Board Clarity—Leading Through the COVID-19 Pandemic

Board Clarity—Leading Through the COVID-19 Pandemic
Board Clarity—Leading Through the COVID-19 Pandemic

Board of Trustees

This week we’re sharing three articles about School Heads, Trustees, and campus reopening. Read the other two articles on School Head leadership and barriers that impact crisis-driven decision-making.


The COVID-19 pandemic has created unprecedented challenges for independent schools. The urgent, overwhelming, and ever-changing nature of the COVID-19 pandemic is causing Boards to consider operational issues typically reserved for the School Head and Leadership Team.

The most pressing concern, reopening the facility, is such an issue. It is vital that Boards and School Heads work together to make the right decisions.

Reopening the Building

For most schools, closing in March was a straightforward decision, ultimately made by Governors across the country issuing stay-at-home orders. As schools consider resuming in-person learning, the decision may not be as clear-cut.

With significant liability concerns associated with COVID-19 decisions, it becomes necessary for the Board to stand with the School Head. The Board must not only offer moral support but also understand the complex issues impacting day-to-day scenarios to help mitigate negative consequences.

The decision to reopen buildings and return to in-person learning requires a Board resolution. Some Heads may argue that reopening is an operational decision. While we agree, we also point out that this is an extraordinarily complex operational decision with liability implications. It is, therefore, inappropriate for a Head to treat this as a unilateral decision.

Strategies for Effective Boards

Consider and reaffirm the following before the Board considers a reopening resolution.

  1. The Board is a strategic, nonoperational body. It is the job of the Board to focus on the long-term impact of decisions. However, in emergency situations, it is prudent that the Board support the School Head, offering operational support. It is essential to acknowledge that making an operational decision is the exception to the Board's standard practice and that the Board is not becoming an operational entity, nor has the Board lost confidence in the Head's ability to lead the school in all matters.
  2. Boards must speak with one voice. As the Board considers reopening decisions and strategies, it is critical that the public voice of the Board, over this and all decisions, is reserved for the School Head and the Board Chair. No Trustees should discuss reopening plans or give details about Board deliberation to parents, teachers, or community members. When outside the boardroom, members should refrain from discussing Board matters unless they are in a confidential setting.
  3. Individual Trustees have no power, except when the Board is in a called meeting. Then, and only then, do Board members have authority. Board authority is a collective one, never an individual one. It is never appropriate for a Board member to use his or her position to influence a private or public conversation. A Trustee should also never mention this role during a conversation with a teacher. The Board's single most crucial task is to make decisions that will protect the long-term sustainability of the school as a group.
  4. Deliberation is OK. Board deliberation is a normal process. In a Board meeting, behind closed doors, members should feel free to debate topics vigorously. All members should have an opportunity to voice their concerns, ideas, and opinions. However, once the question has been called, and the Board has decided by a majority vote, every Trustee must support the decision—whether they supported it in the deliberation and voting process or not.
  5. Make sure to route community conversations to the School Head. If a Board member is contacted by a parent, teacher, or community member to inquire or voice an opinion about a school matter, advise that person to contact the School Head. The Trustee can say, "Our Board focuses only on the long-term strategic impact of issues and decisions. We have determined that the best way to manage our community is for all issues to be addressed through the School Head.” The Board member should politely and quickly end the conversation to protect the Board process. (Of course, this does not include a whistleblower alert. A whistleblower policy, required by the IRS, encourages staff and volunteers to come forward with credible information on illegal practices or violations of adopted policies of the organization. It specifies that the organization will protect the individual from retaliation and identify those staff or Trustees or outside parties to whom such information can be reported.)
  6. Remember the optimal Board structure. Each Trustee must also recognize that the Board has one employee—the School Head, who is an ex officio member of the Board. The Head does not work for individual Board members, and his or her performance feedback and evaluation process is reserved for the Head Support and Evaluation Committee (HSEC). If a Trustee has a concern about the School Head, it should be communicated only to the Chair of the HSEC.

Considerations Before Reopening Your School Campus

As in any Board decision, gathering facts is the critical initial step in the decision-making process. Before the Board decides to reopen the building, consider the following:

  1. Operate based on facts. As much as COVID-19 has been politicized, avoid politics in the decision-making process. Commit to gathering facts that are verifiable through trusted scientific and medical groups, and consider state, federal, and local guidelines, too.
  2. Prioritize supporting your School Head. This is an unusually stressful time for everyone. Leaders of organizations especially have many stressors. Not only does the School Head carry the family and personal stress of COVID-19, but he or she also carries, to a significant extent, stress for students, families, faculty, and staff. There is no one at the school with whom the Head can share many of these concerns. Make sure that the Head Support and Evaluation Committee is aware of the Head's mental and physical well-being. Help your Head locate personal and professional support and make sure the school provides the funds necessary to cover the expense of this outside counseling. Protecting your Head will better serve your faculty, staff, students, and families, and can be an essential part of safeguarding your value proposition.
  3. Assess your tolerance level. Understand and discuss that reopening buildings for in-person instruction carries health risks for students, teachers, administrators, and their families. Further, acknowledge that there is conflicting thinking on the short- and long-term effects of COVID-19 in children. Therefore, the Board should first determine an acceptable risk-level for the school for day-to-day operations. Determine if the Board is risk-averse, moderately risk-averse, or risk-tolerant. Understanding and agreeing upon an agreeable risk tolerance level will help guide your complex decision over re-opening the facility.
  4. Consider expertise. Review findings from the various experts that are important to the reopening decision—medical, legal, facility, operational, etc. If the school or Board lacks expertise in any critical area necessary to consider fully all aspects of reopening, add that expertise into the conversation. This may require hiring consultants, physicians, lawyers, etc.
  5. Think through all scenarios. Going through “what if” scenarios can help a Board understand the potential outcomes of decisions. For example—what if one teacher becomes ill with COVID-19? What if 20 teachers become ill? What if one student dies from COVID-19? How about four students? Thinking through “what-if” scenarios can help the Board test their risk tolerance, making sure that your Board is certain about their decision to reopen the building.

One of the most critical decisions facing schools is whether to reopen the building for in-person learning, continue classes virtually, or a hybrid approach. Reopening the building is a Board decision, and the School Head must be a significant part of making this decision. Consider your operation and how you can best protect your students and faculty when making this difficult decision.

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