Opinion
School Climate & Safety Opinion

School Leaders: Here’s What the Science Tells Us About Crisis Decisionmaking

By Yinying Wang — March 19, 2020 4 min read
BRIC ARCHIVE
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

School leaders across the country are grappling with an array of decisions forced on them by the COVID-19 pandemic. If you have closed schools, when should schools reopen? If schools remain closed for a long period, how do you use your resources to protect children and keep education going? Once the overarching decisions are made, leaders, including those further down the command chain, will have a myriad of additional choices to make.

To understate the case, such choices are being made in less-than-ideal circumstances. But if you understand the difficulties and the opportunities, you give yourself a better chance to make a good decision.

Here are three truths for decisionmakers in the time of the coronavirus pandemic:

1. Fear and anxiety trap decisionmakers in tunnel vision. Our emotional reactions to the coronavirus pandemic are marked by fear and anxiety, the extreme form of which is panic. These emotions narrow the breadth of attention, trapping decisionmakers in tunnel vision. Fear and anxiety are so powerful that they divert the human brain’s limited cognitive resources. Gripped by fear and anxiety, you tend to stick to an option about which you know more, rather than exploring additional options.

See Also: Coronavirus and Schools

More importantly, fear and anxiety, like all emotions, are contagious. We express fear and anxiety to people around us through the words spoken in conversations, body language, and facial expressions. When a cabinet of school leaders makes a decision as a group, fear and anxiety shared by the cabinet members can create an echo chamber, undermining the quality of the decisions.

Further, when data are presented differently, they evoke different emotional responses, which influence decisionmaking. Focusing on a coronavirus death rate calculated at, say, 3.4 percent, you feel fearful and anxious, and tend to make risk-averse decisions out of an abundance of caution. Focusing on the data that 80 percent of coronavirus patients have mild symptoms, you are likely to feel hopeful. Unlike fear and anxiety narrowing the breadth of attention, hope broadens the breadth of attention. In this case, hopeful school leaders tend to explore options in decisionmaking and be willing to take risks.

Fear and anxiety trap decisionmakers in tunnel vision."

2. Uncertainty and risk are inherent in evidence-based decisionmaking. School leaders are trained to make data-informed, evidence-based decisions. Leaders sometimes talk about scientific evidence as providing 100 percent certainty. In fact, scientific research abounds with uncertainty. Margin of error, confidence intervals, and interquartile ranges wouldn’t be needed in an ideal world of certainty.

In an ideal world, superintendents, for instance, would have a good measurement of the disruption experienced by disadvantaged students and students with disabilities when schools are closed. Relevant data would be collected and used to calculate the benefit and risk of the options. In reality, each option has an unknown probability of success and unclear consequences.

To predict the probability of an occurrence in the future, scientists collect and analyze data about a past event. Yet the past imperfectly predicts the future. There is research about the effect of reactive compared with proactive school closure—that is, closing schools after someone at school is sick or before—during the 1918 influenza pandemic. The death rate in the cities where schools were closed proactively was only one-third as high as in the cities where schools were closed reactively. Such evidence can inform school leaders deciding whether to close schools. Yet the data were about the past pandemic, not the current one. Those who disagree with school closures can argue that there could be a different probability this time around.

Limited data add more uncertainty to school leaders’ decisionmaking. If schools are closed to slow the spread of the infection, when should they reopen? Even an expert was confounded by that question. “Honestly, I don’t know how much research has been done,” said Nicholas Christakis, a social scientist and physician who is developing models to forecast epidemics. “I don’t know the answer.” We all have limited data.

3. Following your values and building a team of experts will help handle the uncertainty. Although uncertainty is inherent in evidence-based decisionmaking, uncertainty can be navigated. First, your values are the beacon that guides your decision, especially when uncertainties abound. If you believe in doing the right thing for the health and well-being of students and their families regardless of how difficult it is, then take into account the best evidence available to you and follow your heart. When time is of the essence, your values can help you press forward.

Second, making decisions in groups can reduce uncertainty. Group members can bring in a variety of views and expertise. However, group decisionmaking can go wrong if group members don’t have the expertise needed. A group decision is usually the option that wins the popular vote. As a leader, you need to be careful about whom you select to make a group decision. If you select only people who will vote for whatever you propose, there is no need to make a decision as a group. If you assign the same weight to the views from both experts and non-experts in a group, you fail to leverage the expertise.

Understanding decisionmaking in a crisis doesn’t guarantee your decision will be easy or right. Data may not reduce uncertainty. Your values may clash with options that prioritize short-term benefits. Even getting and using help well isn’t enough. But these three truths for decisionmakers should give you the confidence to go forward knowing that you are doing the best you humanly can.

Follow the Education Week Opinion section on Twitter.

Sign up to get the latest Education Week Opinion in your email inbox.
A version of this article appeared in the March 25, 2020 edition of Education Week as How to Make Decisions in a Pandemic


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
What’s Next for Teaching and Learning? Key Trends for the New School Year
The past 18 months changed the face of education forever, leaving teachers, students, and families to adapt to unprecedented challenges in teaching and learning. As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Curriculum Webinar
How Data and Digital Curriculum Can Drive Personalized Instruction
As we return from an abnormal year, it’s an educator’s top priority to make sure the lessons learned under adversity positively impact students during the new school year. Digital curriculum has emerged from the pandemic
Content provided by Kiddom
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School Climate & Safety 'Devious Lick' TikTok Trend Creates Chaos in Schools Nationwide
Shattered mirrors, missing soap dispensers, and broken toilets in school bathrooms have been linked to the "devious lick" challenge.
Simone Jasper, The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)
2 min read
At the new Rising Hill Elementary School in Kansas City, Mo., gender neutral student bathrooms have a common sink area for washing and individual, locking, toilet stalls that can be used by boys or girls. Principal Kate Place gave a tour of the facilities on Saturday, Aug. 11, 2018. The school is in the North Kansas City school district.
A gender neutral student bathroom.
Keith Myers/The Kansas City Star via AP
School Climate & Safety What the Research Says A Hallmark of School Shooters: Long History of Social Rejection
New research finds that shooters in K-12 schools are more often "failed joiners" than loners.
5 min read
Butler County Sheriff Deputies stand on the scene at Madison Local Schools, in Madison Township in Butler County, Ohio, after a school shooting on Feb. 29, 2016.
Sheriff deputies were on the scene of a shooting at Madison Local Schools, in Butler County, Ohio, in 2016.
Cara Owsley/The Cincinnati Enquirer via AP
School Climate & Safety 4 Myths About Suspensions That Could Hurt Students Long Term
New longitudinal research shows that longer in- and out-of-school suspensions have severe consequences for students.
5 min read
Image of a student sitting at a desk in a school hallway.
Jupiterimages/Getty
School Climate & Safety Photos The Tense and Joyous Start to the 2021 School Year, in Photos
Students are headed back to school with the threat of the Delta variant looming. How is this playing out across the country? Take a look.