Before I moved abroad, my knowledge of crisis management was restricted to what I now realise was some very limited paper exercise contingency planning, and every other year making decisions on whether or not to cancel school for a "snow day’" We had a very impressive risk register and an extensive business continuity plan but, in truth, never really expected to have to use either in anger. In short, there was nothing to prepare me for running an international school in a time of crisis.
Fast-forward to my first six months in post as principal and CEO of Kellett, the British International School in Hong Kong. The first term was dominated by the anti-government protests and now we face the challenge of mapping our response to the 2019-nCov coronavirus.
Fortunately, the location of the two Kellett schools meant the dramatic scenes of protest that were portrayed by the global media were not played out on our doorstep. However, in common with other school leaders across the city, the senior team at Kellett had to make decisions on a daily basis from August to mid-November to ensure the safety of our community travelling to and from school.
At Kellett we received regular International SOS security updates, which, when incidents were developing, came through at hourly intervals. These were then discussed – as often as not on our WhatsApp group because they were out-of-hours – and a decision made. Our default was "business-as-usual" and to stay open, but occasionally we had to cancel sports fixtures or after-school activities so that students and staff could get home avoiding excessive travel delays. In November we were required to close by the Hong Kong Education Bureau for over a week, which entailed drawing on our extensive plans for "home learning" via our online learning platforms, which are in place in the event of closure in the typhoon season.
Crisis management in this context takes on a different complexion: practising a lockdown drill or a school evacuation takes on a greater significance – there’s no “tick box” aspect to the scenario planning here.
The threat of coronavirus
Recent weeks have brought the wholly different challenge of managing the 2019-nCov coronavirus. Here, Hong Kong has learned from the bitter experience of dealing with Sars in 2003, and the government has acted to put in place measures to limit exposure to this threat, including the decision to extend the Chinese New Year. This is understandable, but it does present a significant challenge for schools and families alike. The government initially announced a suspension of two weeks, then four, and this week for six. The false summits are very frustating for the whole community
No school can afford to lose six weeks’ teaching, and this is especially true in the crucial GCSE and A-level years where the next couple of weeks were set aside for mock examinations. Once again, we will be calling on our home-learning programmes with teachers setting and marking work through our online platform. In the senior school, we are endeavouring to deliver a normal timetable using a combination of Google classroom, screencasts, vodcasts and video-conferenced lessons. Thank goodness for technology.
When there is a closure because of risk to health, such as the coronavirus, the most difficult decisions for school leaders relate to whether to allow staff to work from home or to require them to come into work. Levels of anxiety are understandably high even if the practical risk is low. Remote working can be effective for a few days, but, for a longer suspension, the question is whether it is better to establish a "new normal" professional routine in school where teachers can collaborate with colleagues and have access to the full range of school support and resources. It is a difficult, if not impossible, call to make.
For parents, there is anxiety not only about lack of continuity of learning, but also that prolonged confinement will lead to acute cabin fever. The prospect of six months of supervising home learning whilst battening down the hatches in relatively small accommodation without the usual outlets of school and sports/other clubs is not an attractive one.
Sometimes in the past six months I have thought that I’m in one of those leadership training scenarios where every time you think that you’ve worked out a response and have an agreed consensus on what is the best thing to do, someone throws in another carefully selected piece of information that changes everything and prompts further review.
The most difficult aspect of crisis management is uncertainty. In many ways, it is much easier to plan for a month-long closure than to go from day to day responding to a dynamic situation with no prospect of an end in sight. It is draining for all concerned. Ensuring the mental wellbeing of staff and students, not to mention the senior team, is of paramount importance.
At times like these, networks are very important for school leaders. During this time the school principals of British curriculum schools are in regular communication comparing notes and also drawing on support and advice from the British Consulate in Hong Kong. It is also comforting to draw strength from school leaders in other countries who have faced similar challenges, such as colleagues in Bangkok who faced civil unrest in 2011 and 2014.
All schools play an important role as a focus for their communities. This is all the more important in the case in international schools where parents and children are dislocated from their family support network, and this is magnified still further when that community is facing a threat. This means that a significant part of managing any crisis in an international school is handing the anxieties and fears of the community.
In dealing with the crises in Hong Kong, the senior management team at Kellett has had earnest internal debates as we grapple to make tough decisions in fast-changing, even volatile, circumstances. Decision made, we then agonise over every word we write, conscious that it is important to strike the right tone in our communication to parents in order to carry the community with us.
I suspect that we will only know if we have managed to do and say the right thing when it’s firmly in the rear-view mirror, and that may not be for a few months yet.
Mark S Steed is the principal and CEO of Kellett School, the British International School in Hong Kong; and previously ran schools in Devon, Hertfordshire and Dubai. He tweets @independenthead