Return To School Covid 19 Plan: Lessons In Pragmatic Risk Management as School Reopening Begins

Steven Minsky | August 12, 2020

return to school covid 19 plan

Bonus Material: Free Coronavirus Return To Work Checklist

Return To School Covid 19 Plan: Overview

The pandemic has already taken a global toll of unfathomable proportions…and it isn’t finished with us yet. As parents think about returning their children to schools in the fall, and businesses think through strategies for bringing back customers and employees, many are paralyzed with fear with no return to school Covid 19 plan in place.

What if all protocols are not followed as intended and there is an outbreak? How can someone leading a reopening committee live with the burden of life and death consequences hanging over them? The invisible nature of the disease and the expectation that a wave 2 will inevitably come make this process feel all the more impossible to manage.

But it’s possible to take a closer look and see there are risk management success stories we can learn from.

Sleepaway camps are a timely and interesting example.

While 80% of sleepaway camps made the decision to shut this summer (resulting in $16 billion in lost revenue) there were some camps that remained open. One camp in Georgia had 76% of people test positive for COVID after opening, while Keystone Camp, a 104-year-old sleepaway camp which operated during the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918, reported zero cases.

These were two organizations under similar conditions who experienced two very different outcomes.

So what made the difference?

The staff at Keystone used risk management to rethink everything, from how children got dropped off (parents are required to stay in the car) to how campers gather for assembly (in masks, on a spacious tennis court with marked circles to stand on) and how the children interact (within cohorts and with limited intermingling).

What makes the difference between a positive and negative outcome?

It isn’t luck. The successful organizations took a risk-based approach, including:

  1. Conducting root cause risk assessments
  2. Building a plan to mitigate their risks in order of priority
  3. Developing sustained governance programs to gather feedback and adjust as needed

It’s that simple.

Schools and businesses are now scrambling under pressure from federal, state and local level stakeholders to demonstrate they have checked the boxes with oversight boards and unions for approval to open their doors. This one-size-fits-all “check the box” approach will, tragically, not work. During prior pandemics, it was figured out that those schools that used a risk based approach were successful in reopening and mitigating spread.

For example, an identified risk is transfer of virus through the air. Many schools today are trying to upgrade their HVAC filters. However well intentioned, try to blow out a candle while wearing a 3 ply paper mask which is proven effective. You can’t do it. So air filtration likewise will not work. In 1918 during the Spanish Flu pandemic, those who ran a low tech radiator to push the virus up with the rising heat and projected UV light on the ceiling to kill the rising virus, while opening the windows to bring in fresh air, along with face masks, social distancing and hand washing, were spared the worst of the outbreak. This was discovered because the time was taken to determine the root cause of spread in certain types of indoor environments. Using a risk-based approach today is about addressing the air contamination with HVAC systems proven to spread COVID virus. Adding simple UV lights inside the HVAC does work.

The logic of basing reopening plans on current infection rates is also similarly flawed. It makes the assumption that infection rates will remain static, which is unrealistic – every hotspot started with a low infection rate. Basing re-opening plans on effective risk-based mitigations assuming that every district could become a hot spot at any time would go much further towards reducing spread should someone attend school while infected. Lessons learned from school re-opening extend to businesses in the same way. Each institution needs to reassess their risks that are shared across the world…and choose from and apply relevant mitigation activities.

For businesses, this is a call to action for the Risk Management experts. HR groups are working on health and wellness, compliance groups are focused on safety and soundness regulators, and vendor management groups are prioritizing their supply chains.

Risk Managers need to take their seat at the head of the table and lead this charge to bring all of these separate efforts together.

If this critical alignment isn’t led by someone, it will be led by no one – and there is far too much at stake for that type of failure.

Europe has put risk assessments at the center of their business recovery regulations. In Germany, some factories operated through the height of the pandemic yet experienced very few COVID cases. Risk assessments engaging their front line staff are what identified the most critical risks. For example, workers identified that the passing of tools would force contact to be closer than the social distancing requirements allowed for (6 feet of separation). This led to a simple yet cost effective mitigation effort: the use of a wheeled cart to pass tools and provide hand sanitizer.

Return To School Covid 19 Plan: 3 Risk Management Steps To Take

Step 1: Root Cause Risk Assessment

Bonus Material: Free Risk Assessment Template

The most effective risk identification techniques focus on root cause, which tells us why an event occurs. Risk identification of the root cause of a risk provides information about what triggers a loss and where exactly an organization is vulnerable. Using root source categories provides meaningful feedback: What steps should be taken to most effectively mitigate risk? Identifying risk based on the effect or outcome often leads to ineffective mitigation activities. For example, limiting the number of employees in a conference room and enforcing social distancing will not work if the air filtration system is ineffective. Companies need to evaluate their workplace holistically and assign mitigations accordingly, not vice versa.

Step 2: Risk Mitigation

Mitigations should be aimed at root cause and will differ depending on the source of risk. The mitigation needs to be comparable with the root cause of the risk. Take hospitals as an example. During the height of the COVID surge, many medical professionals worked in an environment saturated with the virus and never got sick. Yet a handful of campers at a summer camp – even with protocols in place – infected 75% of the campers. Why? In hospitals the source of the risks were clearly identified and the measure put into place – full PPE, separation of COVID patients from the general population, cleaning and hygiene protocols – worked for the most part in that environment. If a school is following a checklist of things to do to reopen, they aren’t applying mitigations that map to their risk root causes. Camps that separated campers into pods that were kept separate minimized spread and rather than sending only the individual into quarantine, they sent the entire pod into 14 day quarantine to stop the spread.

Many schools have not taken this risk based approach to preparing to open their doors. Armed with the knowledge of the source of a risk, we can proactively manage risk and avoid future risk events. Businesses who identify the root causes of their risks will be far more successful with applying mitigation strategies that work.

Step 3: Governance

Where risk management programs fall down is often in the execution. Establishing a robust governance structure will be key to success. This includes developing robust policies, training employees on those policies, establishing a way to track incidents and escalate those incidents to senior management quickly. Continuous iterations and improvements on mitigations must also be put in place as new information emerges. This can be achieved by putting strong risk metrics in place.

Return To School Covid 19 Plan: Conclusion

As risk management professionals, it’s our job to take the lead on the execution of these critical steps. History is known for repeating itself; when the virus mimics the pattern of all those before it and imposes a 2nd wave on society, don’t let your organization get knocked down. Reinforce your risk management program with ERM software and stay prepared for tomorrow’s surprises today.

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