To all my fellow planners: how do you plan for the unknown?

By Kaci Coats, The Collaborative for Exceptional Education

Well, hello, planners. My people. The people who can’t wait to purchase a new planner every year or, like me, you fight the urge to purchase a new one even though you haven’t used a physical planner in forever. Or you love the idea of meal planning and read about all the ways that you can have all the meals for the family prepped for the week (“HEY FAMILY, we are going to have salads in a jar all week!”). Or you just enjoy setting short term and long term goals and loooove the templates and strategic planning activities to help you develop these goals. 

Now let me be clear, we may be planners AND some of our grand plans may never come to fruition. Of course, no one ever said we were executers! And this is ok. This just might not be in our nature, guys, let’s not beat ourselves up. After all, where’s the excitement in eating ALL the planned meals as originally designed?

But we love the planning part! And honestly, the planning requirements of the job is one of the reasons I liked being a teacher. I liked scoping out the year, setting measurable growth goals, and implementing plans to reach those goals. However, when I look at all the uncertainty in the future it makes it difficult for me to plan, and if you are like me, this has the potential to stir up a lot of anxiety. After all, secretly I know that at the root of my love for planning is my need to feel like I am in control, and at a time when I feel like I have very little control of the future, my planning mind is kicking into overdrive. (Yes, yes, therapists around the world will be sending me their card).

The biggest challenge here is that we may not know exactly what our environment will be in the “future”, right? And if we’re planners, looking for some control, we have to ask, “what can we control?” The answer is us

Whether you are a natural planner and are just trying to figure out how to plan with so many unknowns or if your position as school leader is forcing you to start thinking about next year, it’s important to approach this planning strategically with the needs of our students, families and ourselves front and center.

Collect information to make the unknown KNOWN.

Begin by collecting and organizing information to ensure alignment to the strengths and needs of your school. 

  • Assess strengths and gaps. While absolutely you could be using this time to assess students using screeners and work samples, this is also a great time to assess the strengths and gaps of yourself and your team. The more you know, the better you can leverage these strengths or build skills to better equip them in their work.
  • Gather parent & student perspective. Use these last few weeks to poll students and parents about what’s working and not working with the online model, what their current basic needs are, their overall level of satisfaction with communication and engagement strategies, and what tech challenges they are continuing to experience.
  • Consider your school’s needs. Using the scenario visual I provided last week, consider the potential of each scenario and the implication of each scenario given your student population. For example, do you have a high population of medically fragile students or students with underlying health conditions? If yes, this will be important to keep in mind if in-person learning continues. 

Inventory & reconsider how to leverage & refocus current strengths, structures, & resources.

  • Maximize strengths. Perhaps as an individual, you have identified new strengths you didn’t know you had, or as a school leader, you have seen some staff members rise to the top with strengths that have become invaluable in this situation. Inventory these strengths so that you are planning for how to maximize their usage in the future.
  • Reconsider current systems and structures. Utilizing existing structures allows you to continue to create consistency in yourself or your team, while ensuring efficiency. Looking at these existing structures and assessing their gaps will help you make appropriate tweaks to address these gaps. 
  • Collect community resources. The summer is a great opportunity to find out what resources are available to your families through various community organizations. Inventory these resources, and compare these to your students’ and parents’ needs to see if there are gaps that need to be filled by the school or another community organization. This is a chance for the community to rally and work together to address the needs of its families rather than schools continuing to feel that they need to be everything for their families. 

Plan ahead for contingencies & the known needs of our students.

Now that you know the needs of your students and the strength of your team and community, it is time to begin contingency planning. While there are six scenarios that I’ve shared previously, I would prioritize contingency planning for the Socially Distanced, Blended, and Fully Online scenarios as these three have the highest likelihood of being needed at some point next year.

  • Refine or develop your MTSS structures. If you haven’t bought into MTSS (Multi-Tiered Systems of Support), now is the time. Our kids are likely going to come in next year with new needs and/or a wide variety of needs in both academic and social/emotional areas that we will need to address in our universal (Tier 1) approach as well as in our plan for layered supports. This approach to getting kids and keeping kids on track will be invaluable when we begin considering referrals for special education or for future decisions on grade retention.
  • Continuously work toward equitable access to a quality education. As we move in and out of the different scenarios, various barriers may stand in the way of some students' access to not only a quality education, but just education in general.  As we plan, we must constantly be looking for these barriers in order to break them down and ensure that ALL students have access to a quality education as we move in and out of in-person and online learning.
  • Draft & revisit policies. Summer will be a useful time for reviewing and developing policies that will protect students and staff in the future. For example, what is your policy should you have a parent bring a child with an underlying health condition to school when the governor is still encouraging those individuals to stay home? How will your policy on grade retention change in light of these closures? What consent forms or waivers need to be signed and can we include these as part of registration? 

Safeguard your mental health.

