Summer of Love (and Money)
With remote services underway, independent school leaders are turning their focus to the hazy horizon of the 2020 - 2021 school year. The only certainty is that this summer will be like no other in anyone's living memory. This summer will foremost serve as a respite from the hard push that the school community made to end the current school year. Conversely, this summer will also require an enormous amount of work as schools must continue to provide deep connection and care for the entire school community. And, of course, school leaders must prepare for the evolving objective realities of the next school year and create a careful communication plan that balances transparency with the dangers of creating false expectations and the rapidly evolving circumstances of the COVID crisis.
As you begin planning for the summer, consider these guiding thoughts:
Schedule a revised set of meetings of the Finance Committee to extend through the summer. Include the Director of Enrollment. Make an explicit reminder of confidentiality--a blood oath is only a slight exaggeration as some worst case scenarios will be disturbing at face value and alarming when passed through the telephone game.
Flesh out budget revisions in several enrollment scenarios. Choosing these will be dependent on your market (particularly those with high-quality public options), the relative selectivity of your school, the socio-economic/occupational makeup of your parent body, and the on-going feedback you're getting from families on your school's remote learning and community support efforts. All of which is to say that this will be much more art than science. We think every school should plan for a scenario in which the 2020 - 2021 school year begins with remote learning, as we believe even the most prestigious independent schools and colleges will lose significant enrollment in this instance, with large numbers of new and continuing parents challenging contracts. Some schools will have to confront their dissolution.
Financial aid: Prepare to provide more student aid. Ideally, you have institutional memory from 2008 - 2009, especially in how you responded to aid applications from families with substantial illiquid assets but a crash in cash flow, and how you corrected for those difficult years in your multi-year financial sustainability models.
Include the impact of loss of auxiliary revenue.
Plan for costs of additional cleaning, including over the summer if restrictions are lifted.
Review enrollment and employment contracts, endowment restrictions, bond covenants and other debt obligations. Use outside legal counsel.
Consider a two-tuition rate scenario (remote and in-person) in the instance of 2020 - 2021 starting remotely.
A key learning from the impact of Hurricane Katrina: although excruciating at the outset, a one-time reduction in force in school re-sizing has a smaller cultural impact than the daily communal dread of incremental lay-offs.
Research your major gifts lists for donors who've demonstrated interest in supporting student aid. If this possibility exists, move forward on these conversations as soon as you have revised financial aid projections.
Community Support: Retention
Provide some optional, responsive educational programming for students, and robust social/emotional support for the entire school community throughout the summer. Compensate 9-month employees for these efforts, or if that's not feasible, assemble a super-group of faculty whose resiliency and life circumstances make it possible. Engage all year-round employees in this work with the Director of Enrollment and Division Directors in the lead.
Communicate a calendar for scaffolded decision-making that anticipates the changing realities of the crisis, and build messaging plans around these dates--including with faculty and staff about potential reduction in force.
Review your tutoring policy and provide a reminder to faculty. This might seem like a comparatively small matter, but we foresee the potential for a distracting, mission-eroding equity conflict among faculty and school families if cottage-industry goes Wild West as it did across many industries post-Katrina. Providing optional, responsive academic programming through the summer will also mitigate this conflict.
From the broadest messaging to the personalized, all of this communication must be coordinated to insure consistency. It must also anticipate that the impact of the crisis will change person-by-person and over time. The messaging should build momentum through the summer by reassuring families that kids will get what they need individually, academically, socially, emotionally when they return in the fall, that institutional compassion has always been a hallmark of our schools, that you have planned for the additional depth of needs when families return to campus.