Getting ahead of the next stage of the coronavirus crisis

First the virus, now the economic fallout—you need to launch your plan-ahead team.

The COVID-19 pandemic is spreading at an extraordinary speed. You have put a crisis team in place and are doing all you can to keep your people safe, stay on top of your business, and deal with the uncertainty amid constantly changing conditions. However, that isn’t likely to be good enough.

Close on the heels of the coronavirus outbreak, the next wave of disruption—the biggest economic shock since World War II—is headed our way. And it isn’t just an economic shock: it is a shock to customer behaviors and business models too. The challenges associated with it will be orders of magnitude bigger than what we are used to dealing with. To handle them, you need to adopt an operating model that accommodates the extreme level of uncertainty facing your business.

Most companies will be very vulnerable to the economic fallout of extended public- and employee-isolation measures. As the number of issues your business is facing will likely rapidly escalate, there are two practical steps you can take to help stay ahead:

  1. Launch a PLAN-AHEAD TEAM to get ahead of the next stage of the crisis.

  2. Direct that team to work across multiple time horizons, using five frames.

 

The plan-ahead team will help elevate your view above the day-to-day response that your crisis team is managing. Its objective is to enable modular, scalable thinking that any CEO needs to navigate this unprecedented and rapidly evolving situation. The plan-ahead team will deliver a STRATEGIC CRISIS-ACTION PLAN to guide and accelerate your decision making.

Launch a plan-ahead team

Military organizations, which specialize in dealing with large-scale crises, often establish granular structures accountable for highly specific tasks, such as operations, communication, and intelligence gathering. However, they all use plan-ahead teams for key decision makers to leverage when dealing with complex and escalating sets of issues.

Your plan-ahead team should be charged with collecting forward-looking intelligence, developing scenarios, and identifying the options and actions needed to act tactically and strategically. Unlike a typical strategy team, it will have to plan across all time horizons (two, four, and seven days; two and four weeks; one and two quarters; one and two years; and the next normal) to enable you to stay on top of escalating issues and the decisions that you need to make in this time of high uncertainty.

A plan-ahead team delivers scenarios, recommendations for actions, and trigger points to the CEO and the management team so that they can decide on the right course of action. The decisions will be communicated to the crisis team or other parts of the organization for execution. If further clarification is necessary, the plan-ahead team will do another turn, collecting further information to reduce uncertainty.

Importantly, the structure of the plan-ahead team is modular, with individual cells focusing on specific issues across time horizons. As new issues come up or time horizons expand, you may need to add new cells. This will enable the team to scale in line with the magnitude of the crisis;

While staff from a regular strategy group may form part of a plan-ahead team, the team’s responsibilities are far from the strategy function’s usual purview. Planning ahead today requires a dedicated effort, with a full-time senior executive leading and accountable for a team of ring-fenced high-potential employees located “next door” to the CEO.

As a first task, the team needs to develop a day-one version of a strategic crisis-action plan by working through the five frames outlined in the next section of this article. Speed is of the essence, and waiting for perfect answers can be counterproductive: you need to deal with uncertainty, not let it bottleneck your decision making. Your plan-ahead team will need to update and improve plans continually by integrating new intelligence as it becomes available.

Work across multiple time horizons using five frames

The best response to navigating through the COVID-19 crisis and the subsequent recovery will differ based on a company’s circumstances. For some, simply staying calm and carrying on will be the optimal approach. Others may need to undertake radical restructuring of their cost bases and business models immediately.

Even as you assess the best course forward, the one thing you shouldn’t do is rely on what we frequently see in regular strategic-planning processes: ducking uncertainty altogether or relegating it to a risk analysis at the back of the presentation deck. You can use a strategic crisis-action plan to guide your response through the next stages of the crisis as events unfold (Exhibit 2).

To produce this plan, you need to confront uncertainty head on. Your plan-ahead team needs to work through the following five frames:

  1. Gain a realistic view of your starting position.

  2. Develop scenarios for multiple versions of your future.

  3. Establish your posture and broad direction of travel.

  4. Determine actions and strategic moves that are robust across scenarios.

  5. Set trigger points that drive your organization to act at the right time.

We can’t stress the idea enough: speed is of the essence. Your plan-ahead team must move fast, give you the day-one answer tomorrow, and iterate at high velocity. If new issues or opportunities come up, add modules for your plan-ahead team; don’t slow down. The next few weeks and months will shape the future of your company—and possibly, your industry.

1. Gain a realistic view of your starting position

In times of extreme uncertainty, you should start by developing a clear baseline of your company’s last-known position. Think of it as doing a “system restore” back to January. You don’t have time for a cleansheet exercise; your existing strategy can be an anchor to use in systematically assessing what has changed.

Your plan-ahead team should take stock in three main areas: your financial assumptions, your ongoing initiatives, and your big strategic choices. Referring to a three-year plan and cataloging the planning assumptions made in that document will help determine what drives the financial performance of the company. Those factors should be sorted into three buckets: those that still seem about right, those that are wrong, and those about which you are unsure. If possible, do a quick sensitivity analysis to assess which assumptions matter most.

The next task is to list the big ongoing initiatives, starting with major projects on the capital-expenditure list, and organize them into the same bucket categories. The final step is to list the big strategic choices that underpin your company’s business model—for example, sustain a price premium, keep investing in a physical network, and invest faster than the competition. Sort those into the three buckets too. You have now clarified the starting picture and brought the critical issues to the foreground.

2. Develop scenarios for multiple versions of your future

The traditional approach to strategic planning too often either adopts a head-in-the-sand position (assuming away uncertainty) or suffers from “deer in the headlights” syndrome (being paralyzed by unpredictability).1 Now more than ever, you can’t get rid of uncertainty; you have to confront it. A good way of doing this is to build scenarios, and The Jeeranont’s global COVID-19 scenarios are a useful starting point (Exhibit 3).

