On July 8th, 2020, panelists from across the Global Mobility industry met virtually to discuss the impact of Covid-19 on their service delivery.
Joining the meeting was Bennett's CEO Elizabeth Sawyer, who offered insights into how worldwide education has been affected over recent months, and how we at Bennett have adapted our services to fit what is needed now.
Our directive, more than ever, is to problem-solve with the families, not necessarily to try to fit each situation into our standard menu of services.
The conversation, "Adaptability and Expectations", was hosted by EuRA (The European Relocation Association), and moderated by Peggy Love (Strategic Consultant, Intellectual Content, EuRA). The whole session, lively and insightful, has been posted on their YouTube channel, and well worth the watch for families and mobility managers alike.
What follows is Elizabeth's segment, along with a full transcript, edited for reading clarity.
Peggy: Elizabeth, talk to us about things from the [worldwide] education perspective... what has been required of you with your company, in terms of changes based on the industry, and [current] laws and regulations? ...Have you had to, or have you had the opportunity to, even, develop any new programs, creative programs, or, based on these laws, new processes? I'd like for you to also speak a little bit about the actual basic issue of schools opening... Take it away.
Elizabeth: Thank you, Peggy. Thank you, everybody. I think that our service line is a little bit different from, for example, corporate housing and DSP (Destination Service Providers) in that a lot of our work has always been done remotely, or behind the scenes, and while we might meet with a family face-to-face, or maybe a company, a family on a school visit - the bulk of our work in terms of recommending schools, being the liaison with schools, and advocating for families, was always remote. And so really, where the changes have existed for us is in what schools have had to do, given the fact that they were closed, and that the entire concept of education, what that looks like and how it's delivered, has had to change, and is continuing to change. That obviously is a huge topic, and I'll try to touch on that.
So, our role has been not so much to change our processes but to acknowledge this huge change in education, and the additional level of uncertainty that families have been going through. So in that sense, our services have just had to be more flexible, in that, instead of providing a traditional school finding service and counseling families on curriculum and how to go home in the future, we've had many more families who were saying, "I really don't know what I'm doing, help me to choose an online learning program," or, "I really don't know, should I enroll here, or should I just go home? What would it look like if I went home versus if I did this?" And so, our first move was to simply say, we'll just roll with whatever a family needs. Our directive now to ourselves is to problem-solve with them, and not necessarily to try to fit each service into our go-to menu of services.
You've all talked about the very "human" component of this, whether it's in corporate housing, finding the balance of letting people know that the apartment is clean, but not freaking them out, or having that human touch with them, that human interaction… when it comes to kids and schooling, I've always said (those of you who have ever heard me say anything have probably heard me say this!) that it's the most emotional component of relocation, and it's often infused with guilt... like, "I'm moving, is this relocation putting my child at a disadvantage?" or, "I'm uprooting my child AGAIN." So, it's always been emotionally loaded, and now all the more so, because parents are choosing schools without ever having seen them. And so, whereas before, they were taking their best shot and hoping that it would be a good possibility for their child, now, they're taking a virtual tour [of a school] and they're making that decision for their child.
So, our role is the consultative [aspect]… partly logistical, but I think our “thing” has always been our consultative piece about education. The importance of that piece has increased. Families haven't been able to see the schools themselves, so they're more reliant on us to respond to them when they ask, “what’s this school really like? Based on everything I've told you about my child, is this really a good fit?” I think we adopted our services to just be more flexible.
We also took the opportunity to do something that we wanted to do, just trying to be helpful. We created a website, which is kind of a “public service” website with updates on schooling. First, it was when all the schools were closing, now it's focused on re-openings. It’s our COVID-19 website and we felt that was a contribution that we could make.
We've had to follow all of the changes that schools have made, which have been significant. They already had the capacity to do a virtual tour, [but] now that's the norm. I do think one change in education is that, sometimes, admissions offices were seen as the gatekeepers, and schools have really had to bend over backward to help families, and be flexible with them and say, “okay, we know that you can't go and [take a test] because there's no testing available right now, so we'll take another teacher recommendation instead,” and the pace and the nature of the collaboration between families and schools have often been, I think, healthier.
