K-12 Heads of School Discuss Impact of a Pandemic on Risk Management Efforts
Host: Hello, and welcome to Prevention and Protection, the United Educators risk management podcast. Today’s guests are three heads of school at K-12 independent schools, Dr. Terry Macaluso from Eastside Preparatory School in Washington State, Penny Evins from Collegiate School in Virginia, and Dr. Mike Davis from Colorado Academy. Facilitating this discussion is Liza Kabanova, a Risk Management Consultant at United Educators. This podcast was recorded as a preview for this panel’s discussion about risk management lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic, at the 2021 National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) Annual Conference in February, which will be available on demand for conference attendees.
In this episode, our panel will discuss using enterprise risk management (ERM), to think strategically during and after a global pandemic, the impact this health crisis has had on independent schools, challenges and successes, and some parting thoughts about where K-12 independent schools envision the future of education. Before we begin, a quick reminder that you can find other episodes of Prevention and Protection, as well as additional risk management resources, on our website, https://www.edurisksolutions.org. For more resources related to COVID-19, please visit edurisksolutions.org/coronavirus. This and all other episodes of Prevention and Protection are also available on iTunes. Now here’s Liza.
Kabanova: Hi Terry, Mike, and Penny. Thank you so much for joining me today to discuss this risk management process called enterprise risk management (ERM), and how you’ve applied this process to the risks you’re facing during the global pandemic and as things continue to change rapidly. I know this has been a challenging time for K-12 schools, education, and our entire country. Each of you has implemented a strong ERM program before the COVID-19 pandemic began, and I’d love to hear a bit about how risk management has informed your response over the last year. Let’s start by talking about the impact this global health crisis has had and dive into some specific challenges and success stories you’ve experienced. Then I’d love for you to share some advice you have for leaders about responding to today’s crises and adopting your risk management program to respond to future challenges. Mike, could you share a little bit about the impact the global pandemic has had on your school and your students?
Davis: It’s pretty obvious: We’re dealing with people on edge, they’re emotionally drained, our teachers are tired, our parents want their kids out of the house. We’re trying to address disparities to access to technology, all these things. I would say the one thing I’ve learned, I think really having your radar scanning is so important. And I think at our school, we were really paying attention what was happening in China. I have some colleagues who teach abroad. And when we saw what was happening in there, we just moved very quickly to adopting Zoom, training our teachers. And so, we were able to make the transition to online learning really seamlessly. So we were able to build that trust, and whether it’s COVID or some other disaster at your school, the more you can be transparent with your families and confident, and then follow through, you’re going to be able to get a lot of grace and forgiveness at times when you make really hard decisions.
And that obviously isn’t always the case. But I think we’ve had to be just uber consistent in our messaging and our language about what we’re going to do and what we’re not going to do. And we’ve put community health and safety at the top rank over convenience, over sports, over other things that our parents and kids desperately want. It’s not an easy position to be in, but I think I’ve sensed my families have respected it when I addressed hard calls really transparently and give them data so they understand where the school’s coming from.
Kabanova: That’s a great point, Mike. Transparency with your messaging and being crystal clear about who’s safety you’re putting first is very important. How about you, Penny? What impact have you seen at your school?
Evins: At Collegiate, we started the school year in person and we were in person every day prior to winter break. And we took these two weeks to let the winter activities of family systems hopefully go back down in terms of our dashboard, which is such a normal word to say out, and it’s on our admission dashboard or our fundraising dashboards, our COVID dashboard. And we’ve had to make decisions, be prepared for all decisions and not know the decision you were going to make until mind and heart came together, and then to stick with that and to know that we’d be compared with other schools nationally, as well as locally.
Some of the things that have come into play for us thus far, are the following, and I started this headship last year. So keep in mind, I was just seven or eight months in when all of a sudden you’re making a decision that there’s no trust or currency in the bank. And so I recognize that heads who may be attending this webinar might be in their first year or getting ready to take on a new headship at a school where they haven’t even seen the grounds, and yet they’ve accepted the position. So it’s a unique territory for all of us. And some of the things that have, I think, become very clear to all of us are the power and the importance of affiliations and associations, our national associations. So thank you, I have to say, to NAIS, who let out in the middle of the conference, saying, “Uh oh, something’s happened. We’re going to go into a Q&A on the stage before you even understand this virus, with legal counsel, etc., as well as our regional accreditation bodies.” And also reaching out to higher ed has partnered with us.
