One of the most challenging aspects of planning and responding during the pandemic is the need to consider and adjust to changing conditions. It would be great if we could assess the current situation and circumstances and make decisions that will carry the organization forward for an extended time.
Unfortunately, conditions related to the pandemic change constantly and quickly. Outside experts and governing forces often shift advice and expectations. Stakeholders often move from supporting one approach to advocating another. Consensus can quickly dissolve.
Through all of this “shifting sand” we are expected to see into the future while satisfying current expectations. When conditions shift, stakeholders look to us to know what comes next and to have a plan ready to launch.
Obviously, it is impossible to anticipate everything that may have an impact on how instruction is provided and learning is experienced. We cannot have endless plans that take into account every factor and influence that must be assessed and responded to. Neither can we just “fly blind” without guidelines and decision rules to inform what will come next.
Still, there is a middle course that can prepare the organization and your team to shift and respond to the most likely forces that will demand a change, whether to move to a more restrictive and remote learning environment or return to some less restrictive form of face-to-face learning. Here are ten questions you can use to guide your planning and preparation without having to know all of what lies ahead.
Question #1: What conditions will trigger a change in approach? This question directs attention to what needs to happen to make a change. As examples, reductions in infection rates, modifications to brick and mortar facilities, extended periods without new cases, or significant new outbreaks could trigger a change in approach. The conditions you identify can guide decisions and provide a clear rationale for making a change.
Question #2: How were the conditions established? The conditions are essentially criteria to stimulate an action. However, who participated in establishing the criteria, the expertise consulted in establishing them, and the clarity the criteria provide are important elements for decisions to be accepted.
Question #3: How have the conditions been communicated? The extent to which stakeholders are aware of and understand the criteria will make a difference in whether decisions based on them will be accepted. Also, transparency surrounding the application of the criteria can be important, especially if the decision will lead to greater restrictions and inconvenience.
Question #4: What needs/fears/confusion need to be anticipated and planned for? Despite having communicated the process and criteria for making decisions, when changes are announced and reality changes, it is likely that people will need more information. There will be confusion, and some level of fear will likely surface. The more these reactions can be anticipated and prepared for, the more likely the change will be accepted, or at least tolerated.
Question #5: What preparation/planning/practicing will be necessary to put the change of course in place? It can be one thing to develop plans. It can be another to put them successfully into action. Such activities as table-top simulations, “gaming out” reactions, and having those responsible for elements of the plan practice how they will act and react can make a crucial difference in preparedness.
Question #6: What resources will be required to make the change? It is unlikely that a significant change in approach to learning and instruction can be accomplished without requiring some additional resources. The more resource supports that can be identified and put in place early, the smoother the process will play out.
Question #7: What are potential reactions/resistances/forces that could have an impact on the plan? Rumors, social media, fake news, and other reactions can quickly develop into resistance and pushback to even the most logical and creative decisions. Thinking through what might happen, tapping past experience, and monitoring events in neighboring communities can be extremely useful to your anticipation of these activities.
Question #8: What planning and preparation need to be completed in response to potential surprises and resistance? Once you have a reasonable understanding of what reactions and resistance you may encounter, think through how you might prevent, avoid, or manage what surfaces. For example, you might have drafts of blogs, potential tweets, or Facebook posts ready to respond and head off problems before they fully develop.
Question #9: What potential opportunities may surface for which you need to be prepared to leverage? Not everything that happens in response to the changes you have to make will be negative and resistive. Think through what opportunities might surface to improve learning, lessen confusion and resistance, and build support and credibility.
Question #10: Who will decide that conditions meet the criteria to change and how will the decision be made? Even the best decisions can become derailed if processes are not clear and followed. If the school board must make the decision, identify the data and materials members will need. If the administrative team will make the call, clarify how and when board members and other key stakeholders will be informed. Knowing and responding to expectations about how key people will be informed can make the difference between acceptance and support and pushback and undermining.