Businesses Have Been Reopening for Months, What Schools Can Learn from Them Now

1 year ago

Businesses Have Been Reopening for Months, What Schools Can Learn from Them Now

School has begun across the country—in a patchwork of virtual, physical and partial reopenings that reflect the divergence of viewpoints among families, communities, and public officials. In some places, schools closed almost as soon as they opened because of COVID-19 outbreaks. With the holidays fast approaching and COVID-19 numbers climbing, schools will once again be faced with the reopening conundrum they tackled earlier in the year.

The fact is that reopening schools amid the continuing COVID-19 pandemic is not a step into uncharted territory that many people believe it to be. It is still early in the school year, but other reopenings—of businesses—have been taking place for months. Their pace and process has varied by location and type of operation, just as schools are experiencing now. Where schools see an uncertain path ahead, many businesses are already back from the front lines with hard-won experiences to share.

Telling a public entity to “run like a business” is an overused cliché. However, thoughtful leaders can find useful parallels. I spend my professional time helping businesses of various sizes and types answer the challenges of workplace safety, from factory floors to executive suites. We’ve helped many businesses keep their doors open during this crisis, and helped others return to the workplace after thoughtful analysis. When I look at schools, I see a handful of opportunities for them to adopt points of view that are usually confined to the for-profit world:

Think risk management, not risk avoidance.

This is not a call to be cavalier, but instead a recognition that risks exist on a spectrum. Identify the risks students and staff may face not as binaries, but as discrete threat levels with corresponding responses. Understand your initial responses do not have to be set in stone -- you can be conservative in recognizing the risk of the unknown. We’re all learning more about this every day, and schools will learn from their experiences and gradually adjust their responses.

Businesses are deliberate in the ways they identify threats, measure them and define their tolerance for them. That view is the basis of the entire professional discipline of risk management, and 2020 has been the risk manager’s Super Bowl. For schools, it’s less often a fully developed practice, but now is the time to make it one. We manage risk, not to keep from doing risky things, but to make doing them possible. Cars don’t have brakes so they can stop—they have brakes so it’s safe for them to go forward at rapid speeds.

Businesses Have Been Reopening for Months, What Schools Can Learn from Them Now


Be a positive force.

Co-morbidities such as obesity and hypertension appear to heighten COVID-19 risks. But lockdown has people sedentary and detached. Schools can be focal points of information on healthy activity and sound nutrition, especially in underserved communities. And don’t forget where you first learned to exercise: gym class. These are powerful life lessons students and their parents can continue to benefit from. This is one way schools can continue to help mold positive behaviors for the future.

Use your imagination.

A key part of business risk management is scenario planning or war-gaming for what might occur. This allows you to think through possible events and have a plan before you experience them.

Routine school emergency planning accounts for weather and, unfortunately, safety against violence. Extending that practice to pandemic safety, including what to do as situations change within communities and schools, will take new skills and resources.

Look beyond your four walls…

That includes awareness of health trends and needs in the communities that surround each school, an arena where authoritative data from governments and universities blends with on-the-ground local knowledge to reveal the full picture. Nationally, we look at hot spots at the state level. But most states have varying degrees of impact at the local level, and that should guide their ultimate decisions. 

Schools also need to think about the dependencies that keep them open: You might have a plan to open and operate, but what about the vendors you rely on for daily operations? Can you replace critical sources or get out of contracts if you must? COVID has had a significant impact on all businesses. Schools need to have contingency plans for their suppliers to ensure unexpected events don’t shut down operations.

…But keep your own counsel in the end.

Each leadership team in each school knows its own local circumstances and its own community’s needs best. Each administrator, teacher and parent know his or her own risk tolerance. In buildings and in districts, schools are some of the most locally autonomous public institutions in America, and they can put that control to good use right now.

Acknowledge the limits of your responsibility.

A school has a responsibility to provide a safe environment, but it cannot assume the responsibility for each student’s and staff member’s decision-making on safety. What a school provides is a platform for their individual decisions. To ask anything more of a complex ecosystem would be unfair, so don’t be unfair to yourself.

Perfection is the enemy of progress even in easy times. During this crisis, a perfect solution isn’t possible. But it isn’t necessary, either. That’s because the right decision about returning to school varies not just by state, not just by district, but with each child, parent and each teacher.

The school’s job is not to eliminate every risk, but to identify and manage them so people have a reliable point of reference for the decisions they need to make themselves. Adopting business principles of risk management can be an effective way to approach that unfamiliar mandate and give the people they serve the best possible setting—not a perfect one—for what lies ahead.

Get your questions answered by experts in the causes and effects of injuries.

By Kevin Harried, Chief Risk and Compliance Officer at One Call

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