2020 was a most unusual year. The coronavirus pandemic has turned everything upside down and inside out. Nothing is normal. All of this has impacted boarding schools in ways they never expected. While most private school boards of trustees are smart enough to have a resumption of business plans in place and adequate insurance coverage for the school plant and the usual liability issues, very few school trustees ever expected to be dealing with so many challenges converging at the same time. Against that backdrop, I thought it would be helpful to conduct a fictional interview with a head of school. After all, her concerns are probably yours as well.
Rob: What challenges at school in the fall of the next academic year keep you awake at night?
Head of school: Oh, Rob! Where do I begin? There are so many things demanding my attention. My workday starts at 6 a.m. and ends at 10 p.m. if I'm lucky. And I work every day to keep my head above water.
Rob: What then is your most pressing concern?
Head of school: My number one concern is the financial condition of my school. The board and I had not budgeted for dozens of ofCOVID-19-related expenses. Tasks such as wiping down all the frequently touched surfaces like door handles, light switches, stair rails, and so much more are essential while the pandemic is all around us. We had to hire a deep-cleaning service to sanitize our common areas every evening. We had not planned to purchase plexiglass shields for classrooms and offices. Testing is expensive and also requires additional staff to manage our testing program. We provide face shields and high-quality masks to our staff and teachers. We purchase hand sanitizer, antibacterial wipes, and hand soap in much larger quantities than we have ever had to up to this year.
This TedTalk discusses strategic planning versus strategic thinking.
Rob: What about enrolment? Has that been an issue?
Head of school: Enrolment has been less of an issue than I had imagined. That's because we have a very creative admissions/marketing team. They are very hands-on. Their follow-through is excellent. They have been doing countless virtual tours of the school for parents and others who have expressed an interest in our school. Our web team refocussed our website so that it addresses parents' concerns and questions upfront. You don't have to drill down through several menus to find out about our COVID-19 testing policy or what the athletics program will look like this year. I have a loyal staff who are doing a phenomenal job of getting out the word about our school. The other consideration for parents is that we, like most boarding schools, offer in-person instruction. They find that to be an advantage over the unsatisfactory online instruction their children have been receiving in public schools. Am I worried about the academic year 2021-2022? Yes. Very much so.
THis video reports on how public school enrollments have declined while, overall, private school enrollments have risen.
Rob: What about international students? Has there been a drop-off in enrolment from international students?
Head of school: That's an area of genuine concern. It's not as if our families outside the United States don't want to send their children to us. It's merely that travel restrictions are so stringent and uncertain at this time that parents can't manage the logistics easily. Add to that that our consulates have been closed or are operating on limited hours, making the student visa interview process hard to schedule far enough in advance. Then, even assuming that an international student receives her visa in time to travel to our location, there's no telling what the pandemic situation will be like. Everything might be locked down. Many states require a 14 day quarantine period for all international arrivals. Our bottom line's impact is substantial because our international students pay full tuition and room and board.
Rob: How have you fared managing the pandemic?
Head of School: Well, as I mentioned before, we have had dozens of expenses for which we had not budgeted. Planning for school reopening took place over the summer. That was a stressful process because federal, state, and local protocols kept changing. The experts kept discovering more about the coronavirus, how it was transmitted, and which protective measures were effective. We went through several alert stages throughout the spring and summer, making reopening with in-person instruction uncertain. Fortunately, the pandemic subsided enough that we were able to open for 2020-2021. What the future holds is another matter of great concern to me, my staff, and our board of trustees.
Rob: How are your teachers and other program staff managing?
Head of school:
The classic image of a teacher looking over her student's shoulder as she works a math problem is a thing of the past. Masks, social distancing, and frequent handwashing have become as much a part of every teacher's classroom routine as taking attendance used to be. I am apprehensive that our teachers are on the frontline in our battle with the coronavirus. The other aspect of their teaching that has changed is that they have to be adept at virtual instruction. We have to be able to switch over to online instruction on short notice. Furthermore, our online instruction has to meet the same high bar that our in-person classroom instruction attains. That's what our families expect. That's what we have to deliver consistently throughout the academic year.
Rob: Do you think the changes brought about by the pandemic are permanent?
Head of school: Some days, I have a hard time seeing further ahead than tomorrow. In my quiet times, when I have time to think, I am convinced that our product will have to be re-imagined. We offer a complete education to our students: academics, athletics, and extracurricular activities. Our delivery of this product was the same for decades. We tweaked it here and there and added and subtracted various features according to the necessities of the times. In 2020 we had to make significant changes in how we relate to every school community member. We have had to rethink the way we teach our curriculum. We have mounted a greatly modified athletic program emphasizing maximum protection for our athletes. We have eliminated some of our traditional extracurricular activities. Our activities directors have created some exciting new virtual activities.
The bottom line is that our mission remains unchanged. How we carry out that mission has changed.
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