What is Coronavirus? A Learning Opportunity

Note: Statistics in this story have been updated as of Wednesday, March 4

As the founder of a student travel company, I’ve had numerous conversations this week with school leaders on whether to cancel global programs in light of coronavirus (COVID-2019).

These are the most engaging conversations around risk management we’ve ever had with our school partners, some of whom we have worked with for more than a decade.

So I am beginning to see coronavirus in a new light: yes it’s a potential crisis, but it’s also a rare opportunity for schools to engage their communities in deep conversations about risk and learning.

We work with many of these schools on risk management. Our approach is that risk management is “a continuous conversation that happens at all levels of a school at once”. In other words, your risk management is only as good as your conversations.

But school communities are squeamish when it comes to talking about risks. They avoid tough conversations and the implication is that everything is ok, until something like coronavirus comes along.

K12 learning, which is changing along with our planet, is moving off-campus: field trips, outdoor education, internships, volunteering, community partnerships, and domestic and international travel. We know that each of these activities carry inherent risks that begin with highway travel but descend, depending on the activity, through injury, sickness, fire, drowning, home stays, pedestrian travel, etc.

For many K12 schools today, off-campus learning is no longer optional or a “nice-to-have.” These experiences are core to mission and learning. They have been built from the ground up by committed faculty who integrate them into classroom learning. They change students’ lives in regular but unpredictable ways. Off-campus learning, and travel in particular, has become essential to the learning experience.

This past week I’ve seen some excellent examples of what this conversation can look like. One of our school partners, Holton-Arms School in Bethesda, MD, has a robust Global Scholars program and believes that “all education is global.” Holton provides students a myriad of global experiences across grades 6–12 to places like India, Peru and Belize where students work with NGOs, stay with homestay families, and other immersive activities. Holton’s Head of School Susanna Jones sent out a balanced and thought-provoking letter this past week that, among other things, asked parents to balance media coverage with sources of trusted information such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

We know that media coverage can distort certain risks, as we experienced with Zika in 2016. Many schools cancelled their Latin American programs because of Zika, yet not a single case of Zika was reported that year at the Brazil Olympics, according to the World Health Organization. In the risk management industry, we urge schools to focus on “actual” risks like highway travel and monitor the “perceived” risks such as Zika, terrorism and airport shootings.

These perceived risks are real, especially in media coverage and in parents’ minds, but are not yet statistically significant. When it comes to disease in tropical areas, we are also concerned about dengue, typhoid, chikungunya, and malaria. These are ever-present diseases we have always discussed with our school partners and found ways to manage.

This week I’ve also seen disappointing examples of the conversation, including the special panel convened by the National Association of Independent Schools at its annual conference. Most of the talk was focused on resources, public relations, and legal strategies. There was no teacher, or director of global education, on the stage — though there were plenty in the audience. NAIS Legal Counsel Megan Mann repeated over and over that cancelling a global program is a “business decision.”

Global education directors, who have been doing risk management analysis on their programs for years, were frustrated by the panel. “There was no discussion about students, learning, or the value of these programs,” said one educator, “You can’t understand the risk equation unless you talk about the educational value as well.”

In the weeks ahead, I will encourage school leaders to resist the knee jerk impulse to simply cancel all travel programs. Instead, let’s see how the coronavirus evolves and engage our communities in rich conversations.

So far, schools are being cautious about spring programs, but taking a wait-and-see attitude about summer programs. The Global Education Benchmark Group, which is tracking data on 737 global programs from 160 independent schools, is reporting that 51% of spring and 90% of summer travel programs are moving forward as planned as of Tuesday, March 3rd (these figures do not include programs to China, which all schools have cancelled).

Most of the trip cancellations to date have been to countries where CDC has issued travel warnings or that have higher numbers of coronavirus cases, such as Japan, Italy, France and Spain.

Most schools are moving ahead with travel to Central and South America, where as of Wednesday, March 4, there are eleven confirmed cases (in Brazil, Ecuador, Chile and Argentina). Costa Rica and countries across the region are beefing up their healthcare preparedness and screening arriving airport passengers, among other precautions.

In the coming weeks, my prediction is that many schools will move ahead with travel programs but leave the door open for parents and students to decide otherwise. I like this approach because it allows families to balance the educational value of a program with its inherent risks. These are good muscles to build in a community because everything we do with students off-campus (indeed even on-campus, as we know from active shooter drills) has some level of risk.

Being decisive is good. But when schools make hasty decisions in regards to an evolving issue like coronavirus, we cut short a powerful conversation. We also send a mixed message. Our world is accelerating, interconnecting, and our future is increasingly unknowable. Coronavirus represents a great opportunity for schools to model how to live and learn amidst uncertainty.

Ross Wehner is Founder of World Leadership School, which partners with K12 schools to reimagine learning and create next-generation leaders, and Co-Founder of TeachUNITED, a global non-profit on a mission to reduce inequality through education.

World Leadership School partners with K12 schools to reimagine learning and create next-generation leaders.

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