Show me the academic leader at an independent school whose life hasn’t been turned upside-down a thousand and ten times since schools dispersed to remote mode almost a year ago. And show me the leader who does not expect this upheaval to continue at least through the coming summer.
This year’s deluge of demands and the sometimes hesitant response of schools have made their impression on a market built on expectations. Lessons have been learned, including that opening campuses and maximizing on-campus activity is a market and admissions plus. This has had an ugly, politically tinged side: despite the personal wishes of many senior school leaders to have remained in remote mode and err on the side of caution, officials and commentators—not just COVID deniers, but also people inclined to be less cautious—have heaped praise on the “open private schools” and excoriated the public sector for keeping campuses closed to ensure the safety of students and staff. In some markets “open” private schools—including independents—have fed at the expense of public schools and others that have remained in all-remote or hybrid modes.
What we regarded back in 2019 as a fundamental, values-based covenant between schools and families to deliver on mission has become, in the heat of the pandemic, a new kind of relationship. Academic leaders have experienced and been compelled to accede to tsunamis of personal requests—some that might have seemed laughable or outrageous in “normal” times, and many rooted in an expectation of privilege. For the moment it is as if the covenant has been replaced with a vast bank of switches whose functions may be personal, child by child, or explicitly transactional, a set of often private quid pro quos committing the school to keeping promises that may or may not bear any relationship to mission and values but are about expediency and convenience.
Between now and whenever this pandemic “ends,” schools are going to build back their cultures, and along the way they are going to need to make a few more tough decisions
Things that in 2019 might have seemed unimaginable are not just imaginable but aspects of practice and programs in schools today. “We don’t do that” is no longer an answer to many requests, because, even once or twice, we have.
Of the “special,” pandemic-responsive little tweaks and occasional accommodations a school has made, which deserve to become part of the next normal? How can schools regain control of their missions and values in building holistic and internally consistent cultures that express the fundamental covenant that has shaped independent schools forever?
Some COVID accommodations may have to go, quickly, and few will miss them. But others may hang around, and if they must, we need to make them our friends—must shape them and develop them as evolutions of what have “always” been the most cherished expressions of our missions and values and of what we regard as the ethical and cultural value propositions of our schools.
Does a school continue to offer and refine some remote programming that has worked and may even have made life easier for all concerned? If this can be done equitably and in resonance with mission, why not?
Why not offer a few or even more online classes, whether created right at the school or in partnership with, say, One Schoolhouse? Why not continue to make certain informational functions available online through streaming services? Why not make teacher–parent/guardian conferences available via Zoom for the convenience of families pressed for time? Of course performances and games and practices and rehearsals will take place on campus in shared physical space, but what if parts of the regional Model UN or debate or mock trial programs opt to continue as online experiences?
Might your school do these things? When we have time to take a breath and look behind us with clearer vision, might not some of the accommodations we made in the pandemic even look like improvements? Have we not heard from families and even students that some parts of our COVID programming have in fact been better than what we offered before?
What academic leaders must do, beset as they have been, is to think about what they have done in the past year and figure out which, of all the things we couldn’t imagine doing but have done under duress in the plague year, are worth keeping around.
And then: Instead of waiting for more demands, each school and leader must forestall a wave of new, post-COVID demands by proudly and clearly proclaiming how much and how well the school has learned from the past year. And then, prove it: announce the “new” practices and policies, demonstrating the courage of their convictions and their rejection of cultures of quid pro quo privilege.
Because it’s going to be really important for academic leaders and schools to return to the place where they can say with confidence and pride, “We don’t do that”—and to be able to say this with a full and firm belief in the mission and fundamental values that underlie the entire being of the institution.
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Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)