While planning can make for a great coping skill, I can also easily get into hyper planning mode which can consume my thoughts and increase my anxiety levels, or I can shift into depression when the unknown overwhelms me. So now it is more important than ever that we planners are prioritizing our mental health. Whether it is through mindfulness activities, exercising, developing new hobbies, or finding opportunities to connect with loved ones, we need to find ways to make our minds take a break from the planning and from the evaluation of the unknown. This will be especially important over the summer when you have less structure and more down time. 

Many aphorisms exist that indicate that plans ultimately are challenged by battle, but that planning is essential. So don’t get down on yourself if your plans or the environment (or the salad in a jar) changes. It will happen and it’s ok. And with that, I want to end by asking all you planners to take care of yourselves. We need your forward thinking now more than ever!

Your fellow planner,

Kaci Coats,
Executive Director, Collaborative for Exceptional Education


Some of you may be thinking that you don’t know where to start, well we are here to help! Please register for these today to save your place:

How Do I Know I’m Being Effective? The Art of Monitoring Goal Progress Online - Monday 5/4/2020 4:30-5:30 PM MDT. Most of us have not taught virtually before let alone tried to provide services to students on virtual platforms.  So how do we know if it is working? What data can we be collecting to help drive decision-making during this time? In this webinar, we have invited teachers to share what they have learned about assessing progress during online learning and how they know they are being effective. Register Here

The Road to Re-Entry: School Leader Planning Workshop Series

Through this series, leadership teams will conduct a thorough assessment of the needs of their students and the strengths of their teams and structures to design a school wide approach to re-entry. Through expert guidance, planning will address both the mental health and academic needs of your students with contingencies for the future unknowns. Participants will be given examples and tools and opportunities to collaborate while being walked through the planning process.

  • The Road to Re-Entry #1: Assessing Our School’s Strengths and Needs - Wednesday 5/13/2020 1:30-3:00 PM MDT. In this session, leadership teams will receive an overview of the re-entry planning process and then utilize guidance and tools to assess their school’s strengths and needs so that plans are customized. Register Here
  • The Road to Re-Entry #2: Taking Stock & Refocusing Strengths, Structures, & Resources - 6/3/2020 1:30-3:00 PM MDT. In this session, leadership teams will take inventory of existing school strengths, structures, and resources and work to refine or repurpose them to meet new needs.Register Here
  • The Road to Re-Entry #3: Putting It All Together, Part 1 - Wednesday 6/10/2020 9:00-11:00 AM MDT. In this session, leadership teams will develop their plan for re-entry as well as contingency plans to address the range of needs in their schools while preparing for the unknown situations our schools will be in when the year begins. Register Here
  • The Road to Re-Entry #4: Putting It All Together, Part 2 - Thursday 6/11/2020 9:00-11:00 AM MDT. In this final session, leadership teams will continue to develop their plan for re-entry and consider what changes to policies need to be made to prevent parent/student/staff conflicts and also to proactively prepare for the shifts that may take place throughout the year. Register Here

In partnership with CDE, we are excited to be presenting a Topic Based Webinar:

  • From Survival to Quality: Refining Your Online Model to Increase Student Access to High-Quality Education - Tuesday 5/12/2020 11:00 AM-12:30 PM MDT. This training will highlight key components that schools are addressing as they work to increase the quality of their programming while implementing distance learning. During this training, you will also hear from school representatives who will share how they are using this time to refine their distance learning plans. Register Here


The Collaborative has consultants ready and willing to work with your team as they refine your whole school approach to re-entry as well as refine your approach to serving your diverse learners in online, blended, and in-person models. Contact us today!

  • RE-ENTRY PLAN DEVELOPMENT & IMPLEMENTATION Through team development, surveying strengths and needs, and collaborative planning, your leadership team will develop a re-entry plan that is customized to your school’s strengths and needs and can receive ongoing coaching to ensure strong implementation and refinement of the plan.
  • SPECIALIZED & DATA DRIVEN INSTRUCTION IN AN ONLINE WORLD Through online observations, review of materials, and thought-partnership on how to address IEP goals and services, we can help you as you begin to refine your approach to providing high quality online programming for your students.
  • LOOKING FOR SUPPORT FOR NEXT YEAR? Check out our offerings for the school year 2020-2021 and contact us if you would like more information about our packages.


Please do not hesitate to reach out if you need a thought partner! We will also be hosting opportunities to receive support and to collaborate with other special educators and related service providers weekly. Contact us to get added to the calendar invite and to get the Zoom links to these meetings!

  • Special Education Teacher Support Group Weekly on Mondays 1:00-2:00 PM MDT 
  • Collaborative Planning for Online Services: Mental Health Providers  Weekly on Tuesdays 2:00-3:00 PM MDT 
  • Collaborative Planning for Online Services: Leading Schools Through COVID-19 Every other week on Mondays 3:30-4:30 PM MDT 


Links to recent state guidance:


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