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Coronavirus: 5 Steps Colleges & Independent Schools Should Take Now

Ari Betof
Ari Betof
Jan 28 · 5 min read
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) updated map of confirmed nCoV cases as of January 28, 2019

Step 1 — Don’t panic
Spread of coronavirus is a serious concern. So is the flu. Addressing concerns within a school’s community about coronavirus calls for an agile, Goldilocks approach. Not too little attention and planning. And, at least right now, not too much. The goal should be to find that “just right” zone on the planning continuum and stay there as the situation evolves over time.

Ideally, the organization’s Pandemic Crisis Plan (PCP) was integrated into the broader crisis response planning structure during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic. If so, you have a running start. If not, don’t reinvent the wheel. Call a few trusted peers, gather some examples, and refine from those starting points.

Step 2 — Update your school’s Pandemic Crisis Plan (PCP)
Many colleges and schools developed a Pandemic Crisis Plan (PCP) during the SARS outbreak in 2003 and again during the H1N1 Pandemic in 2009. How many of those senior leaders are still at the same organization? What fraction of those colleges and schools know today where those plans were kept? The answer to both questions is likely to be some but not enough. Ideally, the organization’s PCP was integrated into the broader crisis response planning structure. If so, you have a running start. If not, don’t reinvent the wheel. Call a few trusted peers, gather some examples, and refine from those starting points.

Step 3 — Use a tabletop exercise to identify holes in your PCP
I wrote last year about the value of tabletop exercises in promoting financial sustainability. The same technique applies for pandemic crisis planning. Ready.gov offers a starting point for conducting such an exercise and AlertMedia provides some additional information about tabletop exercises and walkthroughs.

Leaders are urged not to fool themselves into thinking that just talking through a PCP at a weekly leadership team meeting is the same as stress testing your plan. If you really want your college or school to be prepared, then the leadership team needs to commit to identifying the gaps in existing plans. A tabletop exercise is an efficient, low cost, and effective way to figure out areas of strength and where there are holes.

Reports should serve as notice to all educational leaders — regardless of whether they enroll international students — that we will be navigating a dynamic environment in the days ahead.

Step 4 — Stay informed and agile
Planning in 2009 for H1N1 was often much more detailed at colleges and boarding schools with international students in residential situations. There were certainly exceptions, but that bounding was likely wishful thinking. Even more colleges and schools have international students than in 2009. Many of those students at day schools are in homestays. Moreover, the timing of the emergence of coronavirus overlapping with the lunar new year increases the difficulty of containing exposure.

Coronavirus already offers a different magnitude of challenge.

One person associated with Arizona State University has a confirmed case of coronavirus after visiting Wuhan. News reports yesterday identified that a day school in Pennsylvania has a visiting student from China with a suspected case. Schools in Shanghai will remain closed until at least February 17. As of January 27, the CDC reported that they were monitoring 110 possible cases in 26 states.

These reports should serve as notice to all educational leaders — regardless of whether they enroll international students — that we will be navigating a dynamic environment in the days ahead.

The list of resources will change over time, but here are several good starting points:
· CDC: 019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV)
· WHO: Coronavirus
· NYTimes: Coronavirus Live Updates
· ACHA: Pandemic Planning and Emergency Response
· NAIS: Understanding Coronavirus

Many students, parents, and employees are already nervous about coronavirus. Communicating early and often will help reassure the educational community.

Step 5 — Communicate early and often with the school community
Many students, parents, and employees are already nervous about coronavirus. Communicating early and often will help reassure the educational community. In addition to a tabletop exercise, planning these communications will also help promote a robust PCP and test the communication tools that may be needed in the days, weeks, and months ahead.

Be sure to segment messaging by constituents. What do students and parents need to know? What do faculty need to know? How is that similar or different than the organization’s health care providers? How are admission offices communicating with applicants so close to enrollment decisions being offered?

A challenge and an opportunity for preparation
The threat of coronavirus might prove to be bounded like SARS and H1N1. Or it might not. Updating a PCP from 2009 would certainly be preferable to building one from scratch. Either way, now is the time. Winston Churchill is often credited for the phrase “never waste a good crisis.” Colleges and schools are finding themselves at such a moment. Leaders should refine and strengthen their crisis planning processes, especially as it relates to institutional memory and knowledge of such efforts. You might or might not need it today, but it is almost certain that the organization will need it sometime in the future.


About the Author

Ari Betof, President of Organizational Sustainability Consulting

Dr. Ari Betof is the founder and president of Organizational Sustainability Consulting.

Organizational Sustainability Consulting supports the efforts of leaders and board members at independent schools, colleges and universities, membership organizations, and other nonprofits. Ari’s consulting work draws upon considerable experience in nonprofit leadership and governance using a lens of mission-driven, data-informed decision making. He is a collaborative partner with demonstrated strengths in change leadership and group process. Ari combines broadly applicable nonprofit experience in areas such as governance, leadership development, fundraising, strategic planning, and branding with education-specific expertise in areas including enrollment management and integrated curricular design.

Org Sustainability — Insight and Advice for Leaders that Change the World by Ari Betof

Org Sustainability is a collection of insights, advice, and…

Ari Betof

Written by

Ari Betof

President of Organizational Sustainability Consulting

Org Sustainability — Insight and Advice for Leaders that Change the World by Ari Betof

Org Sustainability is a collection of insights, advice, and reflections from Dr. Ari Betof, president of Organizational Sustainability Consulting

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