A conversation with The Bear Creek School’s Patrick Carruth
The following is a transcript of an interview by Pete Talbot, Managing Director of Strategic Research at EAB with Patrick Carruth, Head of School at The Bear Creek School. Some questions and responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.
EAB: Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us this afternoon, Patrick. Let me start off just by asking you if you could give us the basic story about Bear Creek: tell us a little bit about your school, where you’re located, number of students, that sort of thing. And then it would be great if you could give us the timeline in terms of when you shut down face-to-face operations and moved to online instruction.
As for timeline, we started hearing about cases in late February in the Seattle area. There weren’t many cases, but sometime in late February we heard about the Life Center, a nursing home in Kirkland, Washington, where there was a report that approximately 50 residents had become infected with the COVID-19 virus. And then over the first week of March, many residents of the nursing home died. That got our attention because Kirkland is, as the crow flies, probably only three miles from The Bear Creek School. Additionally, in the midst of that happening, some of the Life Center first responders actually quarantined in a fire station that’s about 300 feet from our campus.
So in late February, first week of March, we began having daily Crisis Management Team meetings to determine how to respond to the news that was coming out. We created a Non-Pharmaceutical Interventions (NPI) matrix based on the CDC recommendations and started using that as our decision guide.
By the first week of March, we were on high alert, which means we communicated with our community more frequently—almost daily, we took a lot more health and wellness precautions, we assessed our at-risk populations, and we cleaned and cleaned. We deep cleaned and disinfected every single day, in the evening, and even did wipe downs of doorknobs during the daytime. As things continued, and more people at the Life Center were passing away, we began to think it might be wise for us to take a break from school. So I pulled the CMT team together, and we decided to take what would have been an in-service day on the sixth of March off from school, and before the sixth we communicated that we would also take the following Monday, which was a regularly scheduled school day, off as well to prep everybody for the possibility of remote learning.
By that Saturday evening, I was talking with other heads of schools and watching the news, and I just got the gut level sense that we might need to move to remote learning for a while. Some of the independent schools in the area had already canceled class through certain periods of time, so we decided on Saturday or Sunday evening that we would move to remote learning for two weeks. We sent out emails and communication and went ahead and shut down on-campus learning. And so that Monday became the first day of our remote learning, and our intent was for it to continue through the 23rd of March. Then the Governor issues an executive order canceling on campus schooling through April 24. So by the time that happened, we were actually in the middle of our remote learning plan already.
EAB: It’s certainly helpful to understand the context in how this all unfolded on your campus. We have a number of topics to cover today, but I’d love to start with the revenue questions that are particularly pressing for independent schools now. Of course, independent schools need to determine how to seat the next class and model what this is going to do to enrollments in the coming year, as well as demands on financial aid and what to do about things like offering refunds. Those topics are a little bit more urgent given the sustainability implications that it has for schools. I’d love to hear any lessons you’ve learned or how you have approached these topics.
We also have taken our learning management system (our learning management system, financial and advancement data are all integrated into one database, and all of our people are in it), and we’ve run an employer screen that tells us who works where and what type of occupation they’re in. We have about 500-600 families, and all but 100 of them were in the database. We actually sent some of our team who weren’t being utilized right now and said, “Here are 100 names, go on LinkedIn and find out what they do.” We’ve done that for our entire community of enrolled folks and created an overlay on our SFP to indicate high risk, medium risk, and low risk employee/employers—meaning restaurants, independent contractors, consultants, and personal businesses are all probably high risks. Microsoft, Amazon, Google, not as high risk. Then we’ve taken that data and overlaid it to create a probability scenario off of our SFP to predict, when we come out of this, what is the probability that we will be at a best-case scenario in our SFP, a medium-case scenario, or a worst-case scenario. That way, when we do come back, we have a sense of what the projections for whether enrollment will actually be stable or declining.
And then we have about $6 million of reserves, which based off of the projected impact, we’ll create scenarios where we would pull on those reserves to bridge people that might be in the medium-risk to high-risk category, if it looks like they would be able to sustain 6-months out or 12-months out. So we’ve completed that scenario assessment now, and it’s just a matter of us getting Board approval on the expenditure of those reserves in each of those scenarios, which will probably happen at our board meeting next month. Or if things go crazy, it’ll happen on email before then.
