For School Leaders and Boards in a COVID-19 World
Top Operational and Strategic Risks for Schools in 2020
While students have returned to relatively normal classroom teaching in most jurisdictions, the COVID-19 pandemic will change the ways schools operate in both the short and long term.
What is the ‘new normal’ for schools?
What are the key risks, both operational and strategic, for schools right now?
What areas should schools focus on in order to maintain high standards of governance, risk management and compliance?
This resource provides schools with a risk management perspective on the many changes and challenges that schools face now and into the future.
Many schools have requested information and commentary in relation to risk and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on schools, and many are querying what changes they should be making to their risk registers.
As a result of our engagement with schools around the country, we have developed a list of the ‘Top Six Operational Risks’ and the ‘Top Six Strategic Risks’ for what many are calling the ‘new normal’ of the post COVID-19 environment.
The content in this page will be not be static because the ‘new normal’ is not static. New risks will be added so that the ‘Top Six’ may become the ‘Top Ten’ over time. Risks that are on the list now will be reviewed and updated as new developments and new perspectives emerge, and some may drop off the list.
We invite your commentary and feedback on these risks for schools. Simply click here to send us your thoughts.
Top Operational and Strategic Risks for Schools in 2020
You might want to integrate these risks with your school’s current strategic and operational risk registers. Alternatively, you could create a school specific risk register that includes some or all of the risks that are noted under each risk category in this resource. We have published these risks and accompanying action checklists as a downloadable Word document for your convenience (see below). What to call it? “2020 COVID-19 Risk Register” perhaps? These registers could be used to focus school leadership on these specific risks and on the implementation of controls to manage these risks.
Many risk controls may already be in place at the school, so it is therefore essential to start by evaluating the effectiveness of the current controls in place to manage each risk.
For example, if there is already a student pastoral care program in place, check whether it is properly addressing increased levels of student stress and anxiety. After reviewing the effectiveness of the current controls, the next step is to plot the likelihood and consequence to obtain a risk rating. After rating each risk, the school leadership should consider what additional controls or ‘risk treatments’ may be required. It is a cyclical, continuous improvement process so that once the risk treatments or additional controls are implemented, a further review of the risks and the effectiveness of the risk controls for each risk should be undertaken regularly, for instance every two or three months.
Create a checklist of key actions to be undertaken that can be reviewed by the school leadership team every few months. This will focus the discussion and decision-making of the school leadership team in relation to these risks to assist in identifying problems and finding solutions.
We have included an Action Checklist for each of the operational and strategic risks below. We have published these action checklists (as well as the list of risks) as a downloadable Word document for your convenience (see below).
Provide a short summary of the issues related to the risks noted in this resource to alert the school board and school staff and increase their awareness of these issues. At the same time, you could also indicate what additional measures are being implemented to address the issues such as an action plan or something similar.
Top Operational and Strategic Risks for Schools
The pressure on all school staff has increased dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic. As schools return to physical classroom teaching and learning environments and online learning is no longer the teaching delivery mode, there will be pressure of a different kind. There will be pressure on staff to ensure that all infection transmission risk mitigation strategies are being carefully followed around the school and in the classroom. A number of schools have already had to send students home as a result of a positive test from a member of the school community. The stress caused by an actual disruption of this type and by worrying about the possibility of future disruptions is real.
How do we look after our people at this time? Staff are a school’s greatest asset. Some staff may now be thinking of retiring early or taking extended leave. Others may be silently suffering the effects of workplace stress while simultaneously managing the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on their personal lives. All of this means that many staff may be less resilient and more fragile than in the past when normal routines and familiar structures were in place.
All schools actively seek to promote closer and more effective relationships between themselves, their students, and students’ families (or at least they should). Schools and families partnering together in a child’s learning journey can only enhance the quality of learning that takes place. There may be a substantial shift occurring towards an even more open and collaborative partnership between parents and schools as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some of the features of this new partnership are:
As schools adjust their operations and introduce new processes, it’s vital that schools gather as much feedback as possible from the school community. Many parents and caregivers will have plenty of valuable feedback to share, and some will have complaints that should be followed up appropriately.
There are many benefits to schools inviting feedback, including complaints, from their parents and communities, including:
Many schools might not yet have an effective system in place to manage feedback or complaints. This is a great opportunity to move away from informal and ‘ad hoc’ complaints handling and feedback processes and develop a structured, policy-driven and transparent approach that includes detailed procedures and comprehensive staff training in complaints handling. This will ensure that complaints and feedback can be dealt with in a timely manner and in a way that gives the parents and the community confidence in the school.
