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Professional Opinion

Crisis averted …and exploited

How an online educational continuity plan can also improve year-round learning goals
Consultant Jeff Marshall is the former risk manager for the School District of Philadelphia.
Consultant Jeff Marshall is the former risk manager for the School District of Philadelphia.

Education in crisis. To you, the phrase may evoke financial crisis, perhaps high dropout rates or maybe issues involving falling tests scores. But I am a risk manager. To me, when a school cannot open for a day, for a week, for a month or longer—no matter the reason—that is the essence of a real educational crisis.

In 2009, as the nation stared at the possibility of an H1N1 pandemic mounting its assault on America, the Departments of Education and Homeland Security and the Centers for Disease Control set up numerous phone conferences to help school districts develop protocols for closing and reopening schools.

Do we close down a high school if we have a single confirmed case? What if that student’s middle school-aged brother who sleeps in the same room had not shown any signs of being infected? Do we take the precaution of closing the middle school as well? How long would the school have to be closed? The scenarios seemed endless.

Lost in the many discussions, however, was the answer to an important question: How could we effectively educate our children if we had to close our schools?

Missed opportunity

It seemed that providing an effective education was the first casualty of the pending pandemic. And yet, while medical science was frenetically developing its serums, real educational leaders were working behind the scenes, quietly developing an “educational vaccine” that could inoculate schools not only from pandemics but also from loss of buildings to extreme weather events or even financial crisis.

Unlike a serum that could be contained in a vile or delivered through a syringe, this solution could be small enough to fit on a thumb drive or so large it would take a cloud to hold it. At about the same time that the American education system was stumbling to its response to the impending disaster, two of the most revolutionary changes in American education were unfolding without much fanfare.

First, the nonprofit Kahn Academy was moving from a family project to a worldwide movement. In 2009, few, if any, educators noticed, let alone understood, the impact of a website that made learning materials and resources available to anyone, anywhere, completely free of charge.

Another movement, recognized in a 2000 Journal of Economic Education article entitled “Inverting the Classroom: A Gateway to Creating an Inclusive Learning Environment,” was also quietly growing converts to what would eventually be known as the “flipped classroom.” The theory and practice of the flipped classroom, of course, was that the lectures became the take-home assignments and the problem-solving aspects were brought back into the classroom. The flipped process allowed students to replay those segments of the lecture that were considerably more difficult to comprehend.

But, at the time, these solutions went unused. Perhaps, the flipped classroom paradigm and the Kahn idea were still too far below the radar to gain the mainstream’s attention in 2009. Perhaps, those tasked with addressing the pandemic were too focused on other concerns. Perhaps, most districts lacked the technology. Whatever the reason, risk management and mainstream educational practice missed that school bus. Fortunately, there’s always another bus coming.

Crisis-proof curriculum

Successful educational institutions, like successful businesses, develop and update business continuity plans (BCPs) based on their core missions. In the case of our schools, the core mission is to ensure that every student is provided a meaningful opportunity to develop the skills and knowledge to fully participate in the ever-evolving world that awaits them.

While the debate rages as to how this should be accomplished—and whether it is being accomplished—there is one point that is universally accepted. Unless the classroom doors—be they attached to a traditional brick-and-mortar schoolhouse, to the dedicated space of the homeschooled child or to the electronic doorway of the cyber school—are open every day as scheduled, our schools are failing in their mission and failing our children.

Do you foresee the possibility of a situation arising that could take your school “off line” for an extended period of time? A roof collapse after a snowstorm? Mold in the walls and HVAC system? A fire? Have you run models to quantify the time and costs of reopening a location?

Yes, your insurance will likely cover most, if not all, of the financial costs, including obtaining an alternate location, as long as it is a covered loss (some circumstances may be covered while others may not be). But how will you handle the time until the desks, chairs, whiteboards and books arrive at an alternate location? How will you deal with the months or years that it may take to rebuild the school? Your BCP must include a curriculum that can be delivered via the internet.

Four years ago, the chance of having any of your curriculum remotely available was, well, remote. Now, with all of the resources available, not having your curriculum accessible by internet is quite unfathomable.

And who knows? After establishing your crisis-proof curriculum, you may even find that instead of merely having a summer reading list to avoid “summer-slippage,” you may be able to use your crisis management plan to develop a few summer break lectures and drills to reduce slippage in other core subjects as well. 

Jeff Marshall is the former risk manager for the School District of Philadelphia. He now consults on risk management, loss control and safety issues for school districts of all sizes. Marshall can be reached at