For me personally, my network of heads is my go-to for not only emotional solace, but, “How are you doing this?” So schools and states that might be more aggressive in what they’re willing to pursue right now are going to be telling us how to run school in the future when we start to mitigate in different ways. So, for example, schools that had more aggressive athletic play, for example, I might be wanting to know, “How did you run that locker room changing situation given the fact that we may be playing inter-squad right now instead?” So, I think the power of our peers is critical and our local landscape, the heads as well, knowing that parents who may have siblings at partner schools, I think that what’s become very challenging for me, and I think for other school heads, is realizing the disparity between the public and private sector and recognizing the fact that you can’t walk around that, you just have to walk through that.
It feels wonderful to have the privilege to be in person and it feels horrible to know that so many children are not receiving a full education remotely in any capacity right now. And we’re going to need to reckon that because all of us will face the ramifications of that, not in just the short-term, but in long-term. And I think in terms of our risk management program, it’s that being thoughtful about what the risk of communication is and isn’t. We’re all being flooded with so much information right now outside of our schools. And so, I think, from a risk management perspective, that was a very internally faced area of the school.
And now we’re having to be very external with how we’re arriving at decisions, who’s a part of these decisions, what medical advisors, what partnership are you using? So the veil has been lifted off of that as well as so many things in this COVID-fueled time of a new call to action. So those are just some of the things that come to mind. The mindset of a faculty and staff is very different than the mindset of a child who wants to be on campus, is very different than a range of parents. So I think the polarity management of all the things that play is also a part of risk management. I can see in the future risk management is going to need to look at things through a polarity of not all or nothing, but the best of both and how do we arrive at that? So that for me, has been what’s guided me of can’t we just, not we can or we can’t, but what if we, and what might we, try to do in this situation?
Kabanova: How about you, Terry? Could you share a bit about what you’re seeing in the Seattle area?
Macaluso: We were able to construct two very large, brand new buildings within a short period of time. So we were very much involved in trying to learn how to be in those new facilities, which required all kinds of new drill preparations, drills for fire, earthquake, shooter intrusion. So we were kind of in a mindset of drilling and preparing and anticipating for all of last year. And then this year, when the pandemic hit, we realized how prepared we were in terms of technology use. We’re located in the backyard of Microsoft, Google, and Amazon. So all of our parent community … most of the parent community, I would say, are technology people. So they’re professionals at it. The quality of what we’ve been able to provide in the school is extraordinary, and I’m incredibly proud of it. It’s an amazing privilege. So our focus immediately was, how do we make remote learning work?
We were not worried about getting back on campus because we had a sense that it’s going to be a while before anyone knew enough to make it possible for us to make that call. So my call has been every day, since we’ve been out, how are we doing? Are we getting better? What do teachers need? We need more monitors, let’s get more monitors. We acquired furniture and equipment for teachers working from home. We have taken special care of faculty members who have children at home, who are public school students and who are, as Penny just said, not having a great experience.
So, I guess the thing I would say is that the strength of our community, which is so strong as a result of our simply being brand new school, essentially, we’ve been in entrepreneurial mode for so long we don’t know how to stop being entrepreneurial. And so that kind of energy forces communication that’s very genuine, very transparent, and very inclusive. So, we have had great advice coming from our families, our board, several physicians on the board have been terrific. We have some epidemiologists in the parent community. And I guess one of the things I’ve learned is how important it is to know who is in your parent body. When something like this occurs, you have instant access to experts and you have to know where they are.
Davis: To that point, we actually at our school, I know a lot of schools have followed that, we found that there were such disagreements from our medical parents that it’s a novel virus, so they don’t know anything. So early on, we actually had a partnership with National Jewish, which really helped us, I think, avoid offending a parent who might have a really strong opinion on the virus and how it spread versus another. But again, you really get to see everyone’s true colors in this moment.
Kabanova: Well, it’s clear from talking with all three of you that you and your communities have been incredibly resilient in adapting to the many changes we’ve all faced. You’ve had to balance providing a meaningful learning experience while also prioritizing the safety of your entire community. Terry, can you talk a little bit about the challenges you’re currently facing?
Macaluso: Greatest challenge that we have is faculty. Faculty are exhausted. They have been unbelievably responsive. They have stepped up in ways that no one would ever expect them to. They didn’t sign on for this, but they’ve done it. And they’re starting to sort of wear a little bit, and I’m trying to, and this is true, I know, for Mike and for Penny, trying to manage community’s expectations. Families want their kids back on campus, for reasons that make all kinds of sense to me, and faculty are not excited about coming back to campus before vaccines are available. So I’m trying to keep both of those groups happy, and that’s not easy. So, I would say that one of the biggest challenges is that the further polarizing of constituencies who have very, very conflicting needs and interests, that’s hard to balance.
