May 1, 2020

An appropriate coronavirus response for schools – hibernate or innovate?

Most schools are understandably focussed on the ‘here and now’ in relation to their coronavirus responses. The three urgent priorities that have garnered most attention are:

  1. Ensuring the safety of our school communities.
  2. Meeting the educational needs of our students, and
  3. Formulating a response to the financial dilemma facing many parents which in turn will affect the cash flow of our schools.

Whilst these three areas of response are arguably the most important, as well as the most urgent, PwC (USA) argues that it is imperative that organisations also “create space to scan the longer-term horizon”.

They argue that right now, some organisational resources must be freed up from the pressing focus of managing the crisis to create a long-term perspective focussed on ensuring that the organisation emerges from the crisis in a strong and sustainable manner.

For schools, this approach adds an interesting dimension to the current crisis. It means that they are invited to consider how their responses to managing the crisis now can make the school a better place when the crisis is over.

Here is an example of how this might happen. During the last couple of weeks, I have noticed debates about the relative merits of classroom and online learning. The thrust of much of this debate easily left observers with the impression that the issue was all about which of the two approaches is the best for schools.

Although some worthwhile points have been made re the characteristics of each approach, the debate, in my opinion has shown up once again the inadequacies of the simplistic and misleading either/or binary thinking dialogue that permeates much of western culture.

The issue shouldn’t be about arguing which approach is best but instead, ensuring that our schools reflect the best of what each approach offers.

And one thing that I’ve learnt in the short time I’ve been away from a principalship role is that most schools are only scraping the surface when it comes to exploiting the potential that online learning, particularly that involving artificial intelligence, offers to improve the quality of our educational offerings to students.

For schools, the challenge is to ensure that after the crisis is over, online learning makes a more potent contribution to the learning in our schools than it did previously.

There are several other school-based areas that I can identify where this approach can be applied to improve future school outcomes as a consequence of current coronavirus responses.

Finally, another issue that the coronavirus crisis has highlighted is how well prepared the world was to meet the challenges of a pandemic. It is apparent that the risk preparedness of countries generally, including our own, was astonishingly low.

It’s not as if a pandemic is a totally unexpected, black swan event, yet many of the deaths that are occurring throughout the world are more a consequence of a lack of health resources and readiness to treat victims than any extreme toxicity of the disease itself.

The crisis is a sobering reminder of the need for organisations and countries alike to conduct far reaching risk assessments and devise strategic responses.

And could the pandemic have been realistically anticipated by schools?

At my most recent school where I served as principal, our 2017 Council/ Executive Strategic Conference explored the scenario “Could our school teach in the midst of a pandemic?”

The subsequent online learning development that occurred in the school as a consequence of that session should have left it very well placed to respond quickly and effectively to recent events.

I confidently predict that as a result of this crisis, successful schools will never go back to what they were. I urge schools to not allow the immediacy of the immense daily pressures currently associated with the management of this crisis to distract them from a longer- term perspective that allows them to emerge from this crisis as  stronger and better schools.