 

We took the two biggest uncertainties associated with the crisis—the virus spread (and the associated health response) and the economic knock-on effects (along with the public-policy response)—and combined them into potential macroeconomic outcomes.

The aim isn’t to debate which scenarios are more likely but rather to explore what is possible—and to ready yourself for anything that looks plausible. Chopping off “the tails” to eliminate the most extreme eventualities is where scenario analyses often fail, resulting in mere variants of a base case. While some scenarios may seem too awful to contemplate, that doesn’t mean they should be disregarded. Your plan-ahead team should develop at least four scenarios. If you only have three, it is all too tempting to default to a middle option as the base case.

Next, your plan-ahead team should stress-test your company’s performance and strategy against each scenario by translating them into modeled business outcomes. Identify where your business is most at risk and where it is most resilient; estimate your capital “headroom” (or shortfall) in the worst-case scenario. Then assess your current slate of strategic initiatives against each scenario, determining whether each initiative should continue as planned, accelerate, or stop.

Developing scenarios brings immediate benefits. It allows you to bound uncertainty into manageable and measurable boxes, reducing confusion, and to sort out what is truly unknown and what really matters. You can identify, with confidence, the no-regret moves with which you should promptly proceed while creating a clear structure to use when working through options to handle a range of possible outcomes. Finally, it enables you to identify the signals that will be early markers that a scenario is coming to pass.

It is extremely important that a plan-ahead team considers multiple scenarios as input and converts them to tangible ideas for action. However, it is also important that the team has a set of planning assumptions provided as an input to delivery teams. If the plan-ahead team believes that the company needs to operate under an assumption of an 8 percent drop in GDP, then the team that is constructing the financial portfolio can’t make an assumption that is different than that.

One approach we have found useful is to start by developing a clear view on how the primary threat or opportunity that you face (for example, macrolevel and industry trends, operations, and regulation) could evolve. Then think through how the evolution of that threat or opportunity could affect your business performance. Running this loop a few times helps you acquire a nuanced view of how the environment is likely to change.

A plan-ahead team is in the best position to define the inputs that are necessary for an organization’s scenario-development and decision-making processes because it is the team responsible for gathering pertinent, high-quality information for the organization. The reason is simple: gathering high-quality information about the environment is a costly exercise that usually requires a lot of nuance and judgment. It is far more involved than a simple exercise of analyzing positive and negative sentiments on Twitter.

3. Establish your posture and broad direction of travel

One of the key responsibilities of a plan-ahead team is to determine the best response to an evolving situation based on the company’s circumstances after the immediate crisis passes. While some companies may need to enter a long and difficult period of slow rebuilding, others will find near-term opportunities in big, strategic moves and innovations. The point isn’t to develop detailed plans but rather to figure out your broad direction of travel—the big thematic idea around which you can form a strategic response. In a world full of uncertainty, you have to stand for a goal that will matter above all else. This big idea will bring coherence and determination to your evolving tactical response.

In a disruption of the magnitude of the COVID-19 pandemic, a point of view on what has changed permanently is essential. It helps you avoid a hedging approach to the future in which you spread your resources like peanut butter across a range of opportunities without really taking a clear stance. Many successful companies have confronted these moments when they have had to commit to a vision of the future. In the 1980s, for example, Bill Gates didn’t know which operating system would emerge as dominant, but he did know that, in all scenarios, personal computing would be the next big thing and computers would run on graphical user interfaces. He also knew that it was likely that the winners would take all. This led Microsoft to adopt a clear posture of trying to win the race for the PC operating system.

Coming out of developing your scenarios, you will have thought through how the dual shocks to your demand and your business model might play out. You might see a few possible versions of the next normal. While you are staying open to multiple possibilities, it might help to consider in which direction you need to establish your broad direction of travel (Exhibit 4).

With the COVID-19 crisis, hardly anyone will be in the bottom corner of the map shown in Exhibit 4, as the challenge is so ubiquitous. Some businesses will have a dominant imperative to sustain, as they will return in similar form but at different recovery speeds (for example, with essential subscription services, such as core consumer telephony and electricity retailing). Others will primarily orient to restructure to match a much leaner demand environment (for example, the cases of airlines and cruise ships). Other companies will have less severe demand shocks but will face radically different customer behaviors. They will have to shift their business models. Yet other companies and industries will find themselves in a completely different territory on both the axes shown in Exhibit 4, and they will have to shape entirely new businesses.

One notable feature of the COVID-19 crisis is a radical shift to distance business models. In a matter of days, people massively stepped up their use of technologies that enable remote learning, working, services, and consumption. Will that adoption recede postcrisis, or will we move to a new status quo? As a result, should you now accelerate your investments in a digital business model? Do you need to scale back your capital-investment plans focused on increasing your physical footprint and instead secure bandwidth to host your virtualized business? Given the level of uncertainty, you can’t put all your eggs in one basket or bet on hope. The critical output of this frame is to establish conviction on future themes before defining any initiatives.

4. Determine actions and strategic moves that are robust across scenarios

In a world of extreme uncertainty, a rigid, deterministic plan won’t be right for very long. But making everything flexible can be an expensive path to nowhere. Rather, you need to think about building a portfolio of strategic moves that will perform relatively well as a collective across all likely scenarios, even if every move isn’t a winner on its own.

A tried-and-tested approach is to work through one scenario at a time, defining the optimal set of moves you would make if you knew for sure that the scenario would pan out. Start with your list of existing initiatives—those that were on the slate before the crisis—then scan widely for opportunities and threats before deciding which initiatives to cull and which new ones to add. Then check for the big commonalities and differences among the scenario-specific strategies.

Some initiatives will make sense in all scenarios; those are no-regret moves with which you can proceed with confidence. Others will pay off big in some scenarios but may hurt in others; those are big bets, and the key here is to gather as much information as possible before making a go/no-go decision. If possible, you should try to break them down into smaller parts, investing in phases to reduce the risk associated with a large, one-off investment under high uncertainty.

Other moves are about buying the right to act preferentially later–real options. Options are worth a lot more money when volatility is high, so now is a good time to create optionality where you can. Companies in oil and gas exploration and movie studios, for instance, do this as part of everyday business, but real options can be everywhere in your business when you look for them. Finally, there are moves you could consider that mostly protect you from the downside. You can’t avoid risk, but these safety nets help you make sure your risk exposure is smart and offers a good upside, with a protected downside.

The outcome of this frame needs to be a portfolio of several dozen strategic moves, ranging from no-regret moves to point-of-no-return moves that can irreversibly alter the future of a company. Ensure that the moves on each topic are thoroughly syndicated with major decision makers and stakeholders, inside and outside the organization. Ideally, you do this through tabletop exercises or workshops that force decision makers to engage on the very real possibility of pulling the trigger on moves that may appear unlikely at the moment.

5. Set trigger points that drive your organization to act at the right time

In an environment as uncertain as the one with COVID-19, the passing of time will make a rigid plan rapidly outdated. The world is going to evolve fast. You don’t yet know which scenario we are approaching. But you need to try to be the best learner (the first to know where the world is going) and the best adapter (the one making the best decisions and iterating the plan). It isn’t about starting with the perfect plan: it’s about being on the fastest improvement trajectory. In a fast-moving world, that will matter most, as even a great plan will become obsolete.

As discussed, the majority of the moves we describe will only make sense to make under a certain set of circumstances. However, many companies that face disruption only start to debate those moves once the circumstances clearly present themselves. This, together with high emotive and potentially consensus-driven decision making, is the root of the delayed or lack of action that befalls many management teams.

To avoid such an issue, it is extremely important to ensure that every move comes with a clearly articulated set of trigger points for when the organization should begin detailed planning and execution for that move. That point, or the trip wire, is the time at which the probability of that move being necessary has increased and it makes sense to invest a team in ensuring that the organization can act quickly. Making a decision on when trigger points have been reached—and when detailed planning and execution should commence—is a key role of the CEO, in conjunction with the plan-ahead team.

 

Stay ahead in the race against time

In times like these, being on the fastest trajectory matters more than having a great plan because plans quickly become outdated. Staying ahead in the race against time means making the following moves:

  • Convert your actions and portfolio of moves into a strategic crisis-action plan, ideally syndicated and “decision primed” through a tabletop simulation.

  • Roll back all initiatives in the plan to near-term goals and decision points. That will give you visibility and allow you to direct the action in real time.

  • Create a set of indicators aggregated into a control tower that serves as an early-warning system to signal which scenario is emerging. Your job isn’t to know the unknowable but to be the first to know and the fastest to act. This requires a sentinel that can see the signals first, combined with a plan that is flexible and ready to act on the trigger points.

 

Additionally, a reality of many of the companies we are speaking to is that their current budgets are dead in the water and they have no credible way of setting new budgets. This will force a much more agile, real-time approach to resource allocation, perhaps one of working in quarterly sprints. Funding will be stage gated and released, and there will also need to be trigger points for disinvestment or further cutbacks. You might have to demolish the long-held divide between strategy and finance functions swiftly.

That all might feel like a lot, and you most likely don’t have the bandwidth to manage it on your own. That’s why, even as your crisis team is busy keeping the business afloat, you should have your modular, scalable plan-ahead team at your side to support your iterative planning cycle throughout the crisis—no matter how overwhelming the issues seem to become (Exhibit 5).

Under high levels of uncertainty, you need to operate at high speeds. You will need to cycle through the playbook regularly. Bias toward speed rather than perfection; and the sooner you start, the better. Accept that the first pass won’t be 100 percent right but that you are going to get better answers after each iteration. Scenarios will be refined and refreshed, and more information will surface as time unfolds. Some things will drop out; others will be accelerated. Evolve your way to a more sophisticated answer.

 

When an escalating set of issues triggered by the next wave of the COVID-19 crisis hits you, your plan-ahead team will be what keeps your sights above the fray and what helps you win the race against time. To get ahead of the next stage of the crisis, launch your plan-ahead team now.

Safely back to school after coronavirus closures

Countries around the world remain at very different points of the COVID-19 pandemic, which means they face varying challenges, from overwhelmed healthcare systems to growing economic despair. In geographies beginning to emerge from the first wave of COVID-19 cases, the question of reopening schools is front of mind for many stakeholders. Schools provide not just learning and social support for students but also, crucially, childcare, without which many parents cannot return to work. However, reopening schools carries the public health risk of viral resurgence. Parents and teachers are understandably wary. How can education systems respond?

System leaders around the world—at the federal, state, and district levels—are grappling with three important questions related to getting students safely back into the classroom:

  • When should schools reopen?

  • For which segments of students and teachers (if not everyone) should schools reopen?

  • What health and safety measures should schools adopt on reopening?

Post-pandemic capabilities for school systems

There isn’t one right set of answers to these questions. Infection rates fluctuate across communities, as does capacity of healthcare systems; education systems vary in both structure and performance; and different communities have distinct cultural values that inform decision making. Significantly, leaders will be making decisions based on limited and rapidly changing epidemiological evidence and will therefore be forced to make difficult trade-offs to reopen schools. Once schools are deemed safe for in-person instruction, addressing re-enrollment, academic remediation, and possible viral resurgence will require new capabilities (see sidebar, “Post-pandemic capabilities for school systems”).

When to reopen

Although most primary and secondary schools worldwide remain closed, some countries (most notably Sweden) have stayed open as of publication. Others, including China, Denmark, Japan, and Norway, recently reopened their schools, and many European countries have announced plans to reopen in the coming weeks or months. In the United States, 43 states and Washington, DC, have ordered or recommended keeping in-person schooling closed for the rest of the academic year.

