March 15, 2020
With Coronavirus (COVID-19) cases rapidly increasing around the world, it is likely just a matter of time before cases reach your area, if they have not already done so. The impact COVID-19, or any pandemic, can have on schools and families is significant.
Similarly, the impact that smart, well-informed schools can have on their communities is also significant. We must be ready and willing to prioritize public health and the well-being of our children and faculty.
Getting valid information from reliable sources is the primary step schools must take. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization are your best sources of information on how to react to this crisis.
There are three important areas for schools to consider: Nonpharmaceutical interventions (NPIs), communication, and continuity of your school’s mission.
Nonpharmaceutical Interventions (NPIs)
NPIs are interventions schools can take to slow the spread of illness. Many of the approaches in this area should always be followed—but schools should place renewed emphasis on them now. The following are NPIs schools should consider.
Emphasize everyday preventive actions
- Teach younger students and remind older students to cover their coughs and sneezes with a tissue. Provide multiple boxes of tissues and hand sanitizers in each classroom.
- Wash your hands. With elementary students, stop at the restroom before and after lunch for hand washing. Teach them to sing a song that lasts 20 seconds. Hand sanitizer is better than nothing, but does not replace hand washing.
- Clean surfaces and objects frequently. In most cases, desks, computers, and other objects are not cleaned daily. Put procedures in place to clean these surfaces. You should also encourage children and adults to wipe these areas when they’re finished. Provide easy access to cleaning supplies (for example, to use on computer screens and keyboards after each use). This is particularly important where students are eating (cafeteria, snack areas, student lounges, etc.). Ensure you also have a plan for professional deep cleaning.
- Assure your food service follows proper health standards. If anyone touches food, they must re-glove before continuing.
- Stay at home when sick. Make it the school policy that students and staff stay home for at least 24 hours after signs of a fever. When recommended by health officials, expand your policy to caution your staff members to stay home if anyone in their household shows symptoms. Plan for potential absences by making plans so colleagues can cover for one another. You should also have a policy regarding the number of teachers and staff members who can be out before you must close school because your staff-to-student ratio will be too high for safety.
- Appoint an Emergency Operations Coordinator. This person is already likely on your staff. This individual should review systems and protocols for pandemic responses. This person is also the lead in establishing relationships with local public health and emergency services.
- Track absences. Have a method for tracking both staff and student absences and the reasons for them. While this seems obvious, many schools we work with cannot access absence reports over time.
Be prepared to institute enhanced preventive actions
- Increase space between people. In past pandemic preparation documents, the CDC has advised increasing space between people to at least three feet. This might include spacing desks, putting a space between diners at cafeteria tables, and holding classes outside.
- Allow for remote work whenever possible. Identify which job functions must be on campus (as long as school is open), but allow others to work remotely.
- Postpone or cancel school events. While students and parents will be disappointed that a game, trip, or performance is canceled, you must put student health and the public interest ahead of such activities. The decision will be guided by advice and information from the CDC, WHO, and your local authorities. Postpone events, rather than cancel, whenever possible.
- Close school buildings. This may be directed by local health officials or you may do it yourself. We have seen schools close for 14 days in response to a confirmed student contraction of COVID-19 to allow the incubation period to “expire.” Even if your buildings are closed, the school's classes can continue with online/blended learning or video conferencing.
- Plan online learning. It is vital that each school and teacher plan for the potential of being out for two to four weeks due to an outbreak in your area. If you aren’t already prepared, you should immediately secure a method by which teachers can conduct classes and students can participate in a virtual modality. Teachers and students should learn to use the technology, and communicate this to parents.
Communication is key to maintaining a supportive and predictable environment, especially amid chaos. Families need to know that their children are safe (to the extent they can be); that you are implementing wise, expert-informed or directed methods; and that the integrity of the students’ progress will not be harmed.
- Stay on top of communications. Communicate multiple times a day through your usual channels. Your Communications Director and team should monitor the latest developments, responding immediately and in coordination with your Leadership Team.
- Identify any barriers that parents may have in receiving your messages and take steps to overcome those barriers (language, facility with or access to technology, etc.).
Under the banner of communications, some reporting to national or local organizations might be required. A school lawyer should review the impact of such reporting on HIPAA and other privacy laws.
Continuity of Mission
Remember your Board’s primary concern is the long-term viability of the school. Times of crisis lead families to make major course corrections (i.e., leave the school) if impeccable care is not taken with their children’s safety and education. Assuring care requires good decision-making and proper procedures. Dealing with these issues may require financial support. This is what cash reserves are for.
The Leadership Team’s primary concern must be the students and faculty. If the school must close, keeping to a routine while realizing that flexibility may be needed is essential. This will help with the likely anxiety that students, parents, and teachers will experience.
Remote Learning Experiences
It’s obvious that using remote teaching and learning is necessary to continue education when the school building is closed. The primary aspects to have in place include:
- Learning Management Systems for syllabus management and resource sharing. (e.g., Google Classroom, Moodle). A more school-specific system allows teachers to set up a syllabus online for students to use. They can also provide videos, resource links, and create and track assignments.
- File storage and sharing (e.g., Google Drive, Dropbox).
- Communication tools (e.g., Edmodo, Slack, Facebook Groups, Google Classroom).
- Learning applications (e.g., Khan Academy).
- Video conference tools (e.g., Google Hangouts, Zoom, Blue Jeans).
In most schools, teachers and staff have laptops with built-in video cameras. Such equipment will facilitate remote teaching and meetings. If you have not provided your teachers with this equipment, external cameras/microphones may be necessary.
What is not clear is if educators and students have internet connections strong enough to handle the bandwidth necessary for some of these applications. Providing cords to plug in directly to home routers, temporarily giving them administrator access, or even paying a stipend to increase their home internet speeds may be necessary and wise.
Stay True to Your Mission
Each of the above allows for the “business” of school to continue. However, do not forget the other components of a great education: relationships, engagement, fun, and cultivation of curiosity.
- Use communication tools (such as video conferencing) to gather each day, even if students work independently or in small groups. For example, advisory groups and morning meetings can and should be continued.
- Implement fun applications (such as Kaboot!, GoNoodle, or Prodigy) to help teachers engage with students in ways that are taken for granted when in the classroom. Have each teacher identify and share widely available applications they may already use that can help maintain engagement and a sense of community.
- Encourage individual passions by allowing students to use this time to learn something they’re interested in. Have them share this information with their classmates. For example, students might learn to play the guitar, code, or master the basics of a new language.
- Create a schedule to maintain a sense of structure. Organization and routine can help keep focus in what could be a highly emotