The Good from Bad: Pandemic Silver Linings

This article is part of the “Inside the Curve: Business as (Not Quite) Usual” issue of Hand to Hand. Click here to read other articles in the issue.

By Beth Shea, Children’s Museum of Oak Ridge

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, the staff of the Children’s Museum of Oak Ridge (CMOR) did not know if their small institution, founded in 1973, would survive. But almost eighteen months later, not only has CMOR survived financially, but changes in practice forced by the pandemic helped the museum and its staff become stronger. This is a brief look at the good things that have come from the pandemic: things that have helped the museum not just survive, but thrive, in this challenging time.

Operational Changes

In June 2020, after a nearly eleven-week closure, the museum reopened on a part-time basis. One year later the museum returned to a “full-time” schedule, but one that was not the same as its pre-pandemic version, which had longer hours (9 am – 5 pm) on weekdays and included being open on Mondays in the summer.

During the year of part-time operations, the museum was open on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday from 10-4, and later added Sunday afternoons from 1-4. On the two shortened weekdays the staff made good use of the two additional hours to clean, do repairs, and other behind-the-scenes work (fewer on-site weekend staff had no time to do those activities). It was an overwhelmingly positive change worth keeping. Looking at attendance data, the extra hour at the beginning and end of each museum weekday were never busy anyway, making it easy to economically justify this change. The same was true for the summer Mondays. Now the museum’s hours are the same on weekdays and Saturdays (10 am – 4 pm), and the schedule is the same all year round—no more summer Mondays. The good that came from the bad: the pandemic was the perfect time to examine, and change, the museum’s schedule.

The pandemic also forced staff to critically examine–and improve–the cleaning protocols for the museum’s exhibits and other public spaces. Reviewing cleaning products and schedules, the facility manager made changes where needed.  Food service was now problematic. The honor system, self-serve snack bar and other areas where food and beverages had been allowed before the pandemic were closed, and drinking fountains were covered. New picnic tables had been purchased for the museum’s grounds before the pandemic began. At first, they were not used that much by visitors (the museum’s neighbors, however, loved them), but now they have a real purpose–visitors have somewhere to safely eat and drink outside. When the pandemic allows, the drinking fountains will be uncovered and indoor tables and chairs will return in the snack area, but a decision has not been made yet on whether or not to sell snacks at all again. The good that came from the bad: CMOR is a lot cleaner, and the picnic tables are more popular than ever with visitors.

Staff Communications and Team Building

Before the pandemic the museum’s staff met weekly in person, every Monday morning, for a briefing from the executive director. This gathering also offered opportunities for everyone to share what they were working on.  When the museum closed, these weekly meetings continued online, using Duo, a free Google app that allows easy videoconferencing with no time limit. When it became apparent that the pandemic was going to continue, a WebEx subscription was obtained for the use of the executive director and board, but Duo remained the preferred tool for staff meetings. Duo is easy to use. It does not require you to find and click on a meeting link; you simply answer the incoming call either on a smart phone or computer. Using Duo also allows part-time employees to participate from home, saving time and fuel. Regular Monday meetings on Duo is a pandemic-forced change that will continue.

While CMOR has a small staff, the museum building is large— 54,000 square feet to be exact. With offices located far apart in different wings of the facility, building a spirit of camaraderie was not always easy. COVID-19 changed that. The museum’s small staff had to band together on many new tasks, such as identifying which items needed to be removed from an exhibit because they could not be safely cleaned, or taking turns doing a new, mid-day disinfection of high touch/high traffic areas that was beyond the scope of what the part-time janitors could do. The good from the bad: COVID-19 was an extreme team building exercise. It showed that the museum’s staff could be flexible and it also instilled a sense of pride–that this small group of people was able to quickly change gears and run the museum, safely and successfully, in a pandemic. The good from the bad: a stronger, closer staff.

Administrative and Financial Changes

The pandemic forced the executive director and board to review the museum’s 2019-2021 strategic plan with a new focus in mind: which goals and objectives were being impacted by the pandemic, and how could we correct things midstream? Some aspects of the strategic plan, especially those related to increased programming and building the museum’s volunteer and internship programs, have been slowed by the pandemic, so it was decided to extend the plan by one year. The plan’s goals and objectives were not updated; a review will take place in the fall of 2022 when work begins on the next strategic plan.  Waiting a year to make any major, long-term decisions will allow for some perspective as the museum is still very much in “pandemic mode.” The good from the bad: the pandemic forced the museum to pay closer attention to the strategic plan and critically evaluate what was still feasible, and what had to be postponed.

At the beginning of the pandemic, before the special COVID-19 grants and stimulus programs were created, CMOR’s future was uncertain. The museum had a history of lean budgets with no safety cushion. During the museum’s temporary closure, donors were asked to give generously to help make up the loss of admissions revenue. Donors cared and wanted to see the museum survive. Years of relationship building meant their support was strong. COVID-19 also forced the museum to find and apply for new sources of support, such as special COVID-19 grants from the Tennessee Arts Commission and the East Tennessee Foundation. Another lifeline was the Small Business Administration (SBA). Two forgivable Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans and a long-term, low interest Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) put the museum’s finances in good shape. Like a mortgage, the EIDL’s repayment plan is $600 a month for a thirty years— affordable terms for the museum.

Currently, the museum is in a financial holding pattern. Except for some much needed building repairs that have long been on the back burner due to budget limitations, spending remains very conservative in order to keep as much COVID funding in reserves as possible. In 2022, as the museum’s fundraising committee reviews and revamps the fundraising plan, the end of the COVID-19 money will be factored in as we continue to include a diverse revenue stream.  The good from the bad: donors came to the rescue of their beloved museum; a long-term, low interest loan; and a new connection with the Small Business Administration.

In Closing

 The COVID-19 pandemic has been quite a roller coaster ride—ever changing, and at times exhausting—for the small staff of the Children’s Museum of Oak Ridge.  With hard work and support, the museum is weathering the pandemic, improving its operations, and looking ahead to its 50th anniversary in 2023.

Beth Shea has served as executive director of the Children’s Museum of Oak Ridge (Tennessee) since 2016.