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Operating Schools in a Crisis: 3 Lessons We’ve Learned

Earlier this month, our superintendent, Kathleen Porter-Magee, explained that on March 13, ”schools were confronted with a problem few thought we’d ever face at scale: how to serve students academically when we can’t actually meet with students in schools.” 

At this point, a lot has been said about the very real challenges our teachers have faced as they have worked to adapt planning and instruction to a new era of remote learning. But particularly for schools that serve our nation’s most disadvantaged communities, the heroic work our teachers are doing is supported by a tireless operations team who have had to figure out—in a matter of days—how to address the operational challenges of the coronavirus crisis and of how to reach students in the new world of remote instruction.

At Partnership Schools, as we take a look back at the work we’ve done over the first six weeks of the school closure, we are trying to learn as much as we can—not just so that we can adapt to future crises, but also so that we can streamline our work when we do welcome faculty, staff, and students back. Three lessons from this first phase of work stand out:

  • Lesson 1: Communicate early, often, and fast
  • Lesson 2: Lead first; processes will follow
  • Lesson 3: Leverage scale, embrace subsidiarity

Lesson #1:  Communicate early, often, and fast

By Monday, March 9, it became clear that the pandemic was escalating quickly—and there were conflicting messages on the best way to move forward. By Friday, March 13, the end of that same week, the Archdiocese of New York had closed all Catholic schools. By Sunday, March 15, Mayor de Blasio quickly followed suit. So, in the span of six days, the story shifted from “we need to change our cleaning and sanitizing practices to keep our communities safe” to “we need to shutdown indefinitely and transition all instruction to remote learning.”

Of course, while school leaders have become used to “expecting the unexpected,” the pace of change in the second week of March was like nothing we had seen before. While we pride ourselves on having strong communications, we realized quickly that our routine avenues of communication were far too slow and infrequent for such a rapidly evolving situation.

To address the communications challenges—those within the network and with parents—we determined we needed to make three key moves:

  1. Institute a new communications protocol to ensure that we could share up-to-date information with leaders every day. This proved essential as we needed to coordinate the guidance we received from the CDC, the state, the city, and the Archdiocese—guidance that was changing daily, sometimes hourly.
  2. Establish a daily “war room” call with principals to learn as much as we could about how the crisis was impacting our schools’ communities. In fact, it was this flow of information that allowed us to understand how deeply impacted the communities we serve were—well before public data and heat maps could statistically prove the reality of the virus in the Bronx and Harlem.
  3. Ensure we had up-to-date contact information for every family so that we wouldn’t lose touch even when we weren’t connected in person.

Making time in the midst of a flurry of action-packed days for all-hands calls and other communications wasn’t easy—but it made those actions more productive and targeted.

Lesson #2: Lead first, processes will follow

In a crisis, the urgent trumps the important. Ordinarily, our ops teams take the long-view—they plan ahead, anticipate challenges long before they happen, and work to ensure they are always staying three steps in front of what our school communities needed.

In a crisis, we were required to shift gears quickly to address the immediate needs of our communities, without the luxury of a lot of lead time and planning.

For us, that meant deciding quickly how we were going to keep our building secure and sanitized, how we were going to get immediate financial relief to our families—including waiving tuition–and how we were going to get devices quickly into the hands of our families that needed them most.

In some cases, we made decisions first and figured out the plan after. We didn’t take a “task force” approach that might delay action in a crisis. Rather, we acted quickly to give our communities one less bill to pay, to pay all employees, and to set up the COVID relief fund. Our focus was to support those hardest hurt by the economic downturn and keep student learning moving forward.

Of course, we don’t recommend an “act now, plan later” approach for routine matters of school leadership. But making decisive leadership decisions quickly and figuring out the “how” later allowed us to more nimbly meet our communities’ needs quickly throughout the crisis.

Lesson #3: Leverage scale, embrace subsidiarity

Implicit in all of the processes we have built in the last six weeks is the power of a network model for Catholic school operations. The crisis management challenge of knitting together individualized information about tuition bills, hourly employees, and family needs with efficient processes for large batches of work across seven schools affirmed the usefulness of our organizational structure.

The work of the small network team would have been unsuccessful without the on-the-ground operations personnel at each school, who gathered crucial information the network team could quickly and effectively respond to as the crisis evolved. Our structure, which balances local control with network scale, gave us quick flows of information and allowed us to be more responsive even as we centralized decisions to speed up implementation and to divide work in logical ways.

March demanded a great deal of hard work from every member of our operations team. But by communicating early and often, ensuring that we were listening as much as talking; rapidly, creatively iterating the processes needed to implement critical decisions; and relying on the scale our model affords, that hard work has paid off. Students keep learning, teachers keep teaching, all employees keep getting paid, and our vendors have even caught up to implement changes that aid the work. We are hopeful that all three lessons will continue to bear fruit once we are back in the buildings so carefully cleaned and waiting for us.

Kathleen Quirk is Chief of Staff at Partnership Schools and leads our school operations team.