As school-system leaders weigh possible timelines, they can consider four interlocking components of reopening: risks to public health, schools’ importance to economic activity, impacts on students’ learning and thriving, and safeguarding readiness.

Risks to public health

The most critical question is whether reopening schools will lead to a resurgence of infection among students, staff, and the broader community. The evidence here is still nascent. Children’s risk of contracting COVID-19 appears to be lower than that of adults. In China and the United States, the countries with the largest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases, children represent 2 percent of cases.2 Emerging evidence also suggests that children are more likely to be asymptomatic, less likely to be hospitalized, and much less likely to die if they do develop COVID-19.

Although the risk to students themselves appears relatively low, reopening schools will also expose teachers to risk—especially those who are older or immune-compromised—and might contribute to higher risk for the larger community. Children’s role in transmitting the novel coronavirus is still unclear, making it difficult to estimate the extent to which reopening schools might contribute to resurgence. Potentially relaxed confinement measures outside the education sector add to the uncertainty. Decision makers will therefore need to determine when to reopen schools in the context of reopening society at large.

Importance to economic activity

A major part of the sequencing puzzle is the importance of schooling in providing childcare. Workers with children under 15 years old in their household who have no alternate caregiver will likely need childcare before being able to return fully to work. The proportion of workers who cannot return to work without childcare varies significantly across countries—and even within them. In the United States, 16 percent of the workforce—representing 26.8 million workers—are dependent on childcare to work (exhibit). In Europe, where there is a higher proportion of dual-income families, thus fewer stay-at-home parents to provide childcare, 20 to 30 percent of the workforce are likely dependent upon preschools and schools to resume work.

 

These numbers do not represent the full complexity of individual workers’ family situations or obligations. While some workers, especially those with older children and who can fulfill their work responsibilities remotely, may be able to return part-time, their productivity will likely suffer. Conversely, the situation is much more challenging for those with younger children and who also cannot work remotely. While some families may lean on older siblings to provide childcare, doing so could significantly impair learning for those students. Other families may ask grandparents to watch children, but this solution puts one of the most vulnerable populations in this pandemic at risk.

 

Our estimates may also underestimate the magnitude of the challenge. The proportion of workers under the age of 55 requiring childcare is even greater, as younger workers are the ones most likely to have dependent children. This poses a challenge for countries that wish to bring back younger workers first and protect older workers by keeping them safely at home.

Where a significant proportion of workers rely on schools for childcare, reopening schools (at least for younger children) might be a prerequisite to tapping into the full productive capacity of the workforce. However, if the majority of parents can work from home while fulfilling childcare responsibilities or can access alternative childcare, schools might be able to stay closed for longer.

Student learning and thriving

 

Every year, students in the United States lose a month’s worth of learning over the summer, with the sharpest learning declines in math, seen especially in low-income students.6 Some researchers suggest that despite systems’ best efforts with remote learning, school closures caused by COVID-19 could be even more damaging. One recent analysis projects that students could return in the fall having progressed only 70 percent of a grade in reading and less than 50 percent of a grade in math during the 2019–20 school year. 

 

If closures extend beyond the fall, this shortfall could be even greater, with negative consequences for individual students and society as a whole. If decision makers believe that their remote-learning offerings are effective and equitable enough to avoid learning shortfalls, then longer school closures may be feasible. However, an uneven rollout of remote learning represents lost learning for every day out of school.

Beyond academics, schools provide important social support, especially to vulnerable students. Indeed, 19 percent of reports of child abuse or neglect in the United States come through education personnel, and school closures have resulted in a steep drop in such reports.8 This change suggests that school closures have shut down support sources for victims of abuse and neglect at the very moment that they are most vulnerable.

And although abuse may be less visible to staff during school closures, governments and nonprofits worldwide have recorded higher rates of domestic violence since shutdowns began. Reports of domestic violence increased more than 30 percent in France,9 50 percent in India,10 and 60 percent in Mexico.11 With such high stakes, systems that can consistently deliver remote student services—nutrition, safety, and mental-health support—can likely weather longer closures than those who cannot.

 

Safeguarding readiness

The final consideration to weigh is school systems’ ability to create and consistently follow effective health and safety measures to mitigate the risk of infection. School systems’ infrastructure, budget, supply chains, policies, and culture all contribute to their ability to operate safely after reopening. For instance, a school with unused classroom space and enough classroom aides could stagger schedules, space desks at least six feet apart, and facilitate more but smaller classes. Conversely, schools with strapped budgets, overworked teachers, and crowded classes will have less flexibility. Furthermore, equipping or retrofitting schools for optimal hygiene and sanitation won’t be effective if student behavior cannot or does not adhere to health and safety protocols.

If decision makers believe schools can realistically adopt health and safety protocols that can lower the risk of infection, schools can open earlier. However, if system leaders believe schools are unlikely to be able to limit transmission because they are, by definition, high-contact zones, then schools are likely to remain closed or to open later.

For whom to reopen

Reopening doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing decision. Schools could selectively reopen, making it easier to keep student groups small and dispersed. Countries are taking varied approaches in deciding which students should return to school first. Denmark and Norway have prioritized reopening pre-primary and primary schools to address childcare for parents who need to return to work. Such an approach can be appealing to decision makers who believe young children are among the lowest-risk groups for both infection and transmission.

Other countries have prioritized students in important transitional years. For example, final-year students in Germany have returned to school to take their final examinations. Physical distancing is easier—and in fact typical—in examination halls, and older students are more likely than younger ones to follow health and safety protocols.

