Once in Our Lifetime: Lessons From This Pandemic Year

March 19, 2021 Heather Hoerle

Dear Colleagues,

It hardly seems possible that just more than 365 days ago, the World Health Organization first declared COVID-19 a pandemic. When we welcomed 2020, there was something exciting in the air … we were in a new double-numbered, once-in-our lifetime year. We experience these double-digits years every hundred and one years, and they often portend significant change. Indeed, the last four were connected to global health crises — 1717: the smallpox epidemic, 1818: cholera, 1919: the Spanish Flu, and 2020: COVID-19. 

When contextualized within the wider history, 2020 has been true to form, bringing global health challenges and a worldwide reset, and challenging all of us to think about what is really important in our lives. But how has this pandemic affected the world of independent school enrollment management? What lessons might we carry forward as we face this next normal period together? 
 
Just a year ago at The Enrollment Management Association, we were busy designing our spring regional professional development meetings and tying up threads on our new strategic plan. Some staff was working to reschedule testing for students in China and Hong Kong due to a growing unknown virus that had closed test centers. Little did we realize the magnitude of what was to come; this virus would wreak havoc throughout the world and change educational systems, daily routines, personal psyches, and more.

Within three months of starting 2020, EMA’s member schools — like schools across the globe — were largely online, enrollment leaders were rushing to create new processes and systems to meet virtual demands, and confusion was pervasive. Would this virus last a few months? Would our schools be able to reopen later in the spring? Or in the fall? As we watched spring school traditions wane (proms, awards ceremonies, graduations), it became clear that the pandemic was here for the long haul — and its effects would be felt for generations. It will likely take years to fully understand all that has happened and the downstream effects on humankind.

For me directly, 2020 was filled with personal tragedy and professional challenges. It was also filled with a number of insights; isolation has a way of forcing deeper contemplation, and for many of us, the chaos has given way to a new understanding. It has been illuminating to watch a number of school leaders leaning into the “opportunity” created by chaos and building new services on the fly. One EMA trustee told me: “We’re living through a time of fear for many parents but we’ve also been given the opportunity to reconsider priorities and to look for new ways of delivering our mission. It’s actually been a strange gift for our school creating wider buy-in and creativity.” Indeed, this trustee’s school has hit a record number of enrollments due to the new and innovative programs put in place in 2020.

To quote Jamie Moffet, Director of Admission K–8 at Marin Country Day School in Corte Madera, Calif., many independent school enrollment leaders created “Rainbow Linings” out of a dark time in our world. (By the way, if you haven’t read Jamie’s blog, you can find it here: Rainbow Linings.) Those “rainbows” showed up everywhere at EMA over the last year in response to the pandemic. From our virtual Idea Factories and self-organized meet-ups to conference deep-dives and community chats, I’ve been amazed at how our community has shone, working together to overcome challenge after challenge. For example, groups decided to prototype new online Zoom-based assessments for younger children, and huge numbers of EMA members used the Character Skills Snapshot tool for more insight into students (growing its use by 200% in 6 months!). This prototyping and redesigning of admission systems were borne out of necessity, but as Jamie suggests in her blog, the new methods may well live past the pandemic as they better serve the needs of families. For me, watching our community meet families where they were and the desire to help parents and students (even if it meant there wasn’t a match at their particular school) was a beautiful outcome within this year of change. It turns out that the old way of doing things may give way to better systems for families and students.
 
I’ve found there is often beauty in struggle, although it is hard to see that during the actual time of difficulty. This pandemic has forced our community to reexamine practices and has illuminated the tremendous power in shared collaboration as we redesign our collective future. 

At EMA, we were already working on new projects related to our developing strategic plan — and though we had to step back from that work last spring, there are four key areas that have since emerged and now require our collective energy. So, in closing, let me ask you to ponder what we might do together by posing questions connected to these four areas: 

  1. How might we work together as a community of schools to increase the accessibility of our education? How do we bring MORE people to our schools?
  2. What should we do together to better advocate for our community’s value? How do we build a positive narrative around independent schools and their promise to society?
  3. What is needed to align school business interests with the work of enrollment management? (With business models highly dependent on tuition, schoolwide knowledge and support for enrollment strategy are needed.) 
  4. What new tools are required to better manage all aspects of successful enrollment management at your school? (We include in our definition the work of recruiting new students, student retention, school brand, market research, financial strategy, school outcomes, and student composition.)

One unhappy fact from 2020 is that nearly all K–12 students have suffered some learning loss in both private and public school settings. As we learn more about these deficits, I know new solutions to support students will be developed. To me, that is just ONE of the numerous opportunities brought to us by the pandemic, and it is my hope that independent schools will work together to address this enormous challenge for young people.

Personally, I am starting to feel hopeful! Before long we will be able to gather together again — something that I will never take for granted again. 

Here’s to a beautiful spring ahead, here’s to vaccines moving around the world and returning health for all, and here’s to continuing the good work started inside of this pandemic, including the new knowledge and skills that we developed during this pandemic year. 

Sending you my very best wishes, 
Heather

About the Author

Heather Hoerle

Executive Director & Chief Executive Officer

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