Kabanova: That’s such a great point, Penny. The circumstances we’re all facing ask us to balance multiple risks, like the mental well-being of children and teenagers, particularly knowing that they’re missing out on some crucial moments in their development and experiences like graduation or prom. And like you said, the high-fives we took for granted before this past year. Mike, I know you were talking about needing to get creative about engaging students, which is pretty challenging. I’d love to hear from all three of you about what strategies you’ve been putting in place and some success stories or ways your community has risen to the occasion.
Davis: Success stories, there’s no discipline issues this year. It’s like there’s radical reduction of having to deal with it. Now, I think the success has been, I think we have found, obviously we have the pandemic and then we have George Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s killing and this racial reckoning. And I think we saw this, and obviously the disparity, the public schools here in Colorado have utterly failed and are really struggling, which is very sad. I don’t think it’s good, and it’s going to put us in a difficult situation going forward, I think. However, I think we have really tried to look out for every person in our community and raise them up.
And we put out a call early on for emergency tuition assistance. That program has grown to actually providing meals to some of our families. Some of our families have thrived economically because they were in fields in the digital space and life didn’t slow down. We found the hardest hit were people already on financial aid, and we raised almost a half a million dollars in just a matter of days as our families really responded. We have parents who are delivering meals to families. Our chef, every now and then, will prepare ready-to-just-put-in-the-oven meals for our faculty. I handed out turkeys at Thanksgiving to faculty and staff. We found some ways to just reinforce why we’re here and what we’re about. And at the same time, I think it’s been an opportunity for school leaders, and it’s risky because everyone’s not really happy with you.
But we’re in a crisis. And to really speak out against the privilege that we see in our community. There’s some families who’ve chosen not to return and I’m not exactly sad to see them go. We had one family who was demanding we serve bento boxes for lunch because they didn’t like the peanut butter and jelly we were serving because we can’t run our cafeteria. Just ridiculous demands. And it’s an opportunity to frame what’s most important, what isn’t. And I think on the last front, you learn a lot about your faculty and staff and who are team players and who aren’t.
And there’s privilege that exists in that world. I think all of us probably who run upper schools have seen upper school faculty not used to doing the types of things that lower school teachers do all the time – and they really resist it. And they think they’re little mini college professors rather than teaching children. And so we are not letting that go. There’s accountability for that because I want to be a stronger institution coming out of this.
Macaluso: Absolutely agree. Coming out of this as a stronger institution and using the opportunities that we’re discovering to really move ourselves forward. Education shouldn’t look the way it did before COVID, after COVID. We should be discovering ways to take the advantages that we’re seeing right now and parlay them into even greater advantages. You’re talking about food service. We started a curb pickup meal service for dinners and have sold, I can’t even count, the number of dinners that have been picked up at the curb coming out of our kitchen, who’ve loved doing it.
Parents have loved participating in it. They feel like they are part of the place when they can’t be there. And it also gives our staff in the kitchen a whole lot of positive feedback about what their contributions to the school are. So from student assemblies and student leadership to alumni organization activities, there is just so much going on right now that would not have been possible had we been forced to use the usual methods of communication. So yes, I do want to see people again, I truly do. But I really think that we made some discoveries here that could have a real impact on what’s available for whom.
Evins: I’ll say the outdoor learning spaces just are ubiquitous in schools. What does it mean to learn? Where do you learn? We all have these buildings and trappings in which we think divine learning occurs, and the kids don’t want to let go of outdoors and they don’t want to let go of the non-technology moments. So for us having some kids notice that when it got chilly, the structures perhaps were going away and they’re saying we got to keep this. And so having them be a part of the design build, having them be a part of the reimagining, having them work JK-12 on that as something that our students are guiding us towards now.
I think we’re going to think about gathering very differently. Schools are meant for people to gather and exchange ideas and personalities. I think the way in which intelligent instruction was disseminated over a screen, that’s instruction. But learning and learning with people is critical and I think the gathering purpose of our schools will probably become even more important or not to say I’m the school that does this or where the gathering space and place. And that is I think what the greatest opportunity is, and that’s been the greatest loss thus far. And I think that I’m mindful of the ways in which the admission office has been able to work with families who aren’t on campus. I think we’ve all gotten better at being a little bit like colleges and universities who have visits without being on campus, and the synergizing of different aspects of the school coming together, the inner-functional and cross-functional parts of the team. We’re also interdependent right now on whether it’s scheduling or cleaning or the tech department, etc. So we’ve all learned more about each other’s roles, and I think that’s essential for strong and nimble organizations.
