Scenario Planning at Home During the Pandemic

Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of scenario planning without realizing that I was doing it. The other night, in a fit of insomnia caused by anxiety about sending my almost 5-year-old to kindergarten for the first time, it dawned on me that I was working through the steps of scenario planning that Allison Layland and I put together for the National Comprehensive Center.

I have all the normal mama emotions of sending your eldest off to school for the first time, that are then combined with the spread of the Delta variant (even in highly vaccinated Connecticut); the need to adjust to a whole new schedule balancing public school bus pick-ups, drop-offs, holiday and early dismissal days (there are so many of them!), juggling after-care providers; a 20-month-old transitioning to a new class at his part-time daycare; the realities of managing our household; and attempting to work and manage my business on top of all of this.

I started spiraling – What do we do if (i.e. when) one of the boys has a close/direct contact and has to quarantine? What do we do if our vaccines aren’t strong enough and we (as the adults) get sick and still have to take care of the boys? What do we do if there’s a lockdown again? What do we do if both boys are quarantined at the same time? What do we do if we get sick and it spreads throughout our house for weeks and neither kid can go to daycare/school during that time? What if one of us gets seriously ill? Will the vaccines protect others enough to allow us to safely bring in someone else to help if any of us are sick? This might be called spiraling in an insomniac’s world, but it’s also known as Step 3 – Identify critical uncertainties.

I then shifted into Step 4 (develop a range of plausible scenarios) and Step 5 (discuss trade-offs and implications). In the first shutdown, I had a colicky refluxy non-sleeping 3-month-old and an energetic 3.5-year-old home for 5 months, while my husband and I in our sleep-deprived states trudged through each day (and night) while attempting to work (full-time for him, part-time for me). Lesson learned – if it happens again, we will work to find someone who could move in with us and ride out a shutdown storm with us and provide childcare. Relief – I have a potential solution for one of the worst-case scenarios. I can go to sleep.

A few days later, we get the call that one of the boys has had a close contact with a positive staff member and both boys can’t attend school for several days. Unfortunately, there aren’t many plausible scenarios in this situation. Step 6 – Create a strategy and action plan – I give up almost all of my work time this week, my husband covers me for one important presentation, we cross our fingers that they both test negative (they did), I try not to go down the rabbit hole of the implications of what happens if one of them is positive, and I try to make the best of it with a few socially distanced outdoor or at-home projects and adventures.

Step 7 – Monitor, reflect, and revisit with new data – At times, there have been nice moments, laughter, beauty, and hugs. At other times, sanity and patience are questionable. Key data points to analyze by the end of a quarantine:

  • The number of Wild Kratts, Octonauts and Sesame Street episodes viewed
  • The number of snacks provided
  • The number of times the freezer boo-boo pack is utilized
  • The number of times any of us cried (me included)
  • The number of smiles, tickles, hugs, and laughs

My conclusion – scenario planning is not just something that schools and businesses are doing throughout the ever-changing world that is COVID-19. I say all of this recognizing my place of privilege – a steady income from my spouse, a flexible job as a business owner that allows me to stop working when needed (just without the income), a home, our basic needs being met, the availability and access to vaccines and diagnostic testing, and that we live in a highly vaccinated area. Even with all that privilege, it’s freaking hard and sometimes feels impossible. Families, and most often (but not exclusively), moms are bearing the mental and actual burdens of developing the scenarios and implementing whichever course of action is most plausible or is the only option. Unfortunately, scenario planning and rapidly adjusting expectations and realities will continue with us until the pandemic can get under control.

To all the fellow parents out there, especially working parents – hats off to you. This is parenting on steroids and without all the social and community supports that many of us have come to depend on to raise healthy strong kids. In the meantime – just get through till bedtime (so you can start your work day).

An aside and useful read – Parents are Not Okay, The Atlantic


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New publication – Using Learning Recovery funds as a catalyst to reform procurement practices

Far too often, procurement offices are seen as merely a procedural administrative function in education systems. But, the work of procurement offices impact almost every aspect of programming and operations throughout a school district. A poorly written RFP or a poorly managed RFP process might not result in the most qualified and most effective vendors responding to the RFP or being awarded a contract. Additionally, not following through and monitoring the outcomes of that contract and partnership is also a glaring hole in the education space. Districts (and state education agencies) can use the huge influx of federal dollars (much of which will go to external vendors) to change what their procurement processes look like and how they impact academic and operational outcomes. For more specific steps and strategies that districts and states can take to reform procurement practices, check out this new publication that my colleague Bi Vuong and I just developed for the National Comprehensive Center: Promising Procurement Practices to Maximize Learning Recovery: Increasing the Effectiveness of External Vendor Contracting to Provide Services.

