Risk!

Posted by Anthony E. Steele II on 8/13/2020

Risk!

It is with great pleasure that I welcome everyone back for the start of the 2020–2021 school year. Although it has been quite an unusual summer for us all, I hope that you are well-rested and enthusiastically ready to commence another exciting year at BVT. Our school community consists of a strong partnership between our staff, parents, and students. Our shared vision and approach to learning continues to produce the best possible learning environment for our students. As schools across the nation prepare for the new school year, apprehension abounds concerning the safety and health of in-person versus distance learning. Let’s take a moment to look at a particular aspect of that apprehension and synchronize our expectations with the expression: RISK!

Assuming risk is an inherent part of life. The art of risk assessment is a skillset we start learning in our earliest years and practice throughout our lives. As adults, we protect our children from getting themselves into harm’s way and hope they rapidly develop the sense to do this more independently as they mature.


Anyone who has installed baby gates knows that the clock is ticking the moment a baby first learns to roll and crawl — in the blink of an eye their sense of exploration without the knowledge of danger can get them into trouble very quickly. Throughout childhood, we begin learning to weigh risk versus reward, but this takes time. When we are young, we are notoriously fearless — practically immortal — at least in our minds. I’m sure you can recall climbing a tree, jumping a bike off a rickety ramp, or taking a flying leap off of a rope swing all for the thrill of it and with utter disregard for the potential consequences. We look back fondly at the stunts we pulled and the chances we took. Perhaps getting away with it was all part of the thrill.

 

Grownups cringe at the sight of children and young adults embracing their perceived immortality, and for good reason; we know that we’re not invincible and have the scars to prove it. Author/Screenwriter Jean Shepherd had some fun with this concept in his classic movie, A Christmas Story. The only gift Ralphie Parker wanted that year was a Red Rider-200 Shot-Carbine Action-Range Model-Air Rifle, or as he put it, the Holy Grail of Christmas gifts! Instantly and instinctively, Ralphie’s mother (and even the Mall Santa) retorted, “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid,” and, well…we know the rest of the story. In archetypal moments like this, we are reminded why ‘mom really does know best,’ even if we don’t like what she is saying.

 

The inescapable, underlying fact is that risk is pervasive through every life decision we make. Hollarmikekan, a well-known blogger, aptly states, “Life is a series of calculated risks, nothing more. Everything that you choose to do has an edge of risk. We risk everything, each day of our lives without knowing it.” Consider some of these subtleties in terms of health: we choose the foods we eat, how much we exercise, as well as life choices of whether or not to smoke, wear sunscreen, and make our routine checkups with the doctor. In the financial realm, we calculate investment opportunities, make business decisions, change careers, and carefully manage retirement accounts — all with risk-reward in mind. We constantly make minute-by-minute decisions ranging from how fast we drive to how securely we plant the legs of a ladder before ascending. Even in leisure, we must consider the inherent danger of the hobbies and activities we pursue. It all involves the basic calculation of the perceived risk taken for the potential reward gained. It is largely a very personal decision — literally how one lives life.

 

One fascinating thing about risk is that the calculation can be both an art and a science. Most of the examples I’ve given thus far are very organic. I’ve described one’s experiences and perceptions leading to a common sense conclusion; that is why I see it as an art form — it does not require a foundation in science or math per se. Conversely, insurance actuaries use incredibly sophisticated predictive software and modeling to calculate risk with extreme scientific precision. The likelihood that a particular driver will create an accident claim, the health insurance premium for a given group of policyholders, or the chance that a rare flood will wash away a home, are all prime examples. Casinos and the gaming industry are quite precise with predicting outcomes of a different sort. I’m not sure if I should say casinos leave everything to chance, or nothing to chance — but over time, we all know that the house always wins.

 

2020 introduced the world to a whole new challenge in the realm of risk calculation with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. In retrospect, it has been a remarkable case-study in risk management at the global, national, state, and regional level that combines all the elements of scientific, economic, political, and personal aspects of risk management. The pandemic also casts a spotlight on the personal process (and art) of an individual’s risk calculation. Not surprisingly, the strategies and responses to COVID-19 have varied greatly at every aforementioned level. It is also not surprising that individual attitudes toward COVID-19 are equally as diverse. The inherent problem for anyone in a leadership position is that decisions are made for, and on behalf of, others. It is one thing to make your own risk-reward calculations, but entirely another matter when making decisions that impact others. What is even more troubling for leaders making decisions around COVID-19 is that the stakes are incredibly high. When assessing the risk, it is in terms of great numbers of people suffering from life-threatening consequences. When assessing the rewards, we contemplate our economy, children’s education, ability to worship and conduct vital business just to name a few. I empathize with anyone in a leadership position who has to bear the weight of these decisions — and consequences — that affect so many others.

 

BVT is not exempt from the challenge of starting the school year while the threat of COVID-19 still looms. The time has come for us to make a collective decision, as a state, a 13-town community, and as a school. Surveys confirm that both staff and the families we serve would love nothing more than a return to the classroom and the resumption of pre-COVID normalcy. I ask that everyone appreciate and respect that our school community is comprised of the sum of each individual’s risk-reward calculation. No matter what mode we choose to deliver instruction, it must reasonably assure everyone’s safety and minimize risk while rewarding us with the best possible education we can provide our students, sons, and daughters.

 

In this sense, the school is the bridge between a very wide divide in personal feelings about the risk of COVID-19 and the sacrifices we must make to keep everyone safe and healthy. We know that schools cannot stay in a purely distance-learning model forever. This is particularly true for career-technical schools like BVT where the hands-on experience we provide is paramount to student learning. At some point, we need to inch our way out on that proverbial tree limb and return to the schoolhouse. With our collective wisdom, science, and judgement, we will need to determine how much or how little in-person learning can occur given the circumstances. Although safety is always our first priority, I am reminded of the words of Neil Armstrong, who said, “There can be no great accomplishment without risk.”