As lockdowns were enforced across Australia earlier in the year, schools were required to adapt to a remote teaching environment. It is clear that there was an increase in the vulnerability of children to abuse and harm while confined to their homes. There was also a general increase in the number of vulnerable children as household stressors impacted more families. These same issues arise again in Victoria now that it goes into another period of lockdown. Whether other states and territories will have another period of lockdown is currently unknown.
Remote learning meant that schools could no longer directly oversee these vulnerable students for six hours every day. Schools perform a vital role in picking up on physical and behavioural signs of abuse and neglect and this became more difficult, if not impossible, during the lockdown. For more information refer to Keeping the Safety Net Intact – Child Protection in a Remote Learning Environment.
Unfortunately, the return to school may not have changed the level of risk and vulnerability that children experience away from school. Students will still be in situations of increased vulnerability at home due to job losses, the economic downturn, parents working from home, financial pressures, and limited social and recreational activities. All of these would suggest that schools may see an increase in students who need care, support and, in some cases, children where mandatory reporting obligations will be triggered.
Children generally are only able to disclose concerns about their safety, or that of their peers, to people they trust – this could be anyone at a school, including counsellors, coaches, tutors, former teachers and non-teaching staff, or even their friends. As students return to the school grounds it is likely that they will use the opportunity to disclose concerns about their safety.
More than ever, schools will need to ensure their staff are trained to look out for, and lodge reports with respect to, students who are at risk of harm.
The workplace hazard related to COVID-19 might be described as an ‘infection transmission hazard’. All workplaces have a duty under health and safety laws to prevent harm to workers and any other persons who may be impacted by their operations and to maintain a safe working environment. This requires hazards to be identified and all steps taken, in so far as they are reasonably practicable, to control and minimise the risks to health and safety posed by the hazard. Schools that already have a detailed health and safety management program, with comprehensive policies and staff training in health and safety will have an easier task than those schools that have only rudimentary policies and limited training in place.
Identifying the infection transmission hazard is the first step. Health and safety legislation requires schools to undertake a detailed assessment of the risk of infection transmission related to all schools activities, facilities and procedures – in short, everything that the school does. This is a large and potentially daunting task.
In addition, vulnerable students and staff may need to have specific risk mitigation strategies in place. For some, that might mean staying at home for the time being in order to minimise the risk of infection. Student health care plans should be updated to ensure that they address COVID-19 infection transmission risks and procedures.
These additional requirements to deal with the infection transmission hazard are on top of the usual school activities. The burden to fulfil these requirements will fall heavily on some school staff, particularly the school leadership team.
One requirement for all schools will be to develop a plan for evacuating the school in the event of a positive test. This should be a detailed plan that ensures that infection transmission prevention measures are maintained during this process. All staff should be made aware of this plan and the role they will need to play in supervising this process and what will happen while the school is closed and cleaned.
For a detailed discussion of these issues read this School Governance article:
For some students the year of the COVID-19 pandemic will be remembered for the time spent at home and the fun break from the way school normally operates. But for many others it will be a year that they would rather forget.
A report in the SMH 28 May 2020 highlighted the youth mental health challenges many students have faced during lockdown and are continuing to deal with. The report stated that Kids Helpline received over 9000 calls in March or one every minute. In mid-April UNICEF Australia surveyed over 1000 young people on how the COVID-19 pandemic was impacting them. The report, titled “Living in Limbo”, found that almost half of the young people surveyed said that the COVID-19 pandemic had increased stress and anxiety:
“Australia’s young people have been cut off from social support networks, must complete major education milestones online, and are also impacted by job losses, either themselves or their parents and carers. All of this is taking a toll on their mental health and their hope for the future.”
The survey showed a decline in young people’s ability to cope since the beginning of 2020. Nearly all young people said their education had been disrupted or had stopped. Less than 40 per cent of those surveyed had a good idea of how to access psychological support services and around 25 per cent felt isolated and unsure about support options.
A recent ABC News article on the stress experienced by students as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted:
Many students will need close monitoring and extra care and support during this time. Some of the stressors for students have included:
In addition, Asian students may be concerned about xenophobic, racist, or bullying behaviour that may be directed towards them on their return to school. Some bullying behaviour of Chinese or Asian students had been reported by some parents in a small number of schools when the COVID-19 virus first appeared in Australia in February/March. Schools can take steps to ameliorate the adverse effects on the individuals who have been the targets of the bullies by communicating with them as clearly and supportively as possible and by offering to support the students with more than just platitudes or assurances that they will not be targeted. Learn more about this in the School Governance article, Racism in Schools in the Era of COVID-19.
