The coronavirus pandemic has confronted school district management teams with four unprecedented challenges:
- How to design new strategies that effectively respond to future uncertainties regarding school enrollment levels, new health and safety requirements for re-opening, greatly increased learning intervention needs, and possible future resurgences of COVID-19 infections.
- How to reallocate sharply reduced revenues to efficiently implement the district’s revised strategy, including changes in staffing models, structures, systems, procedures, and facilities.
- How to gain support for these changes from multiple stakeholders with differing priorities, including the school board, state regulators, parents, students, teachers, business leaders, and the district’s lenders and other creditors (e.g., contractors).
- How to manage these extraordinary complexities more quickly than anything most district leaders have ever encountered before.
Solutions will naturally vary with local circumstances, but these eight process tips may help most district teams meet their new challenges.
First, recognize that your normal organization structure—which probably contains overlapping responsibilities and complex decision processes—wasn’t designed to manage critical incidents, which require a streamlined approach.
As described in the FEMA guidelines, incident command teams need clear lines of authority and communication between the commander (and deputy) and leaders of a limited number of clearly defined functional teams. The latter include intelligence (to centralize information), operations (to develop and execute plans), liaison with outside organizations, logistics (including facilities and supplies), people, finance, systems support, and public affairs. While senior members of your current organization will likely fill most of these roles, the work to be done will not match their normal duties.
One of the best examples I know of effective incident management occurred in 2016, when a wildfire exploded near Fort McMurray, the center of Canada’s heavy oil industry in the far north of Alberta. When the fire was detected, every government agency and energy company activated its incident management teams, which all followed the same protocol. On May 3, the fire swept through the city of 88,000—and their coordination ensured that not a single life was lost.
As we recover from COVID-19, ease of inter-operation with multiple other organizations is just as critical for school districts.
Second, begin by defining a range of possible scenarios that focus on different outcomes for the greatest uncertainties you face. For most districts, these will include the timing of and requirements for school reopening; the number of students who will return to their physical schools (bearing in mind that almost 10 percent of U.S. children have asthma, diabetes, or an immune deficiency); and the timing and extent of revenue and cost changes (e.g., from falling taxes and state aid and/or rising pension payments) over the next three to five years.
Third, move beyond traditional budget lines and develop a detailed understanding of the mix of activities your district performs, their economic costs (direct cash costs plus employee time), and how they affect your critical goals. For example, TNTP’s famous The Mirage report found that large districts incurred estimated annual economic costs of $18,000 per teacher for professional development activities that generated little or no improvement in student achievement. Cutting line items without such activity-based understanding of true economic costs is flying blind.
Fourth, define the critical goals that your new strategy must meet. The most important goal shouldn’t change: ensuring that your students meet state academic standards and graduate career and college ready. In what will likely be, for a long time to come, a challenging post-COVID-19 economy, achieving this goal for your students and their families is more important than ever.
Fifth, focus on developing alternative plans that are robust, resilient, and adaptable.
Robust plans have a high probability of meeting your critical goals under most or all of your alternative scenarios. For example, a district with a common curriculum across schools will find it much easier to switch students back to remote learning than will a district in which each school chooses its own curriculum.
Resilient plans include buffers and options that enable an organization to absorb the impact of unwanted surprises with minimal reduction in effectiveness and efficiency.
Highly adaptable organizations focus on collecting information about critical uncertainties, continuously learning, and regularly updating their contingency plans to enable rapid adjustments to unanticipated circumstances.
Sixth, evaluate potential plans under your alternative scenarios, to determine their robustness with respect to achieving your critical goals and assess how well they line up with different stakeholders’ priorities. It’s usually easier to attract stakeholder support for plans that are robust, resilient, and adaptable than for those that are not.
Many strategic failures in history were due to failure by management teams to attend to critical time dynamics. Monitor the difference between the time remaining to implement your plan and the time before a critical threshold is reached (e.g., the day schools are set to reopen or the day resurgent infections force a return to remote learning). Hence, a key evaluation question is how much “safety margin” does each plan start with?
Seventh, have your team conduct a “pre-mortem” on each plan. Ask them to assume it is five years in the future and the plan has failed, then (anonymously) write down answers to three questions: (1) Why did it plan fail? (2) What warning indicators should we have paid more attention to? (3) What should we have done differently? Then discuss the answers. This quick risk assessment intervention never fails to trigger valuable management team discussions that improve plans.
Finally, remember that it’s easy to underestimate the challenges when a school district—or any organization that’s never dealt with anything like this—seeks to implement a complex transformation plan in the face of time pressure, evolving uncertainties, and conflicting stakeholder goals.
For a district management team to try to do this on its own ignores the lessons of history and tempts fate when a generation’s future is at stake. Prudent management teams will at least seek advice from board members and outside advisors with experience in crisis management and/or implementing complex change programs.
For many district teams, it must feel today as if their world has suddenly been turned upside down. Bear in mind that almost every management team around the world feels this, too. The best of them recognize, however, that the fundamental strategic challenge they face hasn’t changed. They still need to devise ways to achieve their district’s most important goals with fewer resources in the face of unprecedented uncertainty. And they rise up to creatively meet it.