Kabanova: Thank you for sharing these examples. It’s so encouraging to hear that you’ve been able to tap your communities and your communities have come together to help out students and families that were most effected. I know we’ll have a chance to talk more about what your ERM program looks like at each of your schools in our NAIS presentation. In case our listeners aren’t as familiar with enterprise risk management (ERM), its purpose is to help schools or other organizations shift from having to put out fires or react to risk events after they happen on campus. Instead, this proactive process can help schools tie risk management efforts to your mission and strategic plans and to prepare for institutional risks like student mental health, cybersecurity, or diversity and inclusion. It’s a collaborative effort that is typically led by the Head of School, like each of our guests today, and requires participation from all corners of the school in some way to manage risks at a school-wide level.
Given your years of experience in this area, I’d love to close out our podcast by asking you to share some parting thoughts about how you use ERM at your schools and any last takeaways for our listeners. In other words, do you advocate this process for other schools? And do you think it’s doable during a pandemic?
Macaluso: Absolutely recommend it, and it’s also doable anytime. Any time people can gather and actually be guided to think about the ways in which they’re vulnerable is a useful exercise. In terms of parting thoughts, my only real takeaway from the full experience is that the strength of the community before the pandemic essentially dictates the likelihood of being successful in living through the pandemic. So all of those things that we say so glibly about culture turn out to be true.
Kabanova: Thank you. How about you, Mike? Do you recommend having this process in place?
Davis: My school’s less than three miles from Columbine. And so we’re at the epicenter of school shootings in this country. And I think it can feel like a monumental task because you have to get so many administrators, you’re going to get your board involved. But I find we have just been very fortunate to have really great people who have, and the more people you get involved, it’s easier and you build that momentum and you build that speed. So it’s really not an overwhelming process to build up. And it’s so important for the safety of your kids. And also protecting your school’s reputation as well as the financial wealth of your school in terms of avoiding a stupid lawsuit because you weren’t really thinking through the implications of a program or a policy or some aspect of your school’s operation.
Kabanova: Thank you. Last but not least, Penny. How about you?
Evins: Yeah. I would say that I absolutely recommend it for many reasons. One of which, as we say, we’re a learning community. So we’re learning in these meetings and in these conversations. It’s important for leadership and every person in this process will be a leader to express vulnerability. And it’s leading out with, we don’t have it all the time, we are vulnerable. And the art and science, again, of deciding that decisions are not fail-safe, but we’ve anticipated what we might lose and we’ve anticipated what we might gain, I think it’s just modeling great thinking. And I would encourage us to involve students a bit more, perhaps, in the process because what we think they might want and revere and value might not be something that they want that much. I don’t know that we’ve done that at Collegiate specifically, but they’ve certainly had judgment about decisions that we’ve made.
To go to Terry’s point of how strong your culture and community are going to dictate your ability to go through this, I was really pondering that because I would say I’m not sure that a strong Audit and Risk Committee or ERM process has to do with the strength of your being tested. So we’ve been tested at Collegiate, in many ways. The justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion conversations in the health pandemic as well, and processes have very little to do with the true performance under stress and pressure. So I think we will see how strong we are after being pressure tested, perhaps. But I do think that the rehearsal is incredibly important so that we don’t have too much stage fright in these situations in the future or too much brazen, “We’ve got this. We’re strong.” Well, have you been tested?
Kabanova: That’s a great point. And I know when we speak with schools or higher education institutions that have this process, it does have to grow over time. And so it is something that can be pretty simple your first couple of years and just to help you identify one to five risks that you’re working on. And over time, we do see that leaders become quicker at making decisions, more proactive. And like all of you, I think, have mentioned, that it does become more of a seamless process that you don’t really have to think about. It is intuitive, it’s something that just becomes part of the culture that people think about risk management, rather than the perception of risk management being something negative, it’s seen as something that helps you make decisions ahead of time and collectively as a team.
Well, thank you so much, Penny, Terry, and Mike, for your candor and for sharing your experiences from three different times zones across the country. This global pandemic has impacted all of us differently. And yet our conversation today also reminded me that we all face common struggles. Whether it’s faculty burnout or finding creative ways to make sure our students don’t miss out on important mile markers in their lives. I appreciate your insights and thank you on behalf of our listeners for making the time to have this important conversation.
Evins: Thank you.
Macaluso: Thank you.
Host: From United Educators Insurance, this is the Prevention and Protection Podcast. This episode was recorded in addition to this panel’s discussion for the 2021 Annual NAIS Conference, where conference attendees can listen to more on this topic. For additional United Educators resources, please visit our website, https://www.edurisksolutions.org.