 

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Alternatively, schools can consider identifying student segments with specific needs and reopening for them. For instance, low-income students, who are less likely to have reliable internet service and devices equipped to support remote learning and who are more likely to rely on school for nonacademic support, may gain academic and wellness benefits (including nutrition) from returning to school. Similarly, students with disabilities (especially ones that make remote learning particularly difficult) might be better served with educational specialists at school. Finally, the children of essential workers might return to school earlier since their parents may not have the option of staying home.

Just as it may be beneficial for some students to return to school, some teachers might be better served working from home. Teachers who are at a higher risk of developing COVID-19 can be identified in advance of school reopening and provide remote instruction to students who are also still at home.

These possibilities are uncharted for many school systems and may require adjustments in both logistics (especially for staffing) and mindsets. For instance, reopening schools for only some students may mean reframing or redefining truancy, especially if a significant number of families opt out of sending their children back to school due to safety concerns. As of publication, Australia’s Northern Territory is letting families opt out of sending children back to school.12 Such examples suggest that school systems may need to continue to offer some level of remote learning, even after most students are back in the classroom.

Health and safety measures to adopt

Like workplaces around the world, schools will need to adopt and enforce heightened health and sanitation protocols. However, schools will likely confront trade-offs between effectiveness and feasibility in implementing such measures.

Measures that can reduce viral spread may be less effective at providing childcare or optimizing learning. For example, alternating school days for different groups of students may facilitate physical distancing but may not fully meet parents’ childcare needs and may create inconsistent learning environments for students. Limited budgets, infrastructure, and supplies of critical health and safety equipment may further complicate these challenges. Most importantly, some measures that are appropriate for adults will be difficult if not impossible to enforce in a school setting, especially for younger students.

Each school system will therefore need to evaluate its health and safety measures to fit its resources and capabilities across four major categories: physical infrastructure, scheduling and staffing, transportation and food service, and health and behavioral policies. Some example health and safety considerations can illustrate how systems can consider feasibility in a school environment.

School infrastructure can facilitate both physical distancing and hygiene protocols. For instance, designated entrances and exits for different student cohorts, sectioned off common spaces, and floor markings to direct foot-traffic flows can help students and staff maintain distance. Similarly, portable hand-sanitizing stations at entrances and common areas can promote regular hygiene—and all of these changes may be made at a reasonable cost. However, permanent changes to the physical environment, such as no-touch bathrooms or upgraded ventilation, may be unrealistic for many school systems’ budgets—especially given the short time frames involved.

 

School-system priorities in the age of coronavirus

Outside of no-regrets decisions (such as canceling large gatherings), changes in scheduling and staffing are the most likely to affect student learning. For example, while staggered or part-time schedules can help reduce the number of people on campus at a given time, making it easier to maintain a safe distance, these schedules also reduce instructional time. An alternative approach is to divide students into cohorts—for example, by grade or floor—to reduce the level of contact among students and staff to only those within their cohort.13 Secondary schools, where students tend to go to subject-specialist teachers’ classrooms, could explore ways to keep consistent groups of students together and trade off some subject-specific learning for more safety.

Transportation and food service, which historically brought students and staff into close physical contact, can adapt to support the school community’s health and safety—though the cost could be high. Increasing the number of bus routes, for instance, or organizing routes by cohort would reduce proximity and exposure but would require more drivers, funding, and sanitization between routes. School systems may instead offer incentives for private transport, but parents may be logistically or financially unable to take their children to school. Food service will also become more complicated: even with pre-boxed lunches and staggered lunch times, full compliance with physical distancing and hygiene may not be attainable, especially for young children.

Finally, systems need to consider which behavioral policies and norms are enforceable during the school day. Temperature checks for anyone entering a school campus may be sensible, yet contactless thermometers are expensive and may be in short supply. Schools will therefore need to decide whether to require everyone to check their temperature at home daily or have school personnel administer checks using standard thermometers. Schools can set up quarantine facilities for students with fevers, but if insufficient coronavirus tests are available it will complicate decisions on when entire student cohorts (or even the entire school) should be sent home.

Consistently wearing masks might also be difficult, if not impossible, to enforce among students. However, frequent scheduled campuswide handwashing and sanitation can help keep the environment and hands relatively clean. Enhanced cleaning of surfaces after the school day can be another vital element of promoting hygiene. Training and frequent reinforcement can help staff, parents, students, and entire communities stay updated on important health and sanitation practices.

As school-system leaders consider a dizzying array of decisions, they will have to make difficult trade-offs using the best and most recent—but still incomplete—available evidence and the knowledge of their own resources and constraints. They will also have to involve parents, teachers, and students in the decision-making process.

As schools reopen under appropriate health and safety protocols, school leaders will then confront a new set of challenges, including reenrollment, remedial academic support, and possibly closing schools again in response to public-health needs. None of this work is easy, but the prize—students learning, parents working, and a virus in retreat—is worth fighting for.

Dwight Eisenhower: Lessons from the ‘balancer in chief’

William I. Hitchcock, author of The Age of Eisenhower, explains how Dwight D. Eisenhower inspired his country and led Americans through times of uncertainty and radical change.

Seventy-five years ago, the supreme allied commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force dictated a message simple and sublime: “The mission of this Allied force was fulfilled at 0241, local time, May 7, 1945. Eisenhower.” It was the end of World War II in Europe, a victory then as now venerated by millions. It also marked an amazing achievement for Eisenhower himself. When German and Soviet tanks rumbled across Poland to start the war in September 1939, Ike had been a mere lieutenant colonel (and a major, stuck in rank for 12 consecutive years before that). When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, on December 7, 1941, bringing the United States into the conflagration, he had been promoted to a one-star brigadier general only a few short months before. Yet Eisenhower concluded the war as a five-star general, the architect of Operation Overlord—the allied invasion of Normandy—and the indispensable man who had balanced the interests and egos of a galaxy of generals and political leaders.

