A Conversation: 3 Heads Discuss Their Decision-Making Process Amid Coronavirus (COVID-19)

Life has changed dramatically for many people in the United States and around the world over the past few weeks as the coronavirus (COVID-19) situation has evolved. On Friday, I had a conversation with three heads of school to hear more about how they’re handling the crisis at their schools.
Ronnie Codrington-Cazeau is head of school at Evergreen School (WA), a K–8 school that’s just north of Seattle, where the first reported case of COVID-19 in the U.S. was reported. Crissy Cáceres is in her first year of headship at Brooklyn Friends School (NY), a Quaker pre-K–12 school. And Brent Bell is head of school at Darlington School (GA), a day and boarding school northwest of Atlanta.
In this edited conversation, they share their experiences and insights to help other school leaders through their decision-making process, as many schools are contemplating closures, travel, and the safety and well-being of their communities.
Donna Orem: What are the decisions you’ve had to make and what was your thought process? How did you come to making those decisions, and who else was involved?
Ronnie Codrington-Cazeau: Many heads of school were together at the NAIS Annual Conference in Philadelphia when we heard about the first reported case in Seattle. We had to make decisions very quickly, with many of us not even in our school communities when we made those decisions.
Seventy percent of our parents wanted us to stay open, and 30% wanted us to close. We had parents posting in neighborhood blogs, so a lot of communication was important on my part—I began to communicate “the why” of our decision to close the school. Getting them to trust school leadership and my decision was really important.
Remote learning from preschool through eighth grade requires us to think a little differently. It was a collaborative decision with my senior leadership team, because they worked to get all of our faculty trained.
Crissy Cáceres: When I returned from the conference, I convened what I called the Brooklyn Friends School (BFS) COVID-19 Response Team, which included key members of the leadership team. They had designated responsibilities: The divisional leaders were responsible for remote learning possibilities and communication plans; advancement liaised between the school and families; the assistant head for operations was thinking about considerations for various teams; the CFO and I were proactively considering questions about tuition, lost trip payments, spring camps, instruction, and more that would arise.
The suspicion of a possible COVID-19 association between one of our colleagues and someone outside of our community spurred the proactive timeline that we’d come up with in the event of a closure. I wrote the communication to families and colleagues, and designing the Virtual BFS platform, a portal for online learning, became a priority.
All of the New York City heads of school supported by NYSAIS also began to compile our communications, our timelines, our remote learning plans, our websites in such a way that we could be taking from one another in order to meet the needs of our communities, because in New York City, 24 hours ago is a totally different reality than when I woke up this morning. I am thankful to them.
Orem: Were your parents supportive? Do you think being a Quaker school helped you in getting everybody onboard?
Cáceres: I wanted to be consistent and honest with families. A parent who works in risk management wrote me and said, “In risk, the decision made will never be proven as the right decision. In that moment, you have to lean on what the possible negative impact of not acting could be. And as such, I just want to thank you because you erred on the side of the unknown in order to protect the community.” I have held onto that statement because we can't afford to make the wrong decision.
Our job is to err on the side of what would protect the greater good in the event of the unexpected. And that’s what we’ve been called to do. Given the spectrum of emotions and challenges this all brings, families have been very understanding, particularly as the news has unfolded.
Orem: Brent, you had some extra considerations as a boarding school. What was your thought process?
Brent Bell: We’ve been engaged in the COVID-19 situation all of this semester because of our Chinese students in particular. We began communicating about the virus as early as January to mitigate local concerns about students returning from home over the holidays. That went well, and we had a unified community.
The first and most significant decision was made to allow our Asian students to be able to stay for spring break, which is usually not the case. We worked on programming and tried to create an atmosphere that felt as much like home as possible. We hired a Chinese chef from New Jersey, and he’s lived here for the week. That’s been huge for those students.
We made the decision not to cancel school trips. Our director did an amazing job getting those kids home from Europe last week. They’re monitoring and self-quarantining now; we thought we were going to get through spring break, but we didn’t quite make it there. We’re extending break so that we could be ready for the distance learning and that has really been an emphasis for us over the course of this week—thinking about our different constituencies, the 4-year-olds whose grandma and grandpa pick them up from school every day, to kids who live in 25 different countries and are here for the experience. What does distance learning mean for academic programs? Our most challenging communication dynamic is trying to figure out what things are on people’s minds without telling them what’s on their mind––except for the most important information that they need to know to keep themselves safe and healthy.
When it became clear that someone in our surrounding community likely had the virus, it was a huge factor in our decision-making; could we serve our community in the way that we were being asked by the CDC? We have strategies that we have used for limiting the flu from spreading through an entire dorm, but in this case, the recommended strategy is advising us to remove each individual from that environment and remove anyone who might have been exposed to that individual from the environment. That’s a very, very daunting place to be as a boarding community or as a college campus. We watch our local day schools and public schools, and we don’t have a lot of close neighbors in the independent school world that are like us.
Cáceres: You talk about the factors in the decision-making process—the minute that it was announced that people should limit their use of public transportation in New York City, that shifted everything. From a Quaker school context, much of our language and reflection has been around equity because we recognize that we have the ability to make a decision that so many of our public and charter school counterparts are not capable of making unless the mayor says we’re closing. Our mission is focused on pillars of justice, equity, and inclusivity; this uncharted moment makes it quite challenging, yet essential, to consider the ways in which we will steward and support one another. There’s a psychological complexity to all of this based on the access to choice-making and resources that we have as independent schools that many of our educator counterparts may not.
