Independent school heads’ top priorities in the first weeks of COVID-19 crisis

Expert Insight

Independent school heads’ top priorities in the first weeks of COVID-19 crisis

In the week of March 16, EAB convened several virtual roundtables with 50+ independent school heads and CFOs, providing a forum for sharing perspectives and reality-checking responses to the unfolding pandemic.  Here are the takeaways about their priorities and challenges.

1. Preserving community: Experimenting until we find the right social platforms and interactive models for student, teacher and family daily engagement

“Online learning can be transactional. It tends to focus families on price, on credits, on checking the box to graduation—all the things that are antithetical to our promise of educating the whole student. We’re scrambling over the break to find virtual ways to preserve our rituals and maintain the connections between students and teachers.”

Head of School Virtual Roundtable Attendee

With each day’s news making it more likely that COVID-driven campus closures will last months rather than weeks, heads and CFOs are using extended spring breaks to make plans for “virtualizing” key cultural rituals and mitigating expected risks to tuition and auxiliary services revenue.

For many school heads, the biggest challenge of a prolonged distance learning environment is recreating the individualized attention and daily community activities so essential to independent school culture and differentiation. 

  • Innovative concepts for combining student social hangouts and coursework
  • Setting teacher expectations and providing tools for frequent individualized check-ins
  • Virtualizing in-person rituals, such as assembly, chapel, athletics, performing arts
  • Social platforms and activities for teachers and families

2. Most independent schools are waiting as long as possible on decisions for proms, commencements, and major alumni events

No schools in EAB’s March 16-20 virtual roundtables have yet formally cancelled proms or commencements. However, off the record, heads doubt the crisis will resolve soon enough for these milestones to occur as originally scheduled and are already scenario-planning alternatives.

  • What “trigger” are independent schools using to decide postponements?  State policy? Public districts’ policy? CDC guidance? What if guidance is conflicting?
  • When should these events be rescheduled—during the summer, fall—or cancel altogether?
  • What small-group or virtual alternatives are others considering?
  • How do we “make it up” to students, family and alumni if events are canceled?

3. Anticipating financial headwinds  

Independent schools’ other emerging priority is modeling the COVID crisis’s potential impact on revenue, signaling the key risks to boards, and beginning contingency plans for budget, hiring and capital projects. While a handful of far-sighted schools had pandemic refund policies written into enrollment contracts, most are having to model and communicate policies from a standing start. 

  • How will schools handle tuition refunds requests in the event of prolonged remote learning?
  • How will schools handle refund requests for canceled summer programs, after-school care, and auxiliary services?
  • How much enrollment yield fall-off are school leaders seeing and preparing for in financial models?
  • Are schools proactively changing financial aid formulas? Or waiting to see family requests first?
  • How are schools trying to keep teachers, staff, and contractors financially whole? How long are they paying in full for services not fully utilized? Are we delaying new hires until after campuses reopen?
  • Are schools continuing with spring teacher hiring? What changes have been made to normal interviewing and contracting practice?
  • What capital and building projects remain ongoing? Which ones are we delaying or pausing?

4. Schools confident in near-term “maintenance” online learning, but concerned about younger students and teacher burnout in out-weeks 

In contrast to public districts scrambling to ensure equitable access to distance learning tools, most independent schools feel well-equipped to provide quality asynchronous and synchronous “maintenance” learning in the next 2-4 weeks. Beyond that, when teachers transition to “new learning” in a remote setting, heads worry about two uncharted areas. 

  • Engaging younger students K-4: What are best practices in fostering reading and retaining connections with teachers?
  • Preventing teacher burnout: As one head put it, “In this environment, every teacher is a new teacher, even if they’ve ben at it for 30 years.”  Schools are looking to lessons from Singapore, Korea, American independent schools in Asia, and the Seattle area about how to best balance asynchronous and synchronous learning, how to modify daily and weekly schedules, and how to provide mental health and self-care support so teachers don’t wear down.

“I set up these Task Forces to handle the day-to-day ‘tremors’ of the situation, so that I can handle the true ‘earthquakes’ (like planning for revenue shortfalls) with the board.”

Head of School Virtual Roundtable Attendee

5. Independent schools are standing up three COVID-19 response task force groups

Preparing for disruption, heads are establishing three task forces focused on different aspects of the COVID-19 response effort. 

  • Communications: website and social media presence
  • Community: designing and enabling cultural, social and athletics activities in remote learning setting
  • Learning Online: Just-in-time professional development and “three weeks ahead” planning for remote learning