Managing Risk in an Ever-Changing School Environment

Managing Risk in an Ever-Changing School Environment
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Contributed by Laura Young and Renarta Clanton Moyd, Cumberland County Schools, North Carolina

Navigating operational and risk management challenges now and in the future.

School districts’ risk management can be difficult under normal circumstances, but COVID-19 elevated that challenge to a whole new level. The good news is that challenges are not insurmountable, even in a pandemic, and what we learned last year we can use going forward.

Cumberland County Schools in North Carolina used several key strategies—good planning, site assessments, smart communications, and flexible options for staff training—that other school districts can apply to navigate their operational and risk management challenges this school year and in the future.

Cumberland County Schools is the fifth-largest district in North Carolina. As in many school districts, the pandemic required its operations and risk management teams to pivot repeatedly as mandates changed, positivity rates fluctuated, and the Delta variant emerged.

The district began the 2020–2021 school year virtually, then shifted to hybrid learning in the spring of 2021. This school year, the district decided to return to full in-person instruction, which required the risk management, operations, and communications teams to make several strategic decisions. These teams were responsible for evaluating all potential risks of in-person instruction and creating plans and procedures to keep students, staff, and families safe.

Before the district opened for in-person instruction, the teams focused on the following strategies to ensure a safe opening.

Regular Cleaning

The operations team evaluated all building spaces to determine the best ways to keep them clean. Cleaning policies and protocols are critical because of the pandemic, but they can also help curb the spread of other illnesses, such as colds and flu, that are common during the school year. For example, Cumberland County Schools:

  • Increased the frequency of cleaning by custodial staff.
  • Provided all head custodians with specific COVID-19mtraining, which they shared with their staffs.
  • Distributed a safe and effective disinfectant that was used frequently to clean high-touch areas within
  • classrooms.
  • Established a COVID-19 response cleaning team to quickly react to positive COVID-19 cases within the schools.

Districts can also rotate the use of play equipment, classroom spaces, or other areas open to students on a given day to make them easier to clean between uses.

Clear and Continuous Communication

Clear and frequent communication to staff and parents fosters better parent–school relationships and keeps everyone informed about changes.

Cumberland County Schools uses regular emails and automated calls to keep everyone up-to-date on changes in procedures. Videos that allow students, employees, and the general public to see how schools need to operate are an especially effective form of communication. For example, when the schools reopened in March, the district created an instructional video showing students how to navigate new procedures for everything from boarding the bus and standing in line for temperature checks to using drinking fountains.

The district also initiated a weekly principals’ update call during which principals meet virtually to share information and strategies about issues of concern. An earlier session focused on contact tracing; a more recent session focused on the need for substitute teachers. These calls are an excellent opportunity for school leaders to discuss issues with their peers.

Flexible Staff Training

Offering online training can help from a staffing and safety standpoint. In years past, the district hired substitute teachers to cover classes so staff members could attend in-person training sessions. When school buildings were closed and in-person sessions were cancelled, a switch to online courses remedied the situation.

When looking for an online course provider, districts should consider the quality of their customer service. They can do so by looking at reviews or case studies from other districts and by talking to those districts about their experiences. It’s also important to select a provider that keeps its content up-to-date.

Pandemic-Related Planning

Schools need plans in place should a student or staff member test positive. What protocols are in place to limit the spread of the virus? What is the district doing to support and inform the larger community? The following are some things to consider from a pandemic planning

standpoint:

  • Ensuring that supplies are sufficient. During the early part of the pandemic, certain supplies—such as hand sanitizer, sanitizing wipes, soap, and toilet paper—were hard to come by. Although the shortage has eased, it’s important for operations staff to make sure that the schools are stocked with these items to support all cleaning protocols and procedures that staff and students are instructed to follow.
  • Creating a health team and partnering with the community. Districts should have procedures in place to comply with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and any mandates from their state, city, or district. To tackle this big job, Cumberland County Schools created a health team.

The team set up a contact tracing system, set quarantining procedures, and created a COVID-19 dashboard, a section of its website that shows the number of people who’ve tested positive and the number of people quarantined at each building.

To help support the broader community, the district partnered with the department of health and human services to offer COVID-19 testing. Parents can opt to have their children tested weekly through a COVID-19 testing company.

Managing events.  Districts must plan for certain events, such as sports and graduations. Cumberland County Schools reworked its graduation plans for 2021 to allow each student only four guests, and those guests were required to sit together in a designated area.

Mindset Matters

Mindset matters too. Here are some tips on being emotionally prepared to tackle the challenges in today’s everchanging environment:

  • Adopt a safety-first mentality. Keep the focus on the safety of employees, students, and visitors when making important decisions.
  • Be flexible. In today’s world, things can change on a dime. Accept the fact that you may be asked to pivot often and without warning.
  • Practice patience and understanding, and offer grace. Everyone has different personal and work situations; respecting one another and being considerate will go a long way toward keeping things moving smoothly this school year.

The pandemic threw everyone for a loop, but school districts are rising to the challenge. Careful consideration of the strategies discussed in this article will keep the operations running smoothly and safely.

Laura Young is risk manager for Cumberland County Schools in North Carolina.

Renarta Clanton Moyd is communications manager for Cumberland County Schools in North Carolina.

Cumberland County Schools uses the Vector Training System to support their staff safety and compliance training. 

"This article originally appeared in the February 2022  issue of School Business Affairs magazine and is reprinted with permission of the Association of School Business Officials International (www.asbointl.org). The text herein does not necessarily represent the views or policies of ASBO International, and use of this imprint does not imply any endorsement or recognition by ASBO International and its officers or affiliates.” 

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