There’s a saying: a rubber band once stretched will never return to its original dimensions; neither will life as we knew it pre-COVID-19. While businesses and industries across the nation took the unprecedented step of moving operations online or shutting completely, schools were forced to take that same step. Schools and businesses alike had to adapt, learn, and repurpose quickly. Without governmental guidelines or even clear and consistent messaging, corporations led the way in civic leadership, reducing workforces to essential employees.
Much of the American workforce began multi-tasking homeschool and job responsibilities. With many businesses closed or under shelter-in-place orders, school children being at home became one more ball to juggle for most families. For some employees, the biggest hardship was meetings being interrupted by children needing a snack or help with lessons; but for many families, adding yet another ball to their load was the tipping point. Schools have long filled a safety and societal net that has now fallen apart.
A symbiotic relationship between education and the corporate world has always existed—an educated workforce drives a thriving economy; conversely, a healthy economy provides a strong tax base that funds school systems. The COVID-19 crisis has brought the two segments together in what amounts to a collision course and along the way has exposed some cracks in an already stressed system.
We are currently in the midst of closures, social distancing, and self-quarantine, but true to the American spirit, many are looking ahead to find that sliver of hope that resides in recovery and a return to normalcy. As the nation shifts and begins to pick up the pieces, moving toward restarting the economy, it has become clear that recovery is going to have to include all players. Governing boards have huge decisions awaiting them, both corporate and educational. The rebirth of the economy—and it will be nothing short of a rebirth—is going to rely on the collective best decisions of all sectors.
While the decision to close factories, workspaces, and businesses was made with a great deal of autonomy, the decision to restart may not be. Supervisors are going to need employees back at work or at least focused on the task at hand as they try to rebuild. Employees will start being asked to return to offices, but schools are remaining shuttered at least until the fall in most states. As Americans try to pick up the pieces from the COVID-19 pandemic, schools returning to session will be a driving factor in businesses returning to full operation. This reliance on schools to help recover the economy will bring attention to school boards in an unprecedented way. Joshua M. Epstein, a professor of epidemiology at NYU School of Global Public Health, recently updated a 2009 study that found that one month of closed schools is estimated to cost more than $50 billion in productivity, or 0.2% of GDP.
Educators have long been fighting in legislatures across the country to retain both funding and local control without much outside assistance, now corporations may see the value of these things. Board decisions, like when schools shall resume and what that will look like, need to come from the local level. How school funding recovers is anyone’s guess, but something that school and corporate boards alike will be invested in. Workforce, education, and economic development are three sides of the same triangle, and one will not recover without the other.
In the midst of home schooling for all students, another issue has been brought to the forefront—lack of internet access. This is especially true for students in rural or impoverished areas. A debate has begun about the federal government’s role in ensuring that all children have access. According to an NPD study, 31% of U.S. households don’t have broadband access. The eRate program, part of the Telecommunications Act passed two decades ago, provided funding for the FCC to support internet service for “educational purposes.” It is time for the FCC to rethink internet access and traditional classrooms. The COVID-19 crisis has exposed many gaps in our current educational system.
The new economy is going to be ripe for innovation with an increased reliance on technology. Students that work better virtually will not readily return to the traditional classroom. Services like virtual doctor appointments that kept patients safe at home helped people experience possibilities and conveniences they will likely not give up. Education has been accused of lagging behind business in terms of technology, but these powerful legacy players were forced overnight to fully embrace the virtual world. While some services will need to return to in-person interactions, the world’s collective eyes have been opened to the possibilities of what modern tech can do for them.
As we launch into this changing landscape, governance boards will have decisions to make. Educational institutions may be looking at a modified school year for 2020-2021. Many superintendents are already quietly admitting they see the need for an extended year to try to recoup lost time. If the small group rule (gatherings of 10 or less) continues into the fall, schools may be looking at a modified day. The long-term scheduling considerations trigger economic factors, including the potential need for modified parental work schedules to accommodate their children’s needs. Boards on both sides of the coin will be saddled with decisions that require a broader economic view.
This new post-COVID world needs modern governance boards to rethink relationships between the education and corporate sector. Past business and educational collaborations have typically resulted solely in education reform. Industrial Revolution business needs created the classroom of straight rows of quiet students and repetitive tasks. Post-WWII reforms such as Total Quality Management led to more reforms in schools such as site-based decision-making teams and standardized testing. New collaborations will require both disciplines to be attentive to shared issues—one-sided conversations will no longer work. Both sides of the economic equation will need to work together toward support for innovation, constructive conversations, and a substantial new investment in public good. What we do know is that the new norm can’t be more of the same.
An opportunity has been created for corporate and educational boards to 1) better recognize their mutual dependence, 2) learn from what has worked and been beneficial, 3) partner together in support of educational legislative and access issues at the state and federal level, and 4) use what we’ve learned as a springboard to further innovation for greater symbiosis in future years. Many of the panels created to formulate a plan for reopening states have not included any locally elected representative, much less an education representative. Business representatives should speak out against this and leverage their position to get educators a seat at the table. This is a real opportunity for communities to recognize the mutual dependence of their educational institutions, their economic engines, and the community’s health, which seems to have been forgotten. We will miss this chance if local institutions do not take the opportunity to work together and recognize their shared responsibilities for whole community development.