By Steve Wunker
This blog first appeared as Steve Wunker’s piece for Forbes
The week after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, the capital city of San Juan faced a grim situation. Downed trees still blocked major roads, lines for gasoline stretched around several blocks, and electricity was nearly non-existent.
But it was in that timeframe that one of Puerto Rico’s leading schools, St. John’s School, started to get moving again. The lessons learned during that catastrophe have fueled its rapid and highly successful response to COVID-19. Below are four learnings that any organization can use to position itself for the uncertain future.
1. Plan, without being alarmist
Like the other schools on the island, St. John’s – an independent, non-sectarian school for children ages 3 to 18 – had not planned for an event causing such extreme devastation as Maria. It would not be caught in that position again.
When earthquakes began striking the other side of Puerto Rico in January 2020, the school started to plan how it would respond in case an earthquake or tsunami struck its coastal San Juan neighborhood. Thankfully, it did not need to use those plans, but the school did not give up its spirit of preparation. When COVID began appearing as a real threat a few short weeks later, it made contingency plans for moving to synchronous, virtual learning over video (considered the gold standard for distance learning). St. John’s assembled a steering committee of experts – encompassing educators, health professionals, and others – and prepared the technology framework and IT infrastructure to enable the school to go remote quickly if it needed to.
As the coronavirus situation escalated, St. John’s decided to close its physical campus shortly before the government mandated all schools to do so. Incredibly, just one school day was missed between making that decision and commencing virtual classes, and that day was devoted to training and piloting in simulated classes so that the scale-up would go smoothly. The school credits Hurricane Maria for forcing it to adopt a habit of planning for various scenarios.
2. Build a culture of trust and rapid, open communication
For organizations to move nimbly in times of uncertainty, there needs to be a foundation of trust. St. John’s School reinforced this in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, when it made its number one goal to first take care of its people. Lorraine Lago, St. John’s Head of School, recounts, “Maria came through on a Wednesday, and we had the faculty back in our space the next Tuesday. The first hour was people hugging each other. Then we took care of each other in other ways, such as providing our staff a place where they could bathe.”
Lago believes that the mutual trust and community built through that focus on people created resiliency for what happened with COVID. She says, “We spent a lot of time building a culture where we’re a team; no one is just following instructions.” This enabled rapid movement to virtual learning, as well as fast communication to staff, back to leadership, and amongst peers on what was working and what needed improvement. The openness, directness, and velocity of communication directly enabled the successful COVID response. Extending the approach to parents, the school created a series of detailed communications, and it surveyed parents to understand in real-time how things were going at home.
Moments of upheaval are not the time to shy away from experimentation. In the aftermath of Maria, the school tested ways to become more authentic with its teaching — for instance, having older students help fill out insurance paperwork in the business office, or having math classes calculate how many hours per day the school could run on a limited diesel supply.
Realizing how valuable those real-life experiences were post-Maria, and exploring how it could encourage that kind of creativity in the future, St. John’s realized it was time to re-examine its teacher evaluation system. “The growth piece was missing,” Lago recounts. “Everyone had to get out of their comfort zones and see that by changing they could achieve more for the kids.” They started by making risk-taking a part of how it evaluated teachers. “Now, teachers don’t get marked down for taking risk. We took out the black mark for that,” says Lago.
“We’re going to be looking at teacher professional development the same way,” John La Rue, the school’s Dean of Academics, adds. “Real-time assessment for both students and teacher feedback has big implications.”
Critically, St. John’s didn’t just “get through” Hurricane Maria and move on. It took Maria as a deeper learning opportunity. “You have to codify the good things you’re seeing. Some people are comfortable running ahead and trying a lot of new things, and others aren’t,” Lago says. “We can codify for both what’s best from our learnings in the situation.” This approach facilitated making early plans, for instance, as well as the approach to systematic surveying.
The success of these measures has been tangible. During the early stages of the coronavirus outbreak, St. John’s was the first school in Puerto Rico to be up-and-running with virtual learning, and over 80% of parents have rated the move as a success. But the school isn’t resting. “This happened so fast,” Lago says. “Now I think we can do a lot more through rapid change cycles.”
Click for a series of working papers on managing an organization through the coronavirus crisis.