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Reaching families where they are

I had the pleasure of presenting to and facilitating a discussion with Special Education Directors from Mississippi yesterday. While we discussed ways that COVID-19 has altered their work, we touched on the positives and practices that they hope can be retained in the post-pandemic world (increased 1:1 technology, scenario planning for individual students, ability to hold IEP meetings virtually as an option, etc). We also discussed the barriers that schools, districts, and the families they serve are experiencing. When prompted for an example, a Director noted that with the high rates of unemployment and loss of wage assistance benefits, his families are struggling to get food on the table and afford basic necessities. As a result, gas for the car is a luxury and the families struggle to get to the school or district buildings to sign legal forms needed for their children to receive supports. Once aware of this need, staff started going out to the families at their homes to obtain signatures. While a seemingly small step, this is the type of practice that enables students to receive the supports they need as quickly as possible, while also providing a moment of much needed human interaction between school staff and families. To combat absenteeism, we’ve seen the increase of home visits in districts small and large as well. In lieu of regular and frequent interaction at the school building, meeting students and families where they are is necessary and provides immediate and longer-term benefits.

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Training Bias Requires Comprehensive Approach

As many who implement trainings in the field would guess, research has found that removing teacher bias is not an easy or quick fix in our schools. A recent summary of the research from EdWeek writes:

“Several large-scale analyses of research on implicit-bias training suggest it more often changes short-term knowledge about the vocabulary of diversity than long-term changes in behavior. Several specific common strategies—such as thinking positive thoughts about stereotyped groups, meditating or making decisions more “slowly” to avoid stereotypes, or simply being aware of the possibility of implicit biases while making decisions—have all so far failed to show benefits that last even a day or two.

In some cases, diversity and anti-bias training can paradoxically lead to more stereotyping, if participants come to think of biases as common and uncontrollable, and can lead white participants to feel threatened without yielding benefits for participants of color. Rather, evidence suggests staff training can be helpful, but only as part of a comprehensive strategy that includes identifying specific problems and strategies to address structures that perpetuate bias in a school system.” (Sarah Sparks, Nov. 17, 2020)

Implementing broad mind shifts requires extensive and ongoing work, not only at the school and classroom level, but throughout the district, to the state, and even to other agencies and organizations that collaborate or connect to schools and the students.

While some districts may be tempted to “check the box” and hold a 1 or 2 hour professional development series on bias or equity, it is not enough to reverse decades of beliefs as well as institutionalized policies and practices. Truly addressing bias in the education system requires a coordinated effort of intensive professional development (especially those which target discrete skills (i.e. classroom management techniques, self-regulation, increasing empathy), creating a safe environment to allow uncomfortable conversations and self-realizations, implementation of regular monitoring of indicators tied to the desired behaviors/ changes/ actions, and review and revision of broader systemic policies and practices (such as disciplinary practices, intervention referrals, advanced coursework eligibility processes, etc).

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New Resource! Tools for Success in Disruptions: Immediate Recovery and an Opportunity for Change

For the last 6 months, I’ve been part of the National Comprehensive Center’s Systemic Technical Assistance Team (STAT) and tasked with supporting education agencies (SEAs, LEAs, etc) successfully meet the needs of students and educators during significant disruptions (such as COVID-19). We just released a number of resources, described in more detail below. Not only do I hope that these resources are useful to practitioners in the field who are doing the hard work of figuring out how to safely educate students across the country, I also recognize that working on this collection (in particular the overview guide, Tools for Success in Disruptions: Immediate Recovery and an Opportunity for Change) has been one of the most challenging projects in my professional life. My colleagues have been, and continue to be, incredibly supportive as I’ve bounced a baby to sleep, nursed, shoved teething toy after teething toy into a mouth, and managed both a 3.5 year old and an infant (now 10 months!) through our conference calls and team meetings. I did much of this work during precious rest/nap times and in the evenings sitting on the stairs, while patrolling the toddler’s millionth bedtime aversion tactic, and precious hours when my husband took time off so I could get a few hours on the clock. While challenging, it was great to get my hands and brain into a project that I hope adds value to the field during this current crisis, and future disruptions to come. Kudos to all the working parents out there trying to figure out how to maintain careers while parenting in this crazy time. 

Now for the real purpose of the email – getting folks to use the resources! Education disruptions can be short or long, can be planned for, or can catch us off guard. As education leaders across the country grapple with how to get students and staff back in traditional or remote classrooms due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we also have the opportunity to build an education system that better meets the needs of students post-disruption. Tools for Success in Disruptions: Immediate Recovery and an Opportunity for Change guide walks state and district education leaders through a variety of operational, systemic, and teaching & learning topics and provides discussion questions that can be considered during and post a disruption. The questions are designed to probe thinking and identify current and future needs. Additional resources and tools are highlighted that users can dig into for more information and support. A disruption can create a new host of issues and problems to work through, while also creating an opportunity to build a better system for students in the future. 

The rest of the collection that I’ve highlighted in the last week on the blog includes: 


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New Resource: Better Together: A Coordinated Response for Principals and District Leaders

Here’s the fourth document in a collection of resources that the National Comprehensive Center’s Systemic Technical Assistance Team (STAT) developed to support education agencies (SEAs, LEAs, etc) successfully meet the needs of students and educators during significant disruptions (such as COVID-19). This brief, Better Together: A Coordinated Response for Principals and District Leaders, highlights the important role that principals play in operating school buildings every day (with even more responsibilities during a disruption), and how districts can support them do that job.

