CEO Notebook

Jeff Shields

Jeffrey Shields, FASAE, CAE

President and CEO

Battling Back COVID

From Net Assets NOW, September 15, 2020. Read past issues of CEO Notebook.

Perhaps the most challenging school year on record has begun. Every independent school is taking on the tall order of providing the safest learning environment possible for students, faculty and staff while delivering on program value, community and connection.

Following spring’s deft navigations — emptying physical plants and pivoting to online learning — school leadership, business officers, facilities professionals, faculty and many, many others spent the dog days of summer developing complex plans to reopen with limited resources and ever-changing protocols.

Now, with a high degree of cautious optimism, schools are battling back the virus and others are taking notice. The Philadelphia Inquirer, for example, reports “At the elite Shipley school in Bryn Mawr, money is no object in coronavirus-reopening plans.” If you set aside the numerous over-the-top references to the school’s financial resources, you’ll find discussion of bold leadership from Shipley’s head of school pulling out all the stops to offer on-campus learning five days a week, if students and families choose to take advantage of it. A local news station in Florida reports, “Desks with new plexiglass partitions move into Calvary Christian Academy with a plan against coronavirus.” This practice is not irregular at independent schools these days. Nearly all of our schools are masking, social distancing and creating appropriate barriers for teachers and students to learn safely together.

And, it is not just getting media attention — in some communities, the demand for 5-day classroom learning is attracting new families to independent schools. In fact, according to a recent NBOA “pulse survey” conducted in August regarding the Business Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Independent Schools, school leaders appear to have more clarity around finances, budgeting and instructional approaches for the 2020-21 school year than they had in June. “This clearer vision has brought slightly more optimism in FY21 projections. For example, in June, 12% of schools were projecting an increase in enrollment. Now, 25% of schools are projecting an increase,” according to Elizabeth Dabney, NBOA’s director of research and data analysis. Therefore, in these cases, offsetting increased demand for financial aid from existing families and the investments in safety protocols.

Our schools have distinct advantages to counter this nefariously spreading virus: mission-driven leadership, small class sizes, flexibility, and the willingness and ability to spend necessary resources as well as follow the best guidance available. This is not to say independent schools are immune from cases or even outbreaks, and none of these decisions have been easy, but in the fog of this international crisis, we are observing early success.

While these differences have been key to independent school success, we should be aware of the challenges that higher education institutions are facing. Recently, I found myself in two separate conversations with business officers of independent schools — one at a New England boarding school and the other at a day school in the Rocky Mountains, who told similar stories. They expressed the measured “so far, so good” attitude indicative of business officer leaders while noting that their higher education neighbors are experiencing significant community spread. In one case, the spread is so problematic that it may lead the day school down the street to move to full-time online learning, despite diligent management of the virus, because it’s impossible to separate the day school population from the university population within the local community.

From where I sit, school leaders have risen to this challenge in a remarkable manner. They are leading their school missions and demonstrating their school’s unique value proposition under nearly impossible circumstances. While classroom size has presented challenges for our independent school business model, it allows us to better battle the virus — demonstrate agility and nimbleness, and from a practical standpoint, manage social distancing.

As both news articles point out, however, schools are spending the financial resources necessary to do what it takes to follow the guidance, be it on virus testing, makeshift outdoor classrooms, PPE or classroom barriers. This is not your typical back-to-school supply list. Whether it’s coming from reserves or accepting budget deficits, battling the virus requires significant financial commitment.

It’s critical that we make every dollar count, which means following the best, most impactful guidance available. And in my humble opinion, there is no better guidance currently available in a single resource than NBOA’s recently released publication, “Operating Guidance for Independent School Pandemic Management.” This comprehensive, yet easy-to-navigate field guide was designed specifically for independent school leadership to implement, track, assess and adjust the full range of campus activities, including communication, health screening, preventative measures, isolation and quarantine, cleaning and disinfection, ventilation and plumbing, academic instruction, physical fitness and athletics, dining services, student activities, childcare, campus residences, transportation and more. Its expert authors have drawn on scientific authorities as well as interviews with dozens of independent day and boarding schools to develop guidance that takes into account a range of school sizes, locations and populations while outlining good, better and best practices specific to independent schools. Special thanks to Fred C. Church Insurance for their generous financial support of this timely research and publication.

There have been few “all hands on deck” moments like our schools are experiencing today, but in case after case, schools are leveraging all their assets to keep the virus at bay, and for the moment, these efforts are signs of encouraging success.

Jeff Shields

Jeffrey Shields, FASAE, CAE
President and CEO

Jeff has been NBOA's president and CEO since March 2010. Prior to joining NBOA, he spent almost 10 years at the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO), serving most recently as senior vice president and chief planning officer. An active member of the American Society of Association Executives, Jeff earned the Certified Association Executive (CAE) designation in 2002 and was selected as an ASAE Fellow in 2008. He currently serves as a trustee for the One Schoolhouse, Inc., and previously served as a trustee for Georgetown Day School in Washington, D.C.


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New from NBOA: Effective Financial Governance for Independent School Trustees

A must-read for every board member and for every school administrator who interacts with the board, this new guide provides essential knowledge and guidance on the independent school business model, in terms that the finance committee and other board members can understand and apply.

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