Balance and mission would distinguish Eisenhower’s presidency in the 1950s. For Eisenhower, it was the “Great Equation.” How could the United States afford to project military power against expansionist, totalitarian regimes abroad, while at the same time foster economic prosperity at home and do so for decades, if needed, without going bust? It’s a choice commonly referred to as “guns or butter.” 1 But for Eisenhower, it was both guns and butter, today and tomorrow, and more—a shared sense of national purpose. When the newly elected Eisenhower took office in early 1953, America was embroiled in the Korean War, Western Europe seemed to lay open before the USSR, and the Great Depression still weighed heavy in Americans’ recent memories. Eight years later, when Eisenhower gave his farewell address, America had extracted itself from the Asian land war, avoided a European war, and was deep into what’s remembered as a halcyon era of good jobs, comfortable suburbia, and “Happy Days.” The ’50s have come down to us as a golden age.

For Eisenhower it was the “Great Equation.” How could the United States afford to project military power against totalitarian regimes abroad, while at the same time foster economic prosperity at home and do so for decades, if needed, without going bust?

For many Americans, it wasn’t that, of course. When the decade began, segregated schools were still legal in the United States; by the time Eisenhower left office, the Supreme Court had declared “separate but equal” unconstitutional, 2 but racial inequality remained, both by custom and terror. Red-baiting senator Joseph McCarthy dominated the national stage, and “McCarthyism” entered the lexicon. So did “duck and cover,” “NASA,” “H-bomb,” and “ICBM.” Death-toll estimates from nuclear war with China and the Soviet Union ran to the hundreds of millions. Tanks rolled into central Europe and a world war very nearly erupted in the Middle East—all in the same week. A flu pandemic, originating in Asia in 1957, killed more than a million people, more than 100,000 of them in the United States. Even the weather seemed to go haywire. The decade began with a wave of hurricanes and tornadoes. Then the Great Texas Drought settled in and lasted most of the decade, parching the country’s South and Southwest. “The time it never rained,” novelist Elmer Kelton termed it.

That America and its economy pulled through was remarkable. That Eisenhower solved the Great Equation seems almost incomprehensible. His administration bolstered America’s defense (increasing military spending to an unprecedented peacetime level of 10 percent of GDP), embraced business (and saw GDP rise by more than 4 percent per annum, even accounting for the Korean War and its conclusion), and approached or achieved a balanced budget nearly every year in office. Eisenhower brilliantly steered a course to win the Cold War 20 years after his passing. Yet the man was not without his faults, some of them hard to let pass, even now. In a recent interview, The Jeeranont’s David Schwartz spoke with William I. Hitchcock, author of The Age of Eisenhower: America and the World in the 1950s (Simon and Schuster, 2018), to learn more about President Eisenhower and his principles, how he approached decisions and made them, and what lessons—inspiring and cautionary—his legacy can teach leaders today.

The Jeeranont: What did Eisenhower promise Americans, and what did he expect of them?

William I. Hitchcock: I think the key to Eisenhower’s political identity, and his pitch to the American people, was the ethic of service and sacrifice. There was very much a sense in Eisenhower’s worldview, and of the worldview of people who supported him, that everything was fragile. The good times could come, but they could also go. Many people who voted for Eisenhower remembered the Great Depression all too well; some had been ruined by it. When he became president, the country was only eight years removed from the end of the Second World War. Virtually all of the people who voted for him had either served in the war or had family members who served in the war. They had been touched by its sacrifices, and also by its fears, struggles, and losses.

There was very much a sense in Eisenhower’s worldview, and of the worldview of people who supported him, that everything was fragile. The good times could come, but they could also go.

William I. Hitchcock

What mattered most was a kind of sobriety—a balance and preparedness. When times were going well, you stored up for when times were not going to go well. Everybody anticipated the possibility that there could be problems ahead. There was a degree of optimism and caution. After all, he comes into office and the Korean War is still going on; the Soviet Union is gaining the ability to project power around the world; China has just gone communist in 1949, and war is raging throughout Asia, and already in Indochina. There are storm clouds on the horizon. Eisenhower’s worldview was that Americans could deal with any crisis around the world, provided that they maintained a sense of their own personal responsibility for supporting the country in times of need. Individualism was to be welcomed up to a point, but only up to a point.

This is something that he pitched to Americans: finding the right balance between individualism and community. We don’t want to be like a totalitarian country, we don’t want to have the government do everything for us, we don’t want to become robots in which the government determines our future and shapes our lives. We want to encourage innovation, entrepreneurial spirit, and individuality. We want self-reliance, but not selfishness. We want to maintain the strength of the community so that in times of trouble, the community would be resilient.

The Jeeranont: Eisenhower’s secretary of defense, Charles Wilson, famously said, “What’s good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa.” Was that Eisenhower’s take as well?

William I. Hitchcock: Yes, it very much was. I don’t think Eisenhower found that to be an objectionable statement. He felt that business—by which he meant the process of innovation, improvement, applying reason, science, and rational judgement to the challenge of making people more comfortable, healthier, and more prosperous—was in every respect emblematic of the American way. That is what differentiated the United States from its communist rivals in the Cold War. The business sector was where the action was. Business was to be encouraged and rewarded because it was building prosperity.

People criticized Charlie Wilson for that comment, but it was actually a pretty good example of the thinking of Eisenhower and his circle. I would stress, though, that Eisenhower did not believe that corporations should transform themselves into behemoths and acquire wealth for only a select few. The notion of corporate greed was an anathema to him. He felt that corporations were at their best when they worked in the public interest. He would be dismayed to see immense corporate wealth accumulated without a sense of social consciousness. It’s part of what makes Ike interesting, complicated, and a little bit of a shape-shifter.

The Jeeranont: And a lot of “interesting and complicated,” to say the least, was coming at him: Sputnik, Suez, Iranian revolution, and the risk of global thermonuclear war, to name just a few. How did Eisenhower adjust and adapt his decisions, real time, under radical uncertainty?