EAB: Can I ask a question about that? Does the bridge policy vary by scenario or is it a set policy about either how much or how long?
Patrick Carruth: Yes, it’s up to a year. So, it’s a temporary policy, or hopefully it’s temporary policy and will go away after this school year. We’ve developed an outline for the policy, but we haven’t actually had anybody apply for it yet. Our first tuition payment is due May 5, so that’s a big date. The broad parameters are that it’s maximum one year, and it’s based off of income, assets, and job status. We contacted SSS to see if they have another objective way besides the model, like a sub module, that will allow us to roll out the policy. What we’re trying to do is this: if you’ve lost your job, we’re going to help you out if. If you haven’t lost your job and maybe you just were over leveraged or overextended, we probably aren’t going to be able to help you out. So that’s the broad parameters of the policy right now. One-year job loss, no income to low income, and no significant assets that you could pull from.
EAB: Can I ask, if you’re willing to share, when you look at the numbers did you translate that back into percentages in terms of the best, medium, and worst case?
On a somewhat related note, speaking of families who may actually do well in this, I’ve had five families contact us that are currently in the public school, wanting to enroll at Bear Creek. The public schools here, because of federal funding, are not doing online instruction due to computer access issues. And I’ve had five or six families contact us in the midst of this requesting to enroll, saying they’ve seen our remote learning. When we come out of this, I don’t know if the net of that 30% number that I just mentioned ends up being lower because our value proposition attracts some people because of this.
EAB: Have you enrolled anybody?
Patrick Carruth: Yes! Many of them said, “Can we just have some resources?” And our standard answer for the question about enrollment is, “No, you have to enroll, and we’ll give you the full package, but we’re not providing solely resources outside of formal enrollment.” And one of them already took us up on it – they enrolled right now. So that’s interesting.
EAB: That’s very interesting. I’ve speculated about that. If your entry points are middle or high school, and you’ve got kids who are in the public schools that you were planning to enroll next year, you should be reaching out to those public school kids and offering to let them join the classes now. Again, either at a fee or for free because you will practically guarantee their enrollment
Patrick Carruth: That’s a great idea to be reaching out to folks that are coming from public school and enrolled in the fall, just give them some help. Thanks, Pete.
EAB: Shifting gears a little, I’d love to hear a bit around what you all are doing for community engagement or morale.
We’re also doing a bunch of fun kid stuff. Like Friday, they’re supposed to get into their Grizzly gear and send in pictures of themselves, and we’re going to post them on all of our platforms and make it a spirit day. And our Upper School Student Life is doing a faculty at-home cooking show. They’re asking faculty and staff to videotape themselves cooking, and they’re going to string together a Bear Creek cooking show. So we’re doing all types of stuff like that to keep the community together and just keep people laughing a little bit.
Then from the administration side, our entire organization is on Microsoft Teams. We obviously have a bunch of teams going for teaching, but I’ve started a Teams group called Bear Creek Central, which is an internal communication so that I can communicate directly with all of our employees. We’re trying to keep morale up there by doing fun stuff. I post inspirational stuff every day. If people have questions, they can jump in, “When are we coming back?” Or “What are you thinking?” I think that’s been a really good thing to just flatten the organization and get answers directly from me. People see some type of leadership, and I’m hoping it creates good morale in that space when we can’t actually be together.
EAB: It sounds like you all are really keeping community alive in a number of ways. I’d like to talk for a moment about your plans and policies for how you’re tackling COVID-19 specifically. I was on your website today, and I saw that you had a statement about somebody who was exposed. Have you come up with contingency plans for confirmed cases, illnesses, hospitalizations, etc.?
Patrick Carruth: We’ve been developing policies since the beginning of this. We initially had a building policy until we closed down, which was essentially, if you’re in these high-risk areas or have symptoms, you can’t come in the building. That’s irrelevant right now, but probably will be relevant when we come back. We’ve also developed a communication policy, and it’s essentially, if someone in our direct community comes down with COVID-19, we will communicate to our community what division and if they’re faculty or staff or parent or student. That’s all we’re going to communicate out. And we will, of course, work with the health department to get the state numbers tallied. We decided if people in the secondary community, like grandparents and that type of thing, come into contact, we’re not going to communicate that out. We’re just not going to become a clearing house for communicating everybody that has COVID-19.
