Policy Communication Missteps

April 19, 2020


The inefficiencies created by kicking the can down the road.


COVID19 has presented many challenges on many levels for policy makers, not the least of which is whether, when and for how long to close school buildings. These decisions and the way they are communicated directly and profoundly affect the strategic decisions people make in figuring out how they are going to adapt to the situation. Last minute announcements of short-term solutions for a long-term problem create a situation where the people who are affected on various levels “below” the decision-makers are constantly having to redirect and scramble to make the next set of cirumstances work. This leads them to make decisions that hurt their ability to cope long-term. The people that are negatively affected by this strategy of taking it a few weeks at a time include, but are not limited to: school boards, school system administrators, school administrators, teachers, parents and students.


When policy makers announce that schools will be closed for 2 weeks, that sounds different than an announcement that we have a long-term crisis that will need to be managed for the forseeable future by limiting public physical contact. The former sounds like some extra time off. The latter means we will need to create solutions that enable us to live life productively without coming into physical contact with each other. Two weeks sounds like a blip, an anomoly. It’s a temporary vacation from normal life that can be weathered by just doing whatever we feel like doing in the moment. 


For some people, even this short term closure announcement sent them into waves of panic, causing hoarding and other irrational behavior choices. It is likely that policy makers chose this strategy to try to avert wide-spread panic. The problem is that people who are going to panic, panic anyway. Every time there is a new announcement, they panic all over again. Keeping these people in a constant state of panic contributes to the resentment and rebellion that we are starting to see. 


For those who manage to stay calm and strategize, it creates different problems in that we aren’t being given accurate data to use. This causes us to make decisions that hurt us in the long-term. First of all, had officials used long-term planning, they could have realized way back in the fall that this virus was eventually going to travel outside of China. I did. They could have gathered school system administrators and boards of education together to strategize how they would each manage the kind of situation we were seeing unfold in China, but instead they waited until it was here. Then, instead of taking decisive action and closing schools for the 9 weeks of instruction left in the school year, they chose to say schools were closing for just 2 weeks. A 9-week strategy looks very different from a 2-week strategy for all involved. 


For school boards, a 2-week strategy doesn’t pose much of a problem. On the other hand, a 9-week strategy requires figuring out how to work with their administration to troubleshoot big questions like how to determine who gets promoted the following year, how to graduate high school seniors, and how to provide legally-required free and appropriate public education (FAPE) to all- which includes people who need different approaches and tools such as assistive technology and individualized learning plans, not to mention those who have limited to no access to technology such as computers and consistent wifi.


For school administrations, a 2-week closure means figuring out how to “make-up that time,” whereas a 9-week strategy means figuring out how to continue learning through the end of the year. Two completely different things. A 9-week closure means the same list as detailed above for school boards with additional considerations such as how to continue to provide necessary nutritional support to families in need, what to expect from principals and teachers, how to communicate the answers to the above questions to principals, teachers, parents and students who are already stressed out and anxious, how to meet the reporting expectations of those who regulate them and more. Knowing that the situation was fluid and yet the official determination was short-term caused school administrations to communicate an overly-complex directive about that original closure, change directives about grading of work over the first 2-week period at the last minute, and lose vital time in developing the infrastructure, resources and strategic planning necessary to continue providing FAPE throughout the rest of the school year. 