So, in terms of the future… wow, that's a really big question. I think that it is inevitable as Jennifer and Maria have said, you know, nobody - no business, no industry, no individual - goes through something like this without making changes. And then the question becomes, which of those changes will stay? The theme at one point was “disruptors” and “creativity”, and we just have ramped all of that up, right? I think in education, online learning was already in existence, it was already a booming industry, and I think that obviously now it will be that way, more so than ever.
Right now, schools are opening for the fall... most of them are planning on multiple fronts. Most of them, at this point, are planning for some level of in-person presence for children. Most of the European countries are planning on opening in as close to “normal” a fashion as possible, even if it's with some staggered classes, or with greater social distancing, and so forth - but all of them are, and should be, also planning for, “okay, we look we've learned now that we need to have an online program on the back burner.” … I think that having some version of online learning will stick with many institutions. For us, it will certainly be an added piece that we will look at when we are visiting and assessing schools. One of our questions will be, “how did you look after your student population during COVID-19?”, and, “okay fair's fair - nobody was prepared, and some schools did it better than others, but now we're all out of the gates. What's your plan for the future if you have to reinstitute that?” - and that's, for us, a whole new category of school assessment.
I think it's possible that the question of enrollment will be redefined, that in the past, you enrolled at a school, which meant that you showed up at a bricks-and-mortar institution, and that already wasn't the case with online programs. But even with some of our bricks-and-mortar institutions, we're beginning to see right now, at least for this year, a different approach - a family saying, “we want to enroll with you. We can't be there on September 1st, but we are committed to coming. So how about we enroll and we join you virtually until January, we’ll be there in person after that?”, and schools are beginning to feel to those questions. They're dealing with it differently, sometimes based on the fact of whether it's a returning student that they’ve already met in person, or if it's a brand-new student or the age of the child. They now have to navigate that and create new policies. A lot of the international schools, speaking of policies, are creating new policies in terms of deposit refunds for families who want to go ahead and look for schooling, but whose relocation may fall through.
So, those are some changes we've seen…
Peggy: I think that's a really good point that you answered to, that if you hadn't touched on, I was going to bring up, in the realm of advising parents - of course, I know that's a huge part of what you do - different advice that you might have given. I have heard from a couple of people on the education front that said, just as you said - it's probably going to change; in the past, when a family is moving mid-year, they might not want to take their child out of their current school, because the physical [aspect of] going to a new classroom is different. But now, people are going to have to learn, aren't they, how to get to know kids as well as they can without the personal contact, initially.
I think that's a very good point, the advisory, consultative part of really helping parents understand that. They probably already do, but [it’s important to help them to] understand that that's probably better than keeping them in a disjointed, online-some-days, in-school-some-days situation where they currently live.
Elizabeth: And we have advised them - yes, schools are closed, but admissions offices are open. Admissions offices have always been open. So please, go ahead and fill out those applications and make sure you have a spot for September. Don't wait until you find that your assignment is 100% definite! Go ahead and fill out those applications! Parents have (as in all of our fields) been more in need of reassurance, more in need of feeling that somebody knows what they're going through, and can advise them.
I also think it's very different, obviously, for parents with kids of different ages. If you have a high school student who's more self-sufficient, they might need a different kind of prodding, but (and this is another whole area) those preschoolers, those little kids for whom education is so developmental at that age, education equals socialization. Without that - they cannot be educated online. They have to touch and poke and bite and feel and smell. That's what they are as a creature, at that age. And so, you know, those parents need a different kind of counseling and reassurance from other ones.
Over the years, Bennett International Education Consultancy has worked with hundreds of corporations, many of them Fortune 500 companies, providing school advisement services—preschool through university—to the dependents of relocating employees. In addition to education placement, our Education Research and Analysis team provides customized consulting for corporations in need of assistance with a range of education issues: education policy writing and benchmarking, tuition studies, group move advisement and planning, education “site assessments,” and the creation of remote or difficult-location education solutions. Whatever a company’s education issue, wherever it is, Bennett has the experience and the expertise to help.