A letter from ALA’s CEO and co-founder, Chris Bradford on Covid-19.
Across Africa, school leaders have spent the past month considering how to best respond to the evolving challenges of the COVID pandemic. Rapid change and high uncertainty require all of us to lead with proactivity, honesty and conviction. As I have worked with the ALA team and engaged other education leaders across Africa, I have considered what heuristics might guide decision making in times like these. Over the past month, I have come to recognize six principles that should guide our work. I hope these principles and the associated questions might be helpful and relevant as you plan your community’s ongoing response to the challenges of the pandemic.
1. Begin with mission. What is our mission? How do we live it in our actions and decisions?
At ALA, our mission is to enable lasting peace and shared prosperity in Africa by developing future leaders. Our actions in a time of crisis must reflect this mission, and we must consider the implications of our decisions on the communities we serve across Africa, the students on our campus, and their families. With this in mind, ALA chose to keep its residence open for our international students (with strict social distancing rules) when school closure was mandated. This decision prevented the possibility of one of our students becoming a vector of virus transmission into a community less prepared to deal with the virus; it also ensured that all students would continue to make progress toward their ALA diploma, regardless of their level of connectivity in their home community. By communicating these decisions in the context of our mission, we ensure shared understanding and buy-in. What decisions are you making, and how do those decisions reflect your organization’s mission?
2. Prioritise health and safety. Who is most at risk in this period? How do we best support them?
We can always find ways to catch up on learning missed during school closure, but we cannot recover from the loss of life. We recognize that coronavirus will likely reach our campus one day, and we must ensure that we design processes and procedures that recognize and respond to the members of our community most at risk from the pandemic. At ALA, this meant finding host families for our immunocompromised students, such that we could ensure that they are in smaller, more controlled environments when the pandemic reaches its peak. It also meant new procedures on campus, including regular temperature checks and an in-house quarantine protocol. Finally, it meant making new decisions to ensure the safety of our catering, cleaning, and security staff, who travel to work via public transport, a potential vector for virus transmission. We proactively engaged these contractors to ensure that they had adequate sick leave policies in place for these staff, and repurposed our school transport to bring these colleagues to work, lowering their risk – and the risk to everyone in our community. Who is most at risk in your community, and how are you working to ensure their safety?
3. Plan proactively. What are the possibilities for what might happen in the next week, month, quarter, and year? How might we respond to each?
Good decisions come from evaluating a range of options, while bad decisions tend to be a product of rushed or reactive decision-making. We began following the coronavirus at an executive level in February, and developed a set of potential actions that might be taken well before school closure was discussed locally. As a result, we were moving at a measured pace even when the situation seemed as though it was changing every hour: we were implementing a plan rather than rapidly responding. Even if you felt caught off-guard by a mandated school closure or national lockdown, you can plan proactively for the days, weeks, and months ahead. What are the possibilities for the end of your lockdown period? When might it end, and what conditions might be attached? You do not need to predict the future, of course. But you can identify the range of options available to you in each scenario and evaluate each, understanding the implications for students, families, staff, and organizational finances. As the pandemic plays out over many months, you will feel a step ahead, communicating confidently about the decisions you are making.
4. Design with empathy. What does the day look like for your students in this new normal? For their parents? For your teachers?
Across Africa, members of our network are designing remote learning experiences for students: tutoring tips for parents, packs of homework to be completed, class sessions delivered via Zoom. Rather than simply implement your existing timetable over a pre-set medium, consider how the experience of lockdown is impacting students, families, and teachers. How has the rhythm of their day and life changed? Ask questions to understand the structure of their day, the technology they have at their disposal, and the availability of bandwidth. Students and families want to maintain the continuity of their education at this time – but they need support from the school in meeting them where they are. Perhaps the school day needs to start later, in reflection of family chores that are best done in the morning. Perhaps a specific family member is best positioned to help with tutoring at home; when is the best time to reach that person? Perhaps specific resources must be selected for your students that consume minimal bandwidth, ensuring each family’s ability to participate.
5. Lean into possibility. What can we do in this new normal better than we might have done it in the old normal? How might we strengthen learning across our ALforEducation network at this time?
By forcing new constraints upon us, the coronavirus pandemic challenges us to rethink old assumptions and identify new opportunities: for schools, for learning, and for curriculum. As a friend in higher education wrote on a recent Medium post, “what can we do online better than we might in-person?” At ALA, online lessons create a range of new possibilities, from screen-sharing of student work to instantaneous breakout groups. For schools that serve families with limited connectivity, I wonder how the unique challenges of this time might help us strengthen after-school supports for our students into the far future, as we prepare parents, siblings, and cousins to support the education of our students.
As an example of a new possibility: one question I have grappled with is how our teachers might better taste excellence, fostering a shared understanding of what excellent teaching and learning looks and feels like. Our move onto Zoom creates a fresh opportunity to do this internally – by recording classes, and watching together class sessions that reflect exceptional use of a particular pedagogical approach. Further, Zoom might allow us to taste excellence externally, observing classes taught by master teachers at other schools in ways we might never have done before.
The urgency of the pandemic requires us to move quickly on behalf of our students. This places a new premium on networks like this one – identifying and sharing new methodologies that we are deploying during this time. Last week, I was encouraged by an exchange between some school founders in this community who seek to maintain educational continuity for students without bandwidth at home; these founders built on each other’s ideas and refined their approaches. The COVID pandemic places a new urgency on the work we do together, and I stand ready to share any insights from ALA to all who might be interested. I look forward to learning from you in equal measure.
6. Communicate regularly. From whom might we seek input in our decision making? Who needs to be informed of these decisions?
We are living in a moment of peak uncertainty, and uncertainty breeds anxiety. In these times, transparent and regular communication becomes even more important. At ALA, we’ve sought to communicate with staff, students, and parents at least twice per week. We do this in writing and in regular webinars with parents across Africa. The result has been better information flow, reduced anxiety, and heartfelt support from parents across the continent who are invested in the decisions made.
Finally, who are your pillars of support in this time? How are you engaging, connecting, and collaborating with them in a way that helps you navigate the unique challenges of this period? Who in this network might be of support? While we might be physically distant, we can – and must – remain socially connected.
I wish I had taken the time to clearly articulate these principles a month ago! If I had done so, I am confident that we would be even further in our response to the pandemic. I look forward to learning more about what is guiding your decision-making – and where we might be able to help each other.
This note was initially written for the ALforEducation network, and is being shared with the broader ALA network because of its relevance.