Many schools will need to increase their support and assistance to students and perhaps adjust their emphasis from academics to greater levels of support and care for students showing signs of stress and anxiety. Schools will need to consider what they can do to reduce stress and anxiety for all students. This might be additional student counselling and support services and other activities and programs aimed at reducing stress and anxiety. All final year students may suffer additional disappointment when many of the fixed events and celebrations that are a feature of the final year of schooling are modified or cancelled.
A further issue related to this is the increased anxiety and stress where a school must send all students home for a period of time due to a positive COVID-19 test result at the school. For some students where they have had close contact with the person that tested positive, they may be required to stay away from school for a period of isolation. The possibility of starting regular face-to-face learning and important social interactions with their peers, and then having to stop again, will be very difficult for some students.
Read more about this in the School Governance article, Student Mental Health – an Operational Risk ‘During COVID-19’.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created new privacy risks for schools and increased the possibility of breaches of the Privacy Act 1988 (Cth) occurring. While schools’ immediate attention has been focused on other COVID-19 pandemic-related issues, some will have failed to consider a number of Privacy Act compliance issues.
One concern is the information that may be still accessible at teachers’ homes that should now be returned to school given that, with the exception of second wave lockdowns, schools have returned to face-to-face teaching. A great deal of information may have been accessed by teachers while they were undertaking online classes during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown. Some of this information may have been printed or downloaded and stored on portable storage devices or on home computers. This information should be returned to the school or securely destroyed. Staff will need to be given clear directions about what to do with this information. Some information will require secure destruction rather than just being placed in household paper recycling systems. Other information may be stored on home computers or on thumb drives or other portable storage devices and should be removed permanently so that it can no longer be accessed. School IT departments may need to assist with this.
Schools may need to carefully check that staff computers do not contain viruses and malware due to the increased incidence of cyber security breaches that have been widely reported during the COVID-19 pandemic. This has, in part, been a result of the much wider ‘digital footprint’ for all organisations, not just schools, due to everyone logging in to servers and accessing information from remote locations.
Other privacy compliance issues to consider are:
> School Governance article – A School’s Privacy Obligations During the COVID-19 Pandemic
> OAIC - Coronavirus (COVID-19): Understanding your privacy obligations to your staff
> CompliSpace White Paper Schools, Privacy and the Australian Privacy Principles October 2019
There are many events that have the potential to significantly disrupt the normal business functions of an organisation. These events can collectively be referred to as risks to business continuity. The challenge for any organisation is to develop a comprehensive business continuity plan (BCP) to support and enable the business to maintain normal business functions in the event of material business disruption.
A school’s hard-won reputation can quickly diminish if responses to critical incidents and natural disasters are badly handled and chaotic. A comprehensive BCP is designed to enable a systematic and planned response to any threats to business continuity
Business continuity planning should involve consideration of both the likelihood and the consequences associated with the many risks that threaten business continuity. Organisations should consider what steps can be taken to reduce the likelihood of a risk to business continuity occurring and, if the risk does materialise, what steps can be taken to reduce the consequences or impacts on business continuity. These should be included in a documented BCP.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, many schools already had well developed BCPs and those that didn’t probably wished that they did. However, even schools with a BCP probably found that the plan did not adequately account for the scale and complexity of the interruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic – and it’s not over yet. Many BCPs did not identify a global pandemic as a source of business interruption and, even where it was included as a source of interruption, the BCPs often did not foresee what has so far occurred in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Just because most students have returned to school face-to-face learning does not eliminate the need for careful ongoing business continuity planning to address further outbreaks and positive tests within the school or local community, further periods of lockdown such as we are currently seeing in Victoria, and the possibility that some schools may have a substantial period of lockdown if they become a COVID-19 pandemic ‘hotspot’.
While schools will generally have retained the support of their communities while negotiating the initial phase of the COVID-19 pandemic those same school communities are unlikely to continue to support their schools should there be any major mistakes and missteps in relation to any further lockdowns.