Although I believe that school systems state-wide took the non-public approach of preparing for the worst and actively engaging in developing long-term strategy and infrastructure, the disparity between what the public believed the stuation to be and what the administration knew it to be meant that there was wide-spread confusion and panic. That confusion lead to an over-whelming and unnecessary number of complaints and requests for help. It lead to diverse expectations and communications from principals to their teachers, parents and students. It lead to some schools and teachers making choices that aligned more with an announcement that Spring Break had come early than with continued instruction. This caused stress among parents who heard “continuing instruction” in the annoucement. These parents took to the internet trying to find support for having to “homeschool” on the fly. Likewise, other schools and teachers made choices that aligned more with “continued instruction” than with “this is your Spring Break.” These schools sent home textbooks and learning plans. Teachers had full-day, sometimes way more than a full day, assignments presented to parents as “this is what is expected of you now”. It included due-dates, instructions for turning in some or all of the work and even tests. There were no disclaimers about the work perhaps not even counting or being optional. This caused wide-spread stress for these parents who were trying to figure out how to manage their teachers’ expectations for their children while either transitioning themselves to teleworking or continuing to have to be at work all day. It created even more stress when parents realized (myself included) that the official policy that was being discussed meant that they were working overtime to meet these overwhelming expectations from their school and were potentially going to be expected to continue this completely unsustainable expectation clear through what was supposed to be Spring Break. All of this confusion meant that the school administrative offices had to take time and focus away from their non-public preparation for the long-term provision of FAPE in order to communicate with and trouble-shoot for stressed, confused and unhappy parents. It meant that they changed on a dime the policies that parents had been working under for the previous 2-week plan. This caused even more stress for parents and students. Had the original announcement taken into account that data from around the world showed that there was little chance that flattening the curve was going to mean we could hunker down for 2 weeks and then magically spring back to “normal life”, we could have avoided all of that confusion, stress and haphazzard policy making. It could have saved us the diverted energy, time and focus on getting settled into what we need to do. Everyone could have focused our strategy on creating sustainable systems. We could have moved in a straight line toward long-term coping, new tools development, training teachers on how to provide effective instruction to students they aren’t able to meet with regularly and hacking our way to ensuring FAPE.


A teacher who is told they need a plan for 2 weeks is not going to invest time, energy or money on new tools and strategies. They are going to figure out how they can work with what they have. They aren’t going to take things home with them that they will need over time when they leave that last day of school. On the other hand, a teacher who is told that they need to adjust to the possibility that we will need some sort of distance learning strategies and tools through the end of the year or even continuing into the forseeable future will make very different strategic choices about how they spend their time and money. They will take different things with them when they leave. They will find support in different ways.


The same goes for parents. Parents would have made very different choices in those first 2 weeks had they been made aware that what tools and structure they had at their disposal would need to sustain them for months. Having to constantly shift, causes undue stress.


For students, the fastest way to lose a student’s motivation and commitment to a learning program is inconsistency and constantly moving the yard stick. That is exactly what we have experienced. Is it any wonder that teachers are now having a hard time getting students to comply with the new plan? Is it any wonder that some parents have become fatigued with the rules constantly changing and have chosen not to pass that stressful situation on to their children?


Governor Hogan and State Superintendent Salman have still not realized that this approach is neither productive nor sustainable. The other day, they made yet another announcment that school buildings will continue to be closed through May 15th. While there is a movement to open prematurely, practically-minded people know that there is little to no chance that schools will be able to safely reopen in a few short weeks. They shouldn’t. Perhaps if the situation had been communicated differently from the very beginning, we wouldn’t be having this fight. These people might not have become so disgruntled if the light at the end of the tunnel wasn’t getting constantly pushed just out of reach. Emotionally that is what is happening. By kicking the can down the road, people lack security in knowing what they can plan for. We can’t commit to anything long term because we don’t know if we will suddenly be expected to bring our kids to school and go back to working outside of our house in a few weeks, only to have everything shut down again. Teachers can’t plan what they are going to teach and acquire new tools and skills if they are going to have to suddenly abandon everything and go back to a brick-and-mortar classroom only to have it all shut down again. They can’t plan for gradingif they are told they won’t have to grade. Administrations and local school districts cannot commit to an effective strategy if some people believe that we don’t need those strategies, tools, resources, trainings etc because it’s all going to go back to normal any day now. Students can’t feel secure without the consistency that would stem from all of these other levels of decision-making. I am imploring Governor Hogan and State Superintendent Salman to publicly commit to the idea that COVID19 and all of the interventions we need are not going anywhere for the forseeable future. Give us the freedom to figure out how to cope with our long-term life. Stop giving unrealistic deadlines. Stop miving the goa lposts. And other public policy officials in other places, please learn from these mistakes. Nothing good comes from withholding reality from the public.

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