Making preparations to avoid confusion during any emergency—including a pandemic—is critical.
Calling the pandemic a shock for school districts nationwide is an understatement. For many districts, the sudden shift to home learning necessitated sudden steps like purchasing tablets and laptops, creating mobile feeding plans, and brainstorming ways to provide special services—not to mention the everyday operational obstacles such as maintaining campuses, running payroll and supporting IT infrastructure.
The result has been added confusion and frustration to an already confusing and frustrating situation. It didn’t have to be this way. Yes, the havoc the coronavirus pandemic is wrecking on the K-12 system is unprecedented in its scope and duration. But that doesn’t mean districts had to be caught flat-footed.
For almost eight years, I served as the chief operations officer for Jefferson County Public Schools in Kentucky, which serves the Louisville metropolitan area and is one of the largest school districts in the country. We took contingency planning very seriously.
Honestly, it was difficult at times, but given what’s transpired in response to the coronavirus outbreak, I wish every district in the country prepared for emergencies as rigorously as we did. Contingency planning creates the mental bandwidth to deal with the unexpected during a crisis.
In 2018, we created a district-level continuity of operations plan. The plan was not specific to a certain crisis. The idea was if a calamity struck—if we found out schools had no water, or a natural disaster had damaged school buildings, or the superintendent was incapacitated, or there was a pandemic—we would be prepared to handle it. We would have a plan of action to get up and running within 12 hours and that plan would carry us over the next 30 days to give us the time and brainpower to adjust to a new normal. Contingency planning creates the mental bandwidth to deal with the unexpected during a crisis.
If you don’t have a continuity of operations plan—often referred to as a “COOP”—don’t worry. You’re not alone. When we started to make ours, we requested examples from other districts—and we didn’t receive any. It took us a while to find a template online. This is the kind of work that feels necessary but not urgent until, of course, it is.
It took us nearly a year to develop our 32-page plan. The final version was a ready-made resource we could utilize in an emergency. Our plan identified who would serve on a response team and delineated their roles. It included information such as where student records were stored, lines of succession, copies of critical vendor contracts, alternate school locations, and checklists for critical services to get back up and running. All of the information we might need to dig up during a crisis was at hand.
Document your lessons learned
Every district should have a continuity of operations plan. Administrators are still putting out fires and fine-tuning their virtual learning systems, but they should make time now to chronicle the lessons they are learning.
Document what has gone well, what has not, and what would have been done differently if there had been more time to plan. Include a list of barriers—legislation, district policies, contractual language—that would have hampered the district even if a plan was in place.
Then, when the pandemic subsides, codify your lessons by developing a continuity of operations plan. Before you ask the board to approve it, consider getting an outside perspective. The current district leadership team may know, for example, that Joe from the technology team is the person to call if you’re locked out of your email, but your plan should still include Joe’s contact information—as well as contact information for Joe’s deputy. A fresh set of eyes from a third party can offer such insights.
While I encourage all districts to develop continuity of operations plans, I hope they will never have to use them.
My experience suggests otherwise. Let’s be prepared.