COVID Impact: Schools.

America has settled into a rhythm on COVID-19. Masks have become commonplace in public, millions are working remotely, and the initial panic has subsided. However, there are still some major debates and communications issues that have to be addressed at every level of the education system. K-12 Education Elementary, middle, and high schools are in a precarious position. Most children have a dramatically lower risk of dying from COVID-19 compared to the general population and the majority of the risk is borne by the families they could potentially spread the virus to. At the same time, studies have shown that keeping children at home will negatively affect their academic growth and development. The annual “summer slide” that often affects K-12 students was extended by a full two months. This past spring, many schools didn’t have a system in place to show whether students were actually listening to lectures, and others lacked the infrastructure to remotely assign and grade homework. The situation looks even bleaker when you factor in the furloughs and lay-offs ravaging schools throughout the country. In a letter to Congress, the Council of the Great City Schools warned that 275,000 teachers could be laid off in metropolitan districts alone because of the drop in state and local tax revenue. This fall, as school districts are making and communicating their decision to open or stay closed, there will likely be a lot of deliberation. Schools have to balance the considerations of four crucial groups of stakeholders: parents, students, teachers (employees), and the state government. Teachers have already contracted—and died from—COVID-19. If schools were to fully reopen, educators would be putting their health and safety at risk. Most school districts still have not made up their minds about how to proceed this coming fall. There are many variables—most notably the looming “second wave” of cases—preventing schools from definitively stating whether or not students will be resuming in-person instruction. However, a few localities and states have launched thoughtful, extensive communications efforts on the issue.
  1. California’s state superintendent of schools put together an entire sixty-page handbook defining how schools will reopen, including information on transportation, meals, special education, and monitoring the health needs of students and staff alike.
  2. Detroit’s public school system—in keeping with Governor Whitmer’s plans to return to normalcy in public education—put forth an ambitious outline for getting students back on track starting this summer.
What’s notable about both of these examples is flexibility. In comments to the media, officials from both offices have acknowledged that we do not know what the future holds, but communities have a responsibility to continue educating. That approach offers a lesson for other organizations with competing priorities from important groups of stakeholders—be transparent in your communications and acknowledge what you will know and can plan for, and what will require patience and flexibility. Higher Education Colleges and universities have to contend with many of the same issues that K-12 schools face, including teacher safety, liability for the spread of COVID-19, and lagging performance from their students in an online environment. But it’s the financial issues that may prove most complex. Schools depend on tuition to survive,  and this fall, tuition will depend on students’ willingness to attend classes. According to some recent surveys, the majority of families across the country still plan to send their children to college this fall, but there is little room for error. All it takes is one infected dorm or one faculty death to create a PR and legal nightmare for a college. The higher education sector’s goal is largely similar to K-12 education: reopen if possible, as soon as possible. Two-thirds of colleges and universities plan to attempt to bring students back to campus in the fall. Others, in an effort to protect the safety of students and staff, in addition  their finances if they were found liable or negligent—have already announced plans to go fully online. But there are two substantial issues that are not being adequately addressed in communication efforts or the broader conversations on whether or not colleges should open. For one, colleges and universities don’t just have professors and deans—many employ entire networks of support staff, including maintenance workers, tech departments, fundraising teams, financial aid offices, and more. Higher education institutions can employ a large portion of a local workforce, especially in smaller towns and cities. And yet, many are conducting sweeping layoffs. Second, many colleges and universities have substantial endowments—stockpiles of cash and investments that can reach into the hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars. Administrators, university presidents, and deans are holding back on using these endowments to make up for shortfalls, as they continue to charge full tuition for students taking online courses, as well as put large numbers of staff on furloughs that support these large scale institutions. Currently, there doesn’t seem to be a cohesive—or even coherent—strategy for explaining the failure to tap  endowments to parents and students. The biggest communications lesson we can learn is this: in the age of COVID-19, people want transparency. There is a great deal of financial insecurity in America right now—as a result, schools may end up having to justify their decision-making to students and families. Offering transparency and detail and explaining why they can’t subsidize tuition or offer refunds for this past semester, could go a long way toward building goodwill students.


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