Eisenhower did not believe that corporations should transform themselves into behemoths and acquire wealth for only a select few. The notion of corporate greed was an anathema to him. He felt that corporations were at their best when they worked in the public interest.

William I. Hitchcock: The way he approached uncertainty is a big part of what set him apart. Eisenhower was a world-class poker player. He was so good that he had to quit playing, because he took so much money off of his Army buddies. He was also a world-class bridge player. The key thing about being good at those kinds of games is that you have to know, or believe you know, how to read your enemy. What does he want? What risks is he willing to take? What are his goals? What are his vulnerabilities? What’s the probability that he’s in a stronger position than I am? Eisenhower had a profound instinct about reading his rivals. Did the Soviets really want war? How far were they willing to go to risk a war with us? Where were they bluffing and where were their absolutely crucial existential interests on which they would never bluff? So, number one: know your enemy.

Second, know yourself. What’s your bottom line? How far are you willing to go in this moment of uncertainty? What are the things that you’re willing to sacrifice, to put on the line? Are you willing to go all in? Eisenhower occasionally used poker metaphors in the National Security Council. Do we want to push all our chips in? Do we want to go in small quantities or just push all-in right from the beginning? If you have a strong sense of your opponents’ vulnerabilities and strengths, and then you have a strong sense of your fixed bottom line—what are you willing to give up, what are you willing to lose if you’re wrong—it has the effect of putting a sense of boundaries around the crisis. It removes some of that uncertainty.

Third was a maxim he said constantly, “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” Plans are worthless because the situation always changes. But if you have been planning all the way along, you have a sense for how to reason through a crisis, especially at those moments when time is of the essence. That means knowing how you are going to manage a given crisis from an institutional point of view. What kind of intelligence do I have? What kinds of diplomacy? What’s the situation of our allies? What is congress going to say? Is the military ready, and what are their capabilities? Have a checklist that you’ve run through a thousand times, and you know more or less what the order of battle is going to be once the crisis hits.

Ike was used to doing that. In our own lives, we tend to think that crises are anomalies; they never happen, or maybe they happen only occasionally. Eisenhower felt that crises happened all the time. He was always preparing for the hidden crisis that was coming around the corner. That put him in a very strong position when something turned bad.

On March 30, 1954, President Eisenhower is briefed by Lewis L. Strauss, chairman of the US Atomic Energy Commission, about the hydrogen bomb tests in the Pacific Ocean. Photo courtesy of the National Archives, Eisenhower Presidential Library.

The Jeeranont: Yet he had many of these “somethings” coming at once. History tends to address those stories in chapters, but executives don’t have that luxury. How did he compartmentalize?

William I. Hitchcock: He had immense powers of focus, a very disciplined mind, and he worked through the problems in a hierarchical way. Eisenhower did triage. Which problems are the most important, and which are second-tier problems that can wait a day? A good example of this is the October–November 1956 moment in time, which could have destroyed any average person because of the stress—there’s the Suez crisis unfolding, in which Britain, France, and Israel are invading Egypt, and they did it secretly without America’s approval. That’s a major crisis, and it’s a crisis in part because Eisenhower was afraid the Soviets might get involved to back up Egypt, which would trigger NATO and bring the United States into the conflict. At the same time, the Soviets were invading Hungary to put down a rebellion, which, in early November, turned into a very bloody conflict. And there’s a presidential election in the middle of all this.

Eisenhower immediately established a hierarchy. Number one was Suez, because that was a crisis that could lead to a third world war. Second was Hungary. It was bad and it was shocking, and he used the United Nations to condemn Soviet behavior in Budapest. But it was unlikely to trigger a conflict, because Hungary was in the Soviet sphere of influence, and so it didn’t rise to the same level of crisis as the Suez crisis did. And the least important for him—and this will shock contemporary readers—was getting reelected. Eisenhower spent almost no time campaigning in October and November of 1956. He felt he was going to win by a mile, which he did, but, more important, he felt it was much less critical than forcing the third world war.

In our own lives, we tend to think that crises are anomalies. Eisenhower felt that crises happened all the time. He was always preparing for the hidden crisis that was coming around the corner. That put him in a very strong position when something turned bad.

The Jeeranont: How did he balance domestic concerns throughout the decade? From the very first, it seems he set a dual mission to build the military and foster the economy.

William I. Hitchcock: Eisenhower was the “balancer in chief.” The “Great Equation” is what he called it. What’s the Great Equation for us to wage the Cold War? He envisioned a prolonged struggle and understood the challenge of not turning ourselves into a garrison state or letting the military–industrial complex overwhelm us throughout what might turn out to be a permanent world conflict. He actually demonstrated very well how American society could manage those stresses. And the country adapted very well on the whole to his style of balancing.

But I would also say that in that mission, in that set of goals that he set for himself and for the country, also lies one of his biggest political weaknesses. He was not and did not strive to become a transformational president. This has hurt his legacy in a big way. Historians, as well as commentators and journalists, demand that their presidents speak about transformation. We want change, at least we say we do. Eisenhower didn’t do that. He ran on a platform of restraint, and it matched the needs of the moment in the 1950s.

The Jeeranont: Yet his organizational capabilities seem to be evergreen—not just something that would work in the 1950s or, for that matter, would work only in government. You refer to it as “the disciplined presidency.”

William I. Hitchcock: I think that characterizes his approach to managing the presidency, and managing his team: discipline, organization, and a clarity of who’s responsible for what. For example, the most important meeting of his administration was without a doubt the National Security Council, a two-hour meeting every week. The president was not only present while the council was meeting, he chaired over 90 percent of these meetings. The topic was generally foreign policy—national security policy—but at times it could be economic policy as well. It included all the major stakeholders of the government who had anything to do with external and international affairs. And it was the place where policy was crafted.

