Updated: Jun 24, 2021
On April 1, Inside Higher Ed published Preparing (Quietly) for a Fall Without In-Person Classes. Adhering to the general prohibition against pranks during our humorless times, the piece was no April Fools joke. Whereas many independent schools have cast forward onto their calendars little crumbs of hope with late April "reconsider" dates, most American colleges and universities have long since canceled in-person programming for the remainder of the spring semester, and many are canceling their summer semesters. Now, as the writer, Doug Lederman, details, they're planning for the possibility that some or all of the fall semester might be delivered from afar.
I've been thinking a lot about the piece particularly in light of an earlier Insider Higher Ed piece, Will the Shift to Remote Teaching Be Boon or Bane for Online Learning? In this article, also written by Lederman, the writer asks a panel of experts the title question. Jonathan Zimmerman, Professor of History of Education at Penn, gets the last words, which have been ringing in my ears until the April 1 piece built them into a gong-blast. Zimmerman reflects on Penn becoming the first Ivy to offer a fully online undergraduate program: "Online education … was barely noticed by our regular students, who get their education the old-fashioned way: in the classroom. Now, for the first time, they won’t. They’re going to be thrown into the same big pot as everyone else. An intervention designed to serve the masses is now going to be foisted on the (upper) classes. This isn’t just an experiment in education. It’s a test of our democracy, too."
Because independent schools have built their well-earned reputations on the same academic and social intimacy that selective colleges have, the possibility that the 2020 - 2021 school year might begin remotely should be at the center of independent school leaders' conversations now. Why?
Most families are understanding and appreciative of your school's current, hurried programmatic efforts. They'll have a much higher set of expectations in the fall after they've made even deeper financial sacrifices and run out of patience helping their children navigate cranky online interfaces.
Student and faculty families will be desperate--financially, emotionally--for the role school plays in childcare for younger children and structure for everyone. Schools will need to be poised to provide even the most diminished version of this support as soon as it becomes viable.
School families will expect a significant tuition discount for any portion of the year that is not in-person, an enormous financial burden for even the largest independent schools.
The opacity of the online learning experience will make it difficult for school families with a well-funded public option to distinguish the difference between Your-School-Program-Online and the neighborhood public school's, and because many indy schools are no more proficient at this work than their public counterparts, and because the remote experience saps so much of the intimacy that distinguishes our communities, they'll mostly be right in thinking that the academic value propositions have drawn much closer to even.
What should independent school leaders be doing?
Make a proactive offer of financial support to school families before the current school year is over and plan for other measures as the horizon for the beginning of the 2020 - 2021 school year becomes clearer. One indy school in the Midwest recently gave parents a $2K credit on each contract for next year, bought tuition insurance for each contract, and absorbed finance fees for families paying tuition across the year, an expensive proposition to be sure, but before you anticipate the first scoff in the Finance Committee, ask yourself the question, can you afford NOT to take these kinds of measures.
Build a list of programmatic, pedagogical gleanings from your faculty and staff this spring and funnel that into concrete professional development for all faculty this summer. Identify a group of programmatic leaders who have the expertise and emotional bandwidth to lead these efforts and communicate to faculty that you'll be asking for a very different kind of engagement from them this summer.
Construct a communication plan that coordinates the broadest to the most family-specific messages to insure that the school's messaging efforts are consistent and that every school family has personal contact with school leaders and the school people who are closest to them.
It is our contention at Knuckleball Consulting that continued efforts in community building, concrete and personal, are the most important way that independent schools will distinguish themselves during the COVID pandemic. We believe that even though independent schools must work very hard this summer to transfer the excellence you promise in teaching and learning to remote tools, this is not online learning's "moment." Teachers and students will have found remote strategies that will enhance learning once we're all back together, and schools will be better prepared for a next crisis, but as Professor Zimmerman notes, families who've chosen elite colleges and independent schools had very little appetite for remote learning before the crisis, and their forced march through the experience and its association with all of the other challenges of the crisis will make them even more committed to communal, place-based learning.