“Are we going back?”
“What will it look like?”
School leaders are hearing these questions every day at the start of July 2020, and they are anxious to answer them.
Soon, every school in America will find a way to make logistical accommodations to operate this fall. Some schools, dioceses, and districts have already published their plans. All of these plans tell families how schools will go back to school during this unusual year.
Few explain why these measures will be taken.
In my experience, people are not likely to embrace a new how without understanding why.
Concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl understood this dynamic when the stakes were the highest. In Man’s Search for Meaning, he explained that any attempt to restore hope among those living in fear must understand Nietzsche’s words: “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”
The COVID pandemic is not the Holocaust, but school-aged children in the south Bronx and elsewhere have experienced death in their homes to a degree that is not yet appreciated in the rest of the nation.
Take the “conversation” around masks, for example. Some Catholic school principals report that parents are threatening to withdraw their children if masks are required this fall. There is no unity in our community around why masks are important; the mask is just a how without a why. If you are a Catholic school leader who plans to require that kids wear masks, how do you respond? What belief informs your decision to do this?
Beliefs and Goals
First we must distinguish between beliefs and goals. Recognize, for example, that adopting protocols in order to comply with guidance from the governor, mayor, CDC, diocese, or even Dr. Fauci himself does not constitute a belief. Compliance is a goal, not a belief. Similarly, “protecting the health and safety” of the community is a goal (more noble than compliance!), but still, not a belief, and not compelling to the parent who does not see the value of a mask.
Our root beliefs are the statements of conviction that inform our decisions, inspire our actions, and determine our goals. What do you believe that drives you to require masks? We may wear masks to comply with guidance and protect health–but what is it that we collectively believe that will compel all of us to wear them faithfully?
Too often our shared beliefs go unspoken. In reality, naming our root beliefs–shouting them from the rooftops, in fact–can be the most powerful way to unify our communities around the logistical norms that are aligned with those beliefs.
Catholic school leaders, you have an opportunity right now to anchor these critical decisions in your root beliefs. By putting your beliefs and mission in the headlines of your back to school plans for Fall 2020, you can lead with creed, build culture, and advance your mission. The logistics of your plan, and your community, will follow.
It might look something like this:
Starting right away, begin a series of regular updates to your community about back to school.
Connect with families every two weeks, on the same day, at the same time, via the same mode, like clockwork. Broadcast your message to current families and also send a special message to new families–especially incoming kindergartners. If you haven’t communicated with them yet, you should not be surprised to find them shopping for another school. They do not yet know what you stand for, and in the absence of communication during a pandemic, they are getting anxious about sending you their babies.
You should be clear about the beliefs that are at the heart of the school community and which will be used to make decisions about your back-to-school plan. Tell them, for example, that your school is organized around a set of root beliefs that are at the core of our faith and our mission. They might include:
In this school community, we believe that we are made for each other.
We believe that we are better together, because we are a family; indeed, we are many parts of one Body of Christ.
We believe that we grow in our relationship with God by learning about God’s creation: the world, the people in it, and ourselves. We are always learning, and we believe that we learn better together.
These beliefs drive us to our shared purpose, which is our mission: to fan into a flame the gifts that God gave each of your children. We prepare your children to flourish, so they will be leaders in this life and saints in the next.
Even if you don’t have a complete plan yet, share the beliefs that will inform your plan, what you are planning right now, and then prepare folks for your plan to change, as it will almost certainly change. If you do have a plan, be explicit about how each element is informed by a belief. You might say:
We learn better together. As of July 15, our plan is to return to school in the building, as we always do. The first day of class will be August 27. Our mission to ensure that your child flourishes compels us to take all necessary precautions to minimize the spread of COVID-19 within our community. Given the current public health conditions, these precautions may include wearing masks, distancing desks, having lunch in the classroom, or putting acrylic shields in some spaces. We will publish our plans related to these precautions via these regular updates. Please watch your email. Because we learn better together, and we are confident that we can provide an excellent education in the faith while safeguarding each member of our community.
We are made for each other. This belief, and the latest scientific understanding of how the virus travels and infects individuals, will guide our decisions about which precautions to adopt. While children may not generally be sickened by the virus, they can carry and transmit it without symptoms. A student may carry it to school and transmit it to a classmate, who can bring it home and infect family members. While neither of these students may ever experience the illness, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other family members who live with our students who are susceptible to the disease may become seriously ill.
Our children and our community cannot flourish if the virus does. Our goal is to protect every member of our community by minimizing virus transmission from student to student at school. We will adopt precautions that are known to reduce the potential for virus transmission in our school community.
We are planning for a range of possible ways to educate your child this fall in order to ensure your children’s educational experience is as uninterrupted, rigorous, and rich as possible. If your children are unable to return to school in August, we will offer remote learning to ensure they continue to receive a Catholic education of the highest quality.
While we pray for a year of in-person instruction at school for all, if the public health situation in our community requires that we make use of a backup plan to protect your children and our team, we will not hesitate to do so, just as we did not hesitate to close the building in March.
We believe that we are made for each other. We love each one of you and each one of your children, and we are confident that we can provide an excellent education in the faith in each of these scenarios while safeguarding each member of our community. Just as Christ calls us to stop everything to protect one lost lamb from harm, we will do what it takes to take care of each other and we will be stronger for it.
We are always learning. In humility, we recognize that the public health situation may change rapidly between now and the start of school, just as it has since we last gathered in person in March. We also recognize that scientists are learning more about the virus and its spread, and the precautions we take will reflect both our learning and the current public health situation. Starting today, we will communicate with you every two weeks–more frequently if necessary–to ensure you are aware of our most current plans and any changes we make. We are always learning – about the virus, its transmission, and our community’s vulnerability–and we will adjust our plans as needed to ensure each child flourishes.
In this time of deep uncertainty and fear, Catholic school leaders, you have an opportunity to unite your school communities around these beliefs we all share but do not say out loud often enough. When it is time to go back to school, every school in your neighborhood will have a logistical plan that explains how they will go back to school. Getting these logistics right is the work of crisis management. In the face of a fast-moving public health, economic, and social crisis outside your control, however, our communities need you to be transformational leaders.
What will it take to transform this moment of anxiety and division into one of strength and unity? It will not be a one-page pdf (or a 50-page slide deck) that explains that you will wear masks and social distance and disinfect sufficiently. Instead, it will be how you articulate why you do these things in your communities, how those beliefs are lived out in your actions, and, come August and September, how everyone in your community takes care of each other to ensure that every child flourishes.
Christian Dallavis is the Assistant Superintendent for Partnership Schools.