Districts often discuss the social emotional learning (SEL) needs of their students, but it’s also important to assess the social emotional needs of staff – including building principals. These leaders are managing a school, supporting their staff and students, calming parent/family fears, while also coping with COVID’s impact on their personal lives. Regular one-on-one check-ins and peer networks, and the effective use of a district crisis response team (to lessen the overall burden on individual principals), can be effective tools in supporting principals. In addition, student SEL needs must be addressed to enable students to begin tackling academics again, especially in hard hit communities where students have experienced family loss due to illness or increased trauma during the disruption. The bottom line is that coordinated support for the leaders as everyone figures out how to operate in this new and constantly evolving environment.

There are a few pieces to this collection coming. I’ll post when they are released!

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New Resource: After Action Review Guide

Here’s the third document in a collection of resources that the National Comprehensive Center’s Systemic Technical Assistance Team (STAT) developed to support education agencies (SEAs, LEAs, etc) successfully meet the needs of students and educators during significant disruptions (such as COVID-19). The After Action Review Guide describes the important, but often neglected, process of monitoring, reflecting, and making mid-course corrections. An After Action Review (AAR) is easy in concept – a conversation about what went well, what didn’t go well, and what can be done to get better – but this “simple” conversation is often filled with organizational silos, blaming, scapegoating, personality conflicts, and emotions. A strongly facilitated AAR focuses on the process and the systems, not the people. An AAR helps an organization and a team get stronger.

Right now, school systems (from school buildings up to the state) are barely treading water with figuring out how to keep schools running. But, in a few short weeks, it would be the perfect time to sit back and bring a team together to reflect on the “Return to School” process – what went well, what didn’t go well, and what can be done to improve. Holding an AAR in mid to late October allows a team to make mid-course corrections and start off the next semester with improved systems and structures to operate even more effectively.

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New Resource: Strategic Budgeting: Using Evidence to Mitigate the “COVID Slide” and Move Towards Improvement

Here’s the second document in a collection of resources that the National Comprehensive Center’s Systemic Technical Assistance Team (STAT) developed to support education agencies (SEAs, LEAs, etc) successfully meet the needs of students and educators during significant disruptions (such as COVID-19). In Strategic Budgeting: Using Evidence to Mitigate the “COVID Slide” and Move Towards Improvement, my colleague Bi Vuong examines the impact of school disruptions on student learning, increased learning loss for our most vulnerable students, and the realities of impending budget shortfalls in districts and states across the country. The strategic budgeting process is presented and details ways that budgets may be shifted to better meet the needs of students and their needs (i.e. fixed or mandatory vs variable or discretionary expenses), while acknowledging that student needs must be assessed to figure out which expenses are needed. In addition, strategies to strategically allocate resources by determining impact, and then ways to make trade-off decisions are provided. Finally, the tool encourages aligning resources – from normal operating budgets and any additional disruption-related funding to make the most effective use out of all available dollars. As districts and cities begin their annual budget cycles this Fall, this work is particularly important to ensure that maximum impact is achieved while adverse consequences are limited.

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New resource: Return to School – A Toolkit for Principals

Here’s the first document in a collection of resources that the National Comprehensive Center’s Systemic Technical Assistance Team (STAT) developed to support education agencies (SEAs, LEAs, etc) successfully meet the needs of students and educators during significant disruptions (such as COVID-19). While many school districts are back in action and offering in person, virtual, or a hybrid learning, other districts will fluctuate between the models depending upon local infection rates and cases. Returning to School: A Toolkit for Principals, In the Classroom, at Home or Both is organized around four primary sections: change, communication, collaboration, and care. The sections delve into school and classroom level practices, structures, and systems that support both staff and students (and their families). As learning modes will likely shift throughout the 2020-21 school year, it is important to continually reflect on current practices and how to best serve students and staff as we all function within the constraints of the pandemic.

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New publication – Developing More Rigorous Options to Transform Outcomes for Kids

This recently released publication, Developing More Rigorous Options to Transform Outcomes for Kids, that Corbett Education Consulting created for the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) examines a variety of options for state education agencies to consider as they develop and implement the More Rigorous Options (MROs) provision of ESSA. State examples and practical suggestions are provided for MROs including: additional state supports, innovation schools and managed partnerships, charter conversions, extraordinary authority districts, receiverships, and closure. Survey results, interviews with SEA staff and national education experts, and a literature review form the research base.

Currently, the U.S. Department of Education has not waived or adjusted the timeline or expectations of this aspect of federal ESSA law. Despite COVID-19’s chaos, the clock is still ticking for what states will do differently to support and ensure changes occur for the country’s lowest performing schools. So, SEAs need to continue developing their plans for MROs.

Kudos to my colleague Janice Garland who was steadfast in her commitment to seeing this document through.

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