Planning a coronavirus response is a bit like fighting a wildfire

By Justin Reich April 23, 2020 on EdWeek

In emergencies, it often feels like every single person is needed for the crisis at hand. But experienced emergency managers know that even when everything feels incredibly urgent, there is always a need to have people planning for the future. Almost everyone in schools right now should be helping to support the immediate needs of students and families, but a few people in every school and every district should stay out of the fray and be thinking ahead.

The incident command system is a set of tools for managing crisis situations. It was originally developed to fight wildfires in the American West, but the core ideas can be useful in all kinds of emergencies. One basic principle is that in a crisis, there need to be two groups: Operations and Plans.

Operations is responsible for everything that needs to happen immediately and urgently. School counselors are identifying the students in the most vulnerable home settings and figuring out what they can do to support nutrition, shelter, and safety. Food-service staff are turning lunchrooms into soup kitchens. Instructional technology staff are getting classroom computers into homes and sending Wi-Fi-equipped buses down country roads. Teachers and instructional leaders in every grade and subject are identifying the best ways in their local context to support remote learning throughout the school closures that now seem likely to last until the end of the year.”Schools and districts should take a few smart people off of daily operations and have them spend their time thinking ahead.”

But even during a raging wildfire, there are people in Plans responsible for predicting future challenges and getting ready to address them. When I ran a search and rescue group, looking for children and senior citizens lost in the woods in Virginia, at any given time, most of our volunteers would be out scouring the countryside. But we always had a few people tucked away in a church basement, looking at maps and planning for what the search might look like a day later or, God forbid, a week later.

In these times of crisis, schools and districts should take a few smart people off of daily operations and have them spend their time thinking ahead. What new supports will teachers, students, and families need when the routines of remote learning start wearing thin in May? What could summer programming in August look like with volunteers and a shoestring budget? What could summer programming look like if Congress plowed millions of recovery dollars into state education budgets? Extra instructional days will cost money, require renegotiating union contracts, and bring to the surface other challenges from air conditioning to transportation. Starting to imagine, plan, and organize is the way to bring difficult ideas to life. 

The most important planning questions concern the coming fall. While epidemiological forecasts remain uncertain, it seems quite likely that well into next year schools will need to maintain physical distancing and enhanced hygiene practices and be prepared for waves of closures in places struck by flare-ups of infection. 

The few places in the world, like Denmark, coming back to school after implementing early and strict closures illustrate the challenging programmatic choices ahead. Schools in Denmark opened elementary grades before secondary schools, made more extensive use of outdoor classrooms, and required students to wash hands regularly throughout the day.

Experienced elementary school teachers will recognize that adding multiple classwide handwashing times to the class schedule is not a trivial undertaking. Schools that plan all summer to outfit classrooms with new handwashing and sanitizing stations will lose less instructional time than schools that improvise new routines in September. This is one of dozens of accommodations that educators will need to make in community building, instructional routines, food service, school counseling, and every other aspect of school life.

Amid the intense pressure to get remote learning right, right now, it may seem inconceivable to devote scarce resources this May to imagining handwashing routines in September. But experienced crisis managers in many other settings have learned the hard way that in the midst of emergencies, the future has a way of crashing down more quickly than could be expected. 

Form a planning team. Choose a few key district and school leaders to step away from the immediate fray, recruit a few teachers who have gotten the hang of remote learning, and find a few students and parents who are excited to imagine a new summer and fall. Read about schools in Asia and Europe that are further along the course of the pandemic. Start designing for concrete moments. Tell stories about what the first day of school could look like. Draft new schedules for what could be done with stimulus funds for extended- learning days. Write out the plans for when a COVID-19 flare-up is detected and you have only a day or two to prepare again for remote learning. Revisit the academic and cultural priorities of your community and consider how you can stay focused on the most important work of schooling in the midst of ongoing disruption.

Check out the Failure to Disrupt Virtual Book Club Podcast!

In the Fall of 2020 Justin Reich invited guest presenters and students from MIT for a ten week book club exploring themes in Failure to Disrupt. Now he has turned into a Podcast to relive those discussions and offer more insights.