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How to plan for a future of education where disruption is the norm

Forward-looking school leaders must accept 'COVID as a constant,' and plan accordingly

When will this pandemic end? It’s the question on everyone’s mind as a new year begins with another COVID surge forcing educators and policymakers to scramble.

But what if it doesn’t end?

Many experts predict the virus will circulate in some form for the foreseeable future. Whether it’s a pandemic or climate change, the future of education looks like disruption.

How, then, do schools plan for that grim future?

In North Carolina, Andrew Smith, the chief administrative and strategic planning officer for the Rowan-Salisbury School District, has been thinking about this question for a while. His job title may exist in many districts, but not many school officials with that title spend their days as he does: focused on how to help his district innovate and prepare for a multitude of unknowns, including disaster.

“[This] may be bold and somewhat controversial, so I’m just going to say it — just acknowledge COVID as a constant,” Smith said. “And that perhaps it’s not going to go away.”

His job is to be the person “who kind of gets innovation, and disruption.”

“Having someone solely devoted to that space is important,” he said. “Who on your team is waking up thinking about the future of education every day and how we get there?”

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Smith said that once school leaders can accept that the virus is going to be a constant, they can then prepare for continued disruptions. “That’s typically when the human mind takes over. Constraints … it’s when humans then start to solve,” Smith said. “Acknowledge it and start to solve for it, as if you’ll have to solve for it forever.”

When Rowan-Salisbury resumed classes this January, it was ready for the latest COVID-19 surge. Smith’s preparations had begun before the Omicron variant even had a name. Last year, the district laid the groundwork for the pandemic’s metamorphosis by dusting off some of its earlier plans and reviewing what had worked best for students over the last 18 months. As other districts scramble to pass out at-home COVID tests and deal with staffing shortages, Smith said his district already has already built systems, in case its students have to go remote again.

The district is continuing in-person instruction, for now. But if the school board calls for closures, the district is ready to relaunch its blended learning model, with A/B Days, in which half the student population attends school in person on Mondays and Tuesdays. “We had a cleaning wellness day on Wednesday. And then Thursday, Friday was the B Day,” Smith said.

“The pandemic has taught us a lot about modalities for learning,” he added. District staff learned that fully remote school didn’t work for kids or educators. “And we know at this point, how we can jump right back into [blended learning] if we had to. Our staff is … fortunately or unfortunately, trained to be able to go back into those pretty quickly.”

Experts predict that as districts plan for the myriad of challenges in the future, they will need to invest in staff – in roles like Smith’s – who will help anticipate that future. Some districts have already made the investment, including those that are members of Digital Promise’s League of Innovative Schools.

Dewayne J. McClary, the senior director of networks and partnerships at Digital Promise, said most of the schools in the League have some type of innovation lead, or someone who does the work of risk analysis. McClary, who previously served as the director of the League of Innovative Schools, said the League brings these school leaders together to share best practices and collaborate. In August 2020, Smith gave a presentation on contingency planning during a panel on centering equity in school reopening plans hosted by the group.

McClary said in any district, leaders should share the work of thinking ahead. “I think it’s beyond just one person,” McClary said. “This has to be a collaborative effort of the district. It has to be from the superintendent to the leadership to the school board, all the way down to teachers and principals.”

That’s how it’s worked in Rowan-Salisbury. In April 2020, Smith encouraged district leaders to build a diagram charting the probability of different scenarios, and assign each a “risk index.”

The leaders asked: What is the worst that could happen? What is the risk to schools, teachers and students? Then they asked whether the district was prepared to handle each scenario. Smith said they considered questions like: “What happens if kids never come back? Or if staff aren’t allowed in the buildings?” They even asked seniors for ideas in planning for socially distant graduation ceremonies.

This type of planning helped the Rowan-Salisbury district immensely, Smith said.

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“What it allowed us to do, back in what felt like doomsday every day, was get ahead of it and say let’s not be so reactive,” he said. “It provides this very structured proactive process to address anything.”

In the spring of 2020, the district predicted students might not be able to return to school after spring break because of a COVID surge in North Carolina. That’s exactly what happened: In mid-April, Gov. Roy Cooper announced that schools in the state could not reopen for in-person instruction for the remainder of school year.

That spring, when Rowan-Salisbury district leaders realized remote learning might not be temporary, Smith said the district developed system-wide plans to help it move from the temporary remote learning model that began in March to a more robust model of online instruction. The district’s leaders applied the lessons learned in the spring to plans for summer school. They researched what schools in Germany and Finland were doing. Then, they used what they learned about masking, social distancing and quarantining from summer school to plan for a re-entry in the fall semester.

“[Summer school] actually helped us develop the model for how to bring back all 20,000 kids in the fall,” Smith said. “It was a bit of contingency planning and then building new models based upon what we were seeing in schools [that summer].”

Smith learned about contingency planning and risk analysis when he took a few classes in the business school while in graduate school in education at Wake Forest University. “I remember sitting in the class [and] there’s no education people, there’s all business people, and thinking, ‘I’m not totally sure I’ll ever use this, but it’s really cool. I like the concept.’”

He said borrowing from the business model to include risk analysis and contingency planning in day-to-day school district operations allows school leaders to make more logical and careful decisions — “well in advance.” When a virus, a natural disaster, a budget shortfall or even a school board election disrupts a school system, there is already a plan on the shelf to pull out and enact, Smith said.

For the future of public education, school districts “really need to borrow some of the very business-like ideas,” Smith said. “If we want to innovate in K-12, we’ve got to bounce it off of another sector to see what they’re doing,” he said.

In the summer of 2020, everyone in the education space talking about using the disruption to innovate the education system, Smith recalled.

“We’re going to come back, we’re going to do things different because this pandemic is going to end, and when it ends, we got to come back different,” Smith remembers hearing from educators across the country. The problem was, “the pandemic didn’t end.”

Some schools and districts have used the pandemic as an opportunity to rethink their systems, but in the rush to solve the day-to-day pandemic-related issues, many educators and school leaders haven’t had the time to innovate. But McClary reminds school leaders that districts have always had to do this work under hard circumstances.

“[We’ve] had other pandemics of inequity. We had other pandemics where kids who were having behavior issues. This pandemic just laid an extra layer and placed the inequities that was there before on the front street,” McClary said. “Now we’re in a predicament where this COVID situation is short-staffing schools, where districts are having to do innovative things to figure out how do we just keep the doors open.”

McClary said overall he thinks “districts are going to always do what’s best for their students, they’re always going to find a way to provide opportunities for kids.” The job now is “how do we help continue to maintain rigorous and equitable and powerful learning opportunities for kids in the various modes that they may have to jump to or pivot to.”

Smith said that if schools don’t make the time to get out of the “COVID” headspace, whether by hiring someone for a new position or giving existing leaders resources and time to plan, the cycle of chaos and blind experimentation will continue.

“Disruption will never, in my opinion, have a really positive outcome … [and] really transform education, unless we are proactive in the way we approach it.”

Omicron and recent climate-related disasters have emphasized the need for this kind of advanced planning.

“It is imperative that districts not wait on the pandemic” to move forward, McClary said. In his experience, the nature of school districts is to always pivot and be innovative, “this pandemic has just made it a little harder.”

Schools can’t keep waiting for an end to the pandemic for problems to go away, the solution “has to be now, not later,” Smith said. “Because every time you keep waiting for the end … how many hours kids are waiting for you?”

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This story about contingency planning in schools was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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Omicron and recent climate-related disasters have emphasized the need for educational advanced planning.