The dust seems to be starting to settle in schools as we are getting into a routine with emergency/at-home learning. Teachers and administrators are balancing synchronous and asynchronous instruction, families have developed schedules and workspaces, and everyone has become more adept at the use of various technologies. As states across the country are announcing their re-opening plans, the school leaders with whom I work are asking “when will we be back together?” and “What do I need to consider as I plan for getting everyone back together?” School administrators have numerous decisions to make about school re-entry over the next few months to be able to safely and confidently welcome students back into school buildings.
Nishant Mehta, Head of School and NAIS Board member, recently wrote an article that helped to frame the kinds of decisions confronting school leaders. In A Framework for Leading Change in a Post-COVID Environment, he reminds us of a 2002 Harvard Business Review article that suggests that an organization’s response to problems is either technical or adaptive. Integra Consulting Team defines adaptive and technical challenges this way: “Technical challenges are those that can be solved by the knowledge of experts, whereas adaptive challenges are complex and ambiguous in nature, and may be volatile or unpredictable. Solutions to these types of challenges usually require people to learn new ways of doing things, change their attitudes, values and norms and adopt an experimental mind-set.”
The technical challenges facing the re-entry of students into schools are many: When will faculty and students be able to return to school buildings? How many people can be in the building; in each classroom; in the lunchroom; on the playground- at a time? If and when there is a resurgence of coronavirus, how will we toggle between in-person and in-home learning? How will we toggle if some students and/or teachers can come into the building and some must stay at home? What will we do to support student and faculty/staff emotional and social needs? These technical questions must be answered in the context not only of state and local government guidelines but also in keeping with the mission, values, and culture of each community. Although this is a tall task, most schools have the capability to spend the time on focused planning needed to develop workable solutions to these questions.
In addition, schools should also be thinking about re-entry to school-based learning as an adaptive challenge. In Heifetz and Linskey’s 2002 HBR article, they state: “Responding to an adaptive challenge with a technical fix may have some short-term appeal. But to make real progress, sooner or later those who lead must ask themselves and the people in the organization to face a set of deeper issues—and to accept a solution that may require turning part or all of the organization upside down.” This pandemic has highlighted both strengths and weaknesses in our educational systems and we have an opportunity to make dramatic, positive changes- if we have the courage. School leaders can decide to return to their school buildings and pick up where they left off, or they can engage in a deep, thoughtful exploration of how to fundamentally improve their programming.
In my last article, I suggested that school Boards should take an “inquiry” approach to decision-making. Adaptive change requires an inquiry thinking approach focused on creative, “out-of-the-box” ideas and solutions. When thinking about how to adapt, schools can consider lessons learned over the past two months.
The good news is that some small schools have a leg up on adaptive decision-making. Small schools typically have quicker and smoother chains of communication as they have fewer people with whom to communicate. Because of their small size, they are nimble and can make and implement decisions quickly. Many small schools are already educational innovators and have a culture of creativity and responsiveness. It behooves small schools to use this unique opportunity to make programmatic changes that will enhance their ability to meet the needs of students and families.
Nonetheless, the challenges for small schools (and all schools) in the next few months are huge. I am hearing from school leaders that they are at various stages of coping and responding to the pandemic- some are feeling relatively stable and are able to move onto more adaptive planning while others are still in survival mode. Each school community needs to proceed first by addressing the technical challenges directly facing them. Yet to overlook the opportunity to consider adaptive changes, even though this requires time, experimentation, change, and courage seems short-sighted. In this historic moment in time- which schools will return and which will be re-born?