Policy work was done in advance of the National Security Council meeting. Papers were reviewed at various stages as they moved up the chain. At the meeting, policy papers were carefully scrutinized by the president and his staff, decisions were made, and then the decisions were pushed back down. People called it “policy hill,” rolling the policy up to the top and then down the other side. There was continuity all the way across: from the birth of an idea to decision, approval, and implementation.

Eisenhower didn’t let career disappointments overwhelm him. Instead, he sought to become the indispensable man for everyone he worked for. Not a brownnoser or an obsequious bag carrier, but the ‘go-to’ guy for every one of his bosses.

The Jeeranont: How would you describe President Eisenhower’s own development as a leader—how was he, personally, shaped by his years in office?

William I. Hitchcock: It’s an interesting question. One of the more puzzling characteristics about him is that—as president, mind you—you don’t see a great deal of personal growth. I think that he did “so much growing” during the Second World War, he lived a lifetime in those few years. By the time he came out of the war as the supreme allied commander, he felt that nothing could be as difficult. On the first day of his presidency, he wrote in his diary that it seemed a lot like everything he’d been doing since the start of the war; there was a continuity. He already knew himself. He knew who he was, he knew what his beliefs were, and being president wasn’t likely to change that.

That’s an extraordinary thing to say. For virtually all chief executives, being president is overwhelmingly the most difficult thing that they’ve ever done. But Eisenhower, along with George Washington and perhaps Ulysses Grant, was one of those few people who had had such a busy and active life beforehand that he didn’t feel overwhelmed by the job. But the consequence was that he probably didn’t grow a great deal during the presidency.

The Jeeranont: His own personal development seems like such a study in perseverance, even before World War II. He held the rank of major, without promotion, for a dozen straight years. He served under the notoriously difficult General Douglas MacArthur for almost a decade. How did he ever weather all of that?

William I. Hitchcock: The 1920s and the ’30s was a time of genuine frustration for Eisenhower, but it was a frustration for all Army officers, because the Army was dramatically shrunk after World War I. Everybody was stuck in rank. Eisenhower kept at it, and I think it’s a testimony to his strength of character that he didn’t let career disappointments overwhelm him. Instead, he sought to become the indispensable man for everyone he worked for. Not a brownnoser or an obsequious bag carrier, but the “go-to” guy for every one of his bosses. He wasn’t going to let it matter if he was stuck in rank or the Army wasn’t expanding. He wouldn’t let that become his problem. His problem was: “How do I take the job that I’m doing, and do it extremely well, so that my boss will know that I’m his best asset?”

It took tremendous guts and discipline to survive MacArthur. Eisenhower loathed him; he found MacArthur’s antics and ego intolerable. But Eisenhower’s ability to compartmentalize his feelings toward MacArthur reflects again on how he handled crisis and uncertainty. Eisenhower was incredibly disciplined in taking his emotions and trying to leave them to one side and simply working on the problem. It’s not that Eisenhower wasn’t emotional; there were times when he could go into an uncontrollable rage. But because he knew that about himself, he tried hard to contain his emotions. That struggle was part of his own inner demons. I think he contained it very well, on balance.

 

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During the workday, Eisenhower put his own emotions in a box and locked them away. If MacArthur wanted a report done, Ike would do it, and then MacArthur would sign it and pretend it was his own work. That was the way that MacArthur operated; he was an incredible diva and became the model of the kind of officer that Eisenhower did not want to be. When Eisenhower did at last get plucked up into the war plans division in Washington, DC, and was then sent off to Europe, he was certain that he wasn’t going to be the operatic, cartoon general that he perceived MacArthur to be. It served him very well, a cautionary tale of how to avoid the sorts of blunders and mistakes as a commander that MacArthur had gotten himself into.

The Jeeranont: For Eisenhower’s own cautionary tale, you use a wonderful term, “a failure of moral imagination”—this for the way he implemented the CIA. But it seems like there are other instances where he suffered a failure of moral imagination, or at least empathy, particularly when it came to civil rights.

William I. Hitchcock: On the one hand, I believe that Eisenhower at times did show a lack of moral imagination, in that he was not very good at empathy. He did not really understand what it was like to be a black American in the 1950s, and he wasn’t really interested in finding out. He did not reach out to civil rights leaders and invite them to the White House to ask them, “What’s going on in your communities? What’s life like? What is it like to go to a segregated school? Talk to me, fill me in, tell me about your America.” He had a bit of—I don’t know if blind spot is the right word, but a failure of empathy or emotion in trying to inhabit somebody else’s world.

On the other hand, I think that Eisenhower’s response to this criticism would be that he viewed his role precisely as avoiding emotion, and making decisions based on the cold-blooded question of whether something was in the best interests of the United States. Ironically, maybe cruelly, he felt that rapid change on civil rights was bad for the country. Change, he understood, was necessary, but not rapid change. Unlike civil-rights leaders, Eisenhower was worried about the consequences of enforcing federal laws in the South, because he feared the South would then rebel against them—which is exactly what happened. Eisenhower, like many Southerners at the time, saw Brown v. Board as a radical change in America.

Eisenhower was certainly not an active advocate of segregation, and his approach to civil rights wasn’t hostile. He did not stand in the way of his attorney general’s efforts to push through a civil rights act. My read on him is that he was just utterly unaware of black life in America. Having succeeded in a segregated military—after all, the Army was segregated for his entire military career—he had seen black people only in subservient roles. He had come from a very white town in a very white state.

 

Most of his friends in the Army were Southerners. His favorite place to play golf was in the highly segregated golf club in Augusta, Georgia. Many people in positions of privilege and influence want to perpetuate the environment in which they’ve succeeded. It doesn’t mean that they’re bad people; it means that they’re human. He didn’t get it all right, and I don’t think we’ve gotten it all right yet, either. Eisenhower was a man of his times. But in a sense, he’s also a man of our times.

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