Five Steps to Lead Students Wisely During the Coronavirus Pandemic

What most of us assumed would go away in a matter of days in China, has become a global pandemic, according to the World Health Organization. The Coronavirus is now headline news on every major network and on social media feeds everywhere. We can’t escape it.

Sarah Sparks, reporter and data journalist for Education Week, writes:

Epidemiologists measure how contagious a disease is by its ‘basic reproduction number,’ or R0 (pronounced ‘are-not’), meaning the number of people each infected person would be expected to infect in turn. So far, experts believe the Coronavirus to have an R0 of about 2-2.5, meaning each infected person would be expected to pass it on to another two or so people. That is nearly twice as contagious as the flu, which has an R0 of 1.3, but much less contagious than another childhood illness, measles, which one infected person could spread to as many as 30 people in a bad outbreak. Based on this base level, children should be more likely to contract Coronavirus than the flu.”

How Do We Communicate and Lead Our Students in Such Times?

Schools can be hothouses for such disease outbreaks because kids are in close quarters, but also because adults have had more exposure to various illnesses over time. COVID-19 seems to be new to everyone. As of today, 174,818 have been infected and 6,686 have died globally.

So how do we lead our kids well during such times? Let me offer some ideas below.

Five Steps We Can Take to Lead Students Well

1. Don’t Exaggerate to Make Your Point

Kids get used to filtering what is said to them. When adults use hyperbole, students know they must adjust their expectations and believe about half of what is said to them. They don’t take us seriously. When we use words like “awesome” or “perfect” we mean well, but listeners know it’s over-speak. It’s not really that way. Share facts about the Coronavirus and how to judiciously respond. There should be no “panic” in our voice, and no exaggeration in our words.

2. Lead from Wisdom Not Fear

Be honest about wise steps everyone should take, but don’t motivate them from fear. It’s the difference between telling young children: “Don’t play in traffic—you’ll get hit by a car!” instead of saying, “It’s wise to look both ways when you’re near a street.” Too often, adults lead students out of panic or fear and we unintentionally communicate those emotions to them. Our level of panic can be just as viral as the Coronavirus. Don’t think “worry,” think “wisdom.”

3. Establish a New Normal

I am almost certain you’ve done this already in your home, school or organization, but every person needs to adhere to a new normal in terms of lifestyle: Frequent hand-washing for 20 seconds, coughing into your elbow, not touching handles or knobs if possible, and if you use a tissue, don’t stuff it into a desk or on a table, but put it into a lined trash bag immediately. While this may sound outlandish, it’s small steps like these that can slow down the spread of a virus and enable more people to remain healthy and strong.

4. Communicate Your Temporary New Normal Early

This one is a no-brainer, but make sure you are thorough and prompt talking with your students about how you plan to interact in light of the Coronavirus.  No hugs, handshakes or close contact for a while; working remotely (as many schools and colleges are doing now) and avoiding in-person time when the topic can be covered in a virtual meeting. Students will make light of the threat unless you are quick to relay the “new normal” and the “why” upfront with them. Leaders fair better when they get ahead of everyone on needed communication.

5. Take Advantage of This Teachable Moment

Every few years, our world experiences a sobering health crisis, mass shooting or global tragedy that harnesses our attention and captures our imagination. It becomes the topic of discussion at the “water cooler” or in the restroom. I believe the Coronavirus is a perfect opportunity to seize and talk about matters of the heart—the importance of life, family, health and even what we value. Just like weddings and funerals bring people together, this season can be leveraged for conversations about priorities.

It’s likely we’ll all look back on this spring of 2020 and remember how scary it was for so many. May our memories be fond because we led our students well.

Five Steps to Lead Students Wisely During the Coronavirus Pandemic