existential Threat for the Independent School Sector?

Is the end of private, independent education at hand? Will the COVID-19 pandemic bring us to the proverbial tipping point where large numbers of parents look at their invoice for another year of tuition and say, “no more?” Robert Farrington, writing in Forbes, thinks so and builds a case by arguing that tuitions are already higher than most average families can afford, remote learning is likely to continue in some form for months if not years, and parents whose children are already in independent schools will leave while those thinking of enrolling will stay away, especially in the younger grades.

To be sure, we have heard before that the end of independent schools is imminent, and heads and board members have fretted for years about the uncontainable rise in tuition. What makes the threat seem especially proximate this time around is the uniqueness of the pandemic and the almost total uncertainty about what comes next. Parents may well find alternatives to making a major purchase amid such uncertainty.

A picture of how COVID may play out in forcing schools out of business comes from a perusal of the Cato Institute’s tracking of such closures. As of July 4, Cato reports 75 permanent closures, with all but 14 coming from Roman Catholic schools. But, as recently as May 29, the tracker listed only one school as “independent.” Today there are seven.

Other than the large share of Catholic schools on the list, little can be concluded from an eyeball analysis of the other descriptive data. Some are more than 100 years old and one school dates to 1743. Most are small—very small in some cases—but others had 300+ students at the end. We can safely conclude that COVID-19 caused each to run out of enough runway to get back into the air as a going concern.

We believe the pandemic will have a long tail aftermath, even if a vaccine is found soon or if an effective treatment emerges from the ongoing research. A head asked us last week whether COVID would be the final nail in the coffin for some schools already on the ropes. The longer the current situation goes on, the more likely it is to be, in Cato’s words, “a huge nail driven by a jackhammer.”

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What Might Come this Fall?

Two articles this week from the Chronicle of Higher Education are especially chilling for anyone in the education industry. Both articles connect to the long tail effect that the COVID-19 pandemic is having and will have on schools, and we suggest there is a direct parallel to what may happen in the private, independent K-12 sector in the USA and international schools around the world.

The first article, with an apocalyptic headline, predicts a raft of traumas for schools, including layoffs, declarations of financial exigency (allowing the school to set aside tenure agreements), and outright closures. As usual, small schools and, this time around, those with the greatest dependency on “auxiliary revenue” (room and board in college parlance) are in the most danger if on-campus education does not resume in full.

The second, about the Trump Administration’s plan to force international students whose schools do not restart in-person classes to leave the country, describes the vulnerability of high-profile universities such as NYU, USC, Northeastern, and Columbia. These schools are from 31 to 54% dependent on international student enrollment.

Not good news any way you slice it.

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