EAB: That makes sense. And where are you with respect to putting together any kind of reopening protocol checklists or anything along those lines?
On the operational level, the questions that I have for us to vet out are: how are we going to maintain instructional continuity between now and the fall? How are we going to maintain business continuity? How are we going to mitigate any enrollment crisis that we might have? How are we going to do advancement going forward? What about our staffing levels and are they appropriate? Are there key areas of operations that we need to think through?
We’re starting to develop that rubric for reentry. There’s one more, which is: what is the health infrastructure that we have to have to reenter? Because it seems to me that we’re going have to be a miniature hospital. And I’m just not sure whether we can pull that off or not.
EAB: We haven’t talked much about online instruction, so happy to touch on that if there’s any lessons learned that may be helpful to others. Or anything that I haven’t asked about that you want to highlight?
Patrick Carruth: You know, we’re a faith-based school, and in the Lord’s providence, we have been doing some level of remote learning in grades 5-12 for three years before this happened. We’ve been training people in remote learning because I think that’s the next wave of the value proposition for independent schools. The value proposition used to be college prep: we will get your kids into college. Well, everybody does that now. I think the opportunity of independent schools, is for us to be able to produce a school experience that’s also individualized. And tech allows us to do that without having to do a whole lot more work. It’s just a different delivery mechanism. So we’ve been training people for three years with that vision, and in the Lord’s providence, that was really good to have been doing because we were able to literally flip a switch in a day and for the most part it’s gone super well.
EAB: Will this accelerate or change the way you think about what’s next on that progression for you all?
Patrick Carruth: Yes, it will definitely accelerate. I saw a news article the other day about Macy’s and online purchasing, and that this crisis was just going to accelerate the decline of retail stores. And I thought, you know what, that’s interesting. That’s kind of what we were thinking too. We were already trying to push innovation and get folks into the space – and this has accelerated it by scales of magnitude. So, we’ll come back as a school with folks having done this and now they know it can be done. And it won’t kill all of us, and it’s not the end of the way of learning as we know it. So yeah, it will massively accelerate our ability to reach into homeschool areas, to do Bear Creek a la carte type of schooling, to minimize absences of teachers and kids, to minimize days off, all of that type of stuff. It’s going to massively accelerate all of that.
EAB: Very, very interesting. My brother-in-law is a math teacher up in New York City public schools, and it’s interesting getting his perspective on this. He said there are so many things that are better about what he’s doing right now. Instead of prepping for five sections, and teaching all the kids the same thing, he’s now recording the best version of himself teaching the key concepts and kids are able to watch it, rewatch it, use it while they work on a problem set, or view it at a different time if they were absent. In some ways, it’s easier for both him and the kids – and a better experience for the kids. I think it’s going to be fascinating to see how much of this sticks around post COVID-19 and really does accelerate a move towards flipped or blended events, which I think have a lot of promise.
It’s almost like one-on-one tutoring for your child in a social environment where they can hang out with their friends, where they can do the arts, where they can do sports – that’s what I mean about the individualized things.
There’s one more thing that I did just think of that I think may be worth sharing. Our administration has also gone remote. We’re still doing all of our normal meetings and schedules remotely, but we’ve asked all of the other administrators and teachers to invite us in Microsoft Teams to their classes. And the takeaway on that is there may be opportunity, administratively, to be more efficient in what we do in classroom management and observations. There also may be an ability to flatten the org chart a little bit in schools when we come out of this, because what we’ve experienced, even from my example about just going directly to the teachers, is that there may be some inefficiency in our org chart that we’ll be able to maximize through technology. And the ability for administrators to get into the teachers’ classroom is accelerated through technology. So, the nugget there might be for administrators to make sure they stay plugged in and get invited to all of these classes so that they can see what’s going on.
EAB: Well, Patrick, this has been incredibly helpful. I so appreciate you taking the time when I’m sure you’ve got a million things going on, and I know these insights will be of great use to our partners.