How to Adapt Today, Become Adept Tomorrow, and What to Adopt Permanently

[A version of this post originally appeared on District Administration, a national trade journal serving school district administrators and educators.]

When announcements came that states were closing schools for the remainder of this school year, in a way they brought the first semblance of clarity to the myriad spate of unknowns. Soon, we began to look ahead to the fall school year, which brings its own set of variables and unknowns. While we expect timelines and announcements to vary from district to district and state to state, one thing is becoming increasingly clear: it is unlikely that things will soon be getting “back to normal” in large measure.

With each day comes increased clarity, if only at the margins, but that clarity is often difficult to recognize in moments of urgency and quickly shifting priorities. But each day, discoveries are being made: we weren’t prepared for this or that, we hadn’t accounted for every contingency, or perhaps, maybe we’ve stumbled upon a better way to manage this particular task.

Which is why, though it may seem difficult at first, school districts and personnel at every level of education should be taking this time to reassess their systems, processes and vulnerabilities to optimize what will eventually be a return to some degree of normalcy. But it likely won’t happen overnight. In fact, we suggest that educators and administrators take a three-phased approach: take immediate remedial actions where you can in the short term, plan for an eventual transition back to a more recognizable learning environment, and document what new workflows should be permanently adopted as best practice long-term.

Phase One: Triage for Today

Literally overnight, educators and administrators were thrust into an entirely unfamiliar work and teaching environment. Technology needed to be learned and adopted without warning, nor training. Employees dispersed to millions of disconnected remote home offices in an instant. Nearly everything we took for granted, in terms of collaboration, communication and cooperation, was suddenly taken from us. And many instantly discovered the limitations and vulnerabilities that few had accounted for.

Access to systems and documents proved challenging for those who are used to keeping software and hardware under literal and figurative lock-and-key. If “it’s at my desktop at school,” it’s practically unreachable at the moment.

But work needs to get done. Meetings need to happen. Projects need to press forward, and budgets will soon be due. We cannot permanently pause. As many have discovered, time waits for no one. 

All of this underscores the need to quickly establish and document new workflows, new teams, new processes for planning, and new systems and technology that live in the cloud or are accessible to anyone who needs it, 24/7. 

Amid all of our other urgent priorities, administrators and educators should be documenting proper workflows that account for each of the following:

  • Tasks: Capture explicit documentation of all required tasks to complete a given project.
  • Teams: Make sure all tasks are assignable to ensure completion and inject accountability.
  • Timelines: Create project milestones that are clearly defined and realistically attainable.
  • Metrics: Measure progress and success against pre-established desired outcomes.
  • Prompts and Reminders: In times of uncertainty, teams will need (and respond to) built-in alerts and prompts when deadlines approach or new priorities arise.
  • Collaboration: Multiple teams may need to collaborate on overlapping projects. Create safeguards against tasks being missed due to workflow handoffs or unclear accountability.

Once decided upon and documented, leverage available technology to create one centralized knowledge base and project management tool, accessible remotely. Harnessing workflows into one centralized location will make sure nothing gets missed or skipped and can account for new workflows that might come along as priorities shift or change.

Phase Two: Transition to Tomorrow

Workflows, processes, systems and task forces will eventually need to return to a more conventional reality. The problem is, we don’t currently know when that will be. Perhaps it will be announced as suddenly as we transitioned away from our regularly scheduled programming. There will be a sense of relief, to be sure…but there will also be demanding deadlines and daunting decisions equal to those we are grappling with today. 

If uncertainty can be mitigated, now is the time to do it, when it is most relevant and obvious. School districts should be encouraging administrators, educators and clerical support to document where the vulnerabilities and shortcomings emerged, so they can be addressed, not only in the long term, but to avoid a painful transition-back in the nearer term.

In the past several weeks, decisions had to be made with little warning, and new processes had to be up and running overnight. But now we do have some luxury of foresight, knowing that a return to regular education is coming, even if we don’t know when. Perhaps now is the time to plan for those workflows and processes to be updated, especially considering that each individual workflow and task force might have several sub-workflows, and perhaps even disparate teams collaborating at different points and times.

A few transitions we can anticipate now, for which workflows and centralized knowledge bases can be established:

How will we track and process the return of devices that have been assigned out, and who is assigned to each subtask?

What is the new process for building preparation and maintenance, following the sudden dispersal of maintenance personnel, including timelines and accountabilities for reopening facilities?

What updates to registration workflows might need to be made if registration for the new school year is in a compressed time frame or needs to occur remotely/digitally?

How do our teacher and student evaluations need to be addressed, given how the final weeks of this school year’s curricula were delivered?

What changes need to be made to accommodate school lunch provision, both over the summer and should another similar crisis arise—remote delivery or centralized pickup?

Many districts were preparing to roll out a new math series in the fall: Will workflows need to accommodate new realities and timelines?

How will summer school be administered?

Are there necessary changes to scheduling and processing of material assets, such as bus maintenance?

As budget deadlines approach, how can we build in scenarios, given the many unknowns?

Technology is better equipped to manage these tasks, workflows and scenarios at scale than humans, pen-and-paper, or even static spreadsheet software (like Excel or Google Sheets). In most cases, the data to make informed decisions and create optimized workflows already exists and is readily available to school districts. There’s never been a better nor more urgent time to plug in to the tools at our disposal.

Phase Three: Adopt to Adapt, and Stay Adept

What many discover during times of crisis is that processes and procedures adapted out of urgency or necessity can actually be adopted as best practices going forward. In fact, the quicker, most efficient way to accomplish priorities can be discovered then defined to make our teams more effective while reducing costs and eliminating unnecessary exposures to human error.

The first step is moving away from paper and into digital environments. Next, make sure that data and technology is universally available and accessible—from anywhere, at any time, by anyone who should rightly have access. Lastly, allow (or force) technology to do the heavy lifting of planning, coordinating and measuring successful projects and collaborating teams.

Your new workflows and systems should allow you to:

  • plan and prepare for the unknown
  • proactively put processes in place and document workflows
  • account for contingencies
  • consider various and, perhaps even unforeseen, scenarios
  • trigger alternate paths, as appropriate
  • maintain a centralized knowledge repository that can be shared, not only among existing team members, but in perpetuity, even as personnel turnover continues at pace for the foreseeable future

School district professionals may find it challenging to manage the complexity of workflows even under “normal” circumstances. Maybe “normalcy” will return soon, but in the meantime, increased urgency and shifting priorities can create or elevate margin for human error. If we can use this challenge as an opportunity to modernize and optimize workflows, we will all be better for it…both in standard operating procedures and, heaven forbid, when the next crisis presents itself.

This discipline and attention to detail in the short term will build better habits for the long run. Once we emerge from crisis mode, we should take comfort in the lessons learned and the uncertainty conquered.

Linda Kraft is Director of Customer Engagement with Munetrix, a Michigan-based data analytics and management firm serving school districts and municipalities across the country. She can be reached at linda@munetrix.com.

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