Orem: I think that’s true. We were aware of this, but it’s really exposing the lack of infrastructure in the U.S. to support families of all kinds. And some jurisdictions are getting better now about saying how are we going to help kids who won't have access to meals, or parents who must go to their jobs and can't take care of their children. It’s a very tough situation and hopefully something that we will have more of a national dialogue about. Could you each say a few words about your students’ reactions?
Codrington-Cazeau: It was a mixed bag; part of our eighth grade graduation process is a month in another country. This year students were scheduled to go to Vietnam, and early on, we heard of the spread of COVID-19 in Asia and moved the trip to Peru. Now they won't be able to go at all. They’re calling themselves “the class who couldn’t.” The rest of our middle school students were really excited; they all thought they were going to sleep late, and when we told them we were sticking to the school schedule, that shut down their excitement a little bit. And our youngest students miss each other.
Cáceres: There are some concrete pieces affecting the student’s academic future that’s placing undue anxiety on top of what’s already existing. For the high schoolers, particularly the 10th and 11th graders who are International Baccalaureate (IB) students, we don’t have any options for online learning that will allow for credit unless IB agrees to do it worldwide. For our middle schoolers, this has really been an opportunity to engage them in technology, which they mostly feel comfortable with. We’re finding that sometimes, they are providing tips for their teachers. It’s been an interesting interface between the adult and the children who say, “You’ve got this.”
The most beautiful moments are the moments when the human connection is fully present, even through virtual contact. For example, there have been teachers doing read-alouds in their living room. We had a teacher who set up a bunch of stuffies on her living room floor and she sang the daily classroom “goodbye song” with the stuffies. There was a teacher with a guitar playing a song, and a mother wrote in and said, “We played that all over the house and now we all know the song.” The community element of our experience amid this challenge is going to be one of the most important parts of our work. I am thankful to all who have been working hard within and on behalf of school communities to ensure that we can provide the most meaningful experiences possible for all.
Bell: Students are wondering what their graduation will look like. Major events are getting canceled, and an international boarding student is encouraged not to return in the short term. Because we’re on spring break, it’s probably disbelief.
One of the funny things was within 10 minutes of our first communication about school closure, one of our parents asked our first grade teacher to come teach at their home, and when that teacher declined citing my expectations for the next week, they went on to ask our second grade teacher. So the good news of the 70% wanting to stay open is that students and families in our schools want to be in our schools.
Orem: As you were making the decisions to cancel trips or to close schools, were your board and leadership teams involved and all of one mind?
Codrington-Cazeau:  My board chair has been my partner through a lot of this. Early on, we decided we’d communicate as often as needed. My executive council surrounded me with all of their expertise—a medical expert, a public health expert—and they have really jumped in with support.
When I sent out my first announcement about school closure—we were one of the first elementary schools to close—my board chair got a flurry of emails. The parents wanted to know if he was aware and “what’s happening to the school?” and “where is the sense of community?” And it was really great because he replied in my voice, and people knew we were working together from the very beginning.
Cáceres: In my case, I kept families informed at the moment that I knew we were going to have to close. As emails started coming from families, I triaged, placing them into multiple categories and created talking points for the entire leadership so that they could respond efficiently.
I also shared all communication with the board so they could comfortably respond to questions directed to them. They have been a terrific support. As schools, we have the potential for anxiety that goes beyond what we’re considering right now, and it is important to keep in mind that there are things from a fiduciary and governance perspective that may need to be talked about in the weeks ahead.
Orem: That’s great work for the board. They should be really thinking about the future thrivability of the school because I think this is going to have a lot of tentacles to it.
Bell:  Absolutely. My board chair said, “Let me take communication with the board off of your platter, and let me be the liaison and let them know you and I are in step on this.”
Orem: What’s a piece of advice you might give to your peers, a key learning?
Codrington-Cazeau:  You can't do this by yourself. It’s important to have a strong team at your school—and if you don’t have an emergency team already in place, get one with key people in different areas who can help inform your decision. Also, build strong relationships with the other heads in your area. My high school head of school colleagues in town have been so supportive and helpful, and they can really help inform your decision.
Cáceres:  I’ll just add to that. It is important for us to remember the humanity in our care, to remember the smiles, the personalities, the characters, the people that influence our decision-making. We are blessed to have perspective in a way that not all of the world gets to have, because children are depending on us to get through this in a way that is healthy and allows them to continue growing joyfully. Leaning on the perspective we get to grasp tangibly every day is a reminder that I would give to my peers. We are going to be flooded from time to time with decisions, and not forgetting the humanity at the center of those decisions is what’s most important.
Bell: A few things that people have shared with me: When you’re communicating with all of those unknowns moving toward us, how you respond and how you present your responses and your decision-making—framing a crisis—is important as people are looking at your institution.
Also, I’ve found it really helpful to have someone outside of the education world as a sounding board. Someone who is looking at this from maybe the perspective of a small business owner or a CEO or CFO of a corporation. And finally, trust the experts.
Orem: I’m sure your communities are going to feel like they got through this very much because of your leadership, so thank you all for that. 

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Donna Orem

Donna Orem is a former president of NAIS.