When it comes to COVID-19, schools must learn, adapt, evolve and grow

When it comes to COVID-19, schools must learn, adapt, evolve and grow

Back in January of this year, reports were trickling out of China about a new virus. News like this is hard on the office hypochondriac and immediately people began to tease me about exhibiting symptoms. In late January, we still only had one case in the U.S. Even in late February it had not affected most of our lives to any substantial degree. A problem like a novel virus is by definition, adaptive. We must learn as new data presents itself. We must study the issue, watch the data, and change, evolve, and adapt. That is what we have done.

A couple of weeks later, between March 16 and March 18, when Kansas schools were closed, 38 governors closed schools in their states. Why? Because the data changed. The number of cases grew dramatically. We learned more about transmission. More information meant more adjustments, better decisions.

But we still know woefully little about the virus, prevention, treatment, vaccinations, actual rates of infection, deaths, and transmission. We have better information, but it is still evolving, still changing. Last week, the Kansas City Star reported that tests can be done in wastewater to detect presence of the virus in communities. They used Hiawatha, Kansas as an example of places where remnants of the virus are present in the wastewater, but no active cases have been identified in the community. New data that causes us to ask new questions. New questions that need more study, and so on.

The point of my meandering is not to cast blame, troll, or throw shade. The point is that in four months, this virus has gone from something that was a far-away problem, to something that was very personal when former superintendent and board member Dennis Wilson died on March 22, to something that has devasted our economy and killed an unimaginable number of people. January 1 to the first week of May, our lives have all changed.

For school folks in Kansas, the next big question is what happens next school year? Will we be open in August? Like so many issues in our state and country, some want to make this political. Some folks are already making predictions and accusations about what will happen four months from now, when schools are scheduled to open. Facebook and Twitter are alive with those wanting to posture and use this tragedy for political advantage.

For the doomsayers and prognosticators who want to make this a political issue instead of one based upon the safety and security of all families, I ask one question: How did our January predictions pan out? Four months ago, who predicted that schools would all be closed? That our economy would suffer its biggest setback in a century? That millions of people would be out of work?

I have another idea, one I learned from Rob Scheib, Assistant Superintendent in Emporia Public Schools. “Plan for the worst, hope for the best.” This strategy has long been used by great leaders. Set a lofty goal, but plan like heck for the contingencies. I just started reading “The Splendid and the Vile,” about Winston Churchill’s leadership before and during WWII. Upon becoming prime minister, he was adamant about winning the war, demanding that all “hope for the best.” He would allow no public talk about the possibility of a loss, even admonishing his pastor on the issue. But he spent night and day planning for every contingency, every detail, of  “the worst.”

As we think about the 2020-21 school year, we should take this approach. Even more importantly, we must consider the body of knowledge that will exist on August 10 but doesn’t exist on May 10. Just like all the things we know on May 10 that we did not know on January 10. Anyone who claims certain knowledge of what August 10 will look like in terms of this virus and the opening of schools is a charlatan. Anyone who is not learning, adapting, and evolving as we gain new knowledge, and incorporating that into their plans for the safety and security of our students in August lacks competence.

Those of us who are trusted to make these decisions cannot listen to those who would seek to gain political advantage from one position or another. We must learn, adapt, evolve, and grow. The future depends on us.