In the same way that lockdown and evacuation drills are undertaken, staff should be given the opportunity to upskill and practise for situations where they will be called upon to remain a calming presence. The most likely scenario where this calming presence will be needed is if there is a positive test result within the school requiring immediate closure of the school to all personnel to allow for contact tracing and cleaning.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, school leaders have been required to ensure that they communicate regularly and effectively with staff, students, parents and stakeholders. There has been no precedent for this and no manual to draw on as to how to do this. It is a significant ongoing challenge to get the communications right.
In ‘getting it right’, issues that have had to be considered include:
Cadence – how frequently should we communicate so that information is provided when it is needed, and the school community are not left waiting for answers?
Modes – how can we provide information quickly and effectively? This may require multiple modes of delivery such as emails and using social media and school websites.
Controlling the messaging – perhaps most critically the information provided must only be provided by those with authority to communicate – no leaks by staff and no staff communicating when they are not authorised to do so.
Tone – what is the right tone and language to communicate? This is often just as important as what is communicated.
Content – Like tone, how can we communicate in a way that inspires confidence and reduces stress and anxiety? The content must demonstrate an understanding of what is happening, particularly the challenges faced by students, parents and staff and provide a way forward. There is little point demonstrating an understanding of the problem without providing some positive messaging about how the school is responding.
In a situation such as the COVID 19 pandemic, staff, students and the school community have been looking to their children’s school for more explicit direction and leadership when, in other situations, they may not need this to the same extent.
Review communications and media policies to ensure that there are clear guidelines as to who is authorised to speak to stakeholders and the media and ensure that staff understand these policies.
One of the ongoing challenges for the next few years will be maintaining and sustaining a leadership team that can effectively deal with whatever lies ahead.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, school principals and school boards have found out a lot about the abilities and shortcomings of their school leadership teams. The entire school community has been looking for calm and decisive leadership and for leaders to be able to communicate a clear plan for school for the next week, the next month, the next term and the next year. They also expect their school leaders to be agile and to quickly and effectively communicate any changes.
From a governance perspective, school boards have been required to provide ongoing support for the school leadership team and, in some cases, participate in key decision- making. Boards have also needed to maintain good standards of governance including ensuring that decisions at meetings held remotely are recorded and the usual requirements for quorums, voting, receiving reports and decision-making are not significantly disrupted by meeting remotely. While these ‘normal’ board practices may have continued, there has also been the need for boards to deal with the pressing issues brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. This has meant in some cases the holding of extra meetings at short notice to deal with urgent issues, additional agenda items and reports and contingency planning for board members and members of the school’s senior leadership team if they were to become ill.
Another aspect of good governance in a pandemic is to ensure that the board is able to adequately support the school leadership in an environment where the leadership is under enormous stress.
> Governance, Risk and Compliance Professional Learning for School Governors, Boards and Leaders, including NESA accredited Responsible Persons training for NSW. Click here to see the learning item topics. Click here to request a proposal.
Some may be surprised that this issue is being discussed in a series on key risks where most if not all are related to schools surviving the COVID-19 pandemic. There is however potentially a strong link between the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and this risk. Anecdotally, many school principals that are closing in on retirement are considering bringing their retirement forward due to the stresses and added pressures of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to the Educator (January 2019), 70 percent of the current 10,000 Australian principals are eligible to retire in the next five years. Since then, principals and key leadership personnel face burnout as a result of dealing with prolonged COVID-19 pandemic-related stressors. Schools must have succession plans in place as well as short term strategies to replace key staff members due to illness.
In 2018, Associate Professor Phillip Riley of the Australian Catholic University noted: "The demands of principals’ jobs are seriously out of balance with the diminishing support resources available to them. Increasing bureaucracy and government accountability has significantly eroded principals’ decision latitude to deal with their work demands, further increasing the strain. Primary occupational health and safety interventions are needed to relieve principals from some of their job demands and increase their job resources. However, principals’ increased need for systemic support and resources to deal with the challenges is occurring alongside severe cuts to education budgets, and is potentially placing the future of our children’s education at risk."
In 2016 Michael Willis (Company Director- Effective Governance) wrote the following article in School Governance, The Cost of Losing a School Principal and How to Save Your School the Pain.
The imminent retirement of a long-standing principal is a very clear strategic risk for school boards. Boards need to plan for succession and they should have well thought out policies and procedures in place to mitigate this high level risk or they may then have a succession of new principals over a short period of time. This, in turn, could lead to high staff turnover and a destabilising effect on the school’s reputation.
Indicators of reputation risk can be wide and varying, often coming from outside of the norm. So, we need to ask the question, “Is this an uncertainty that would impact on the school’s objective of having a positive reputation in the community and being held in high regard and esteem by that community?”
Many families within the school community have been and continue to be affected by the economic changes resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. This is likely to impact their ability to pay fees both in the short and long term which will in turn impact a school’s recurrent income. Additionally, the income that a school would typically generate from other sources such as financial investments, events, donations, leasing of halls, boarding services etc, will be less than budgeted for.
As fixed expenditure such as utility bills, rent, insurance, debt repayments, and any contractual obligations such as staff contracts, staff entitlements, and memberships will probably not change, many schools will find that their cashflow will become impacted, and they will be forced to take on debt, make staff cuts and make cuts to services and programs. In addition, schools will not have budgeted for previously unknown ongoing expenditure. For example, there will be substantial increases in costs associated with the ongoing cleaning of classrooms, facilities and playground equipment, with indicators that this is generally costing at least $18,000 per month, even for smaller schools.
The long-term economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are not yet known, other than that there will most likely be a recession of some sort.
Schools will be reviewing enrolment forecasts and ensuring that their budget processes have contingencies for an expected reduction in enrolment income and a reduction in per capita government funding due to the loss of enrolments. Schools will need to review their policies regarding discounts and fee relief and how to manage parents facing difficulties in paying school fees.
Initiatives to assist families facing financial hardship usually include one-off discounts, bursaries, deferred payment plans etc. Decisions made in this regard should be fair and transparent and be policy based and not discretionary. Records of decisions should be maintained and be available for review. In some cases, the school’s policies for dealing with parents suffering financial hardship should be reviewed and approved by the school board.
Many schools will be actively engaging in scenario planning and using all available information to model the expected financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the school. This will assist the school to identify its financial strengths and weaknesses, determine what types of levers it can pull to best respond to the changing environment, and make informed decisions about what strategies to offer to its communities to support them during this time in line with their values.
For example, can the school afford to offer fee reductions for struggling families, or will it need to adopt a debt management strategy? Can the school continue to pay fixed term contracts, or will it need to explore escape clauses to deal with cash flow issues? Finally, the impact of the COVID-19 crisis will no doubt impact every organisation’s performance against its 2020 budget and strategic plans. These documents will need to be reviewed and updated.
Many schools will be reviewing their strategic plans in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic may cause a drop in school income over the next few years and that drop may be substantial for some schools. For others it will be more of a ‘hiccup’ and perhaps cause a delay in the implementation of some programs or tighter budgeting. Even if there were no economic impacts on schools, strategic plans will need to be reviewed due to the wide variety of issues that have surfaced during the COVID-19 pandemic that will require careful consideration.
What are the ‘new ways of working’ for schools as result of the COVID-19 pandemic? Many businesses are reviewing the way that they currently operate and make decisions both short and long term as to how the business will operate in the future. This includes providing a much greater degree of flexibility as to start and finish times, having much greater numbers of employees working from home, reviewing office space requirements, reviewing the geography of offices, factories and other business premises to determine what changes are required to meet possible long term requirements for increased personal hygiene and sanitation, personal distancing, use of kitchens and bathrooms etc. Should schools be undertaking similar sorts of review processes? Some of the questions for schools to consider are outlined below.
CompliSpace presented a series of webinars about excursion risk management in April, May and June 2020. Click here to learn more and access the recordings.
When schools first moved to remote learning in April, CompliSpace produced and shared several resources for schools including:
To learn more and request any of these resources click here: COVID-19 Resources for Schools
CompliSpace is a leading provider of Governance, Risk, Compliance and Policy (GRC&P) programs and consulting services for schools. We work with over 650 non-government schools across every jurisdiction in Australia. Through our school clients, we help over 500,000 students, 50,000 teachers, and over 1 million parents and carers around Australia, by enabling non-government schools to meet their legal and regulatory obligations and to manage risk, compliance, policies, excursions and staff professional development in critical areas including school registration, human resources management, work health and safety, student duty of care, privacy, child protection, whistleblower, boarding and overseas students.
CompliSpace also publishes School Governance, the Australian school sector’s leading news and information source on issues related to governance, risk management, compliance and policy management. It’s a weekly newsletter and searchable reference site dedicated to providing unbiased news that relates to the management of schools. www.schoolgovernance.net.au
For more information visit www.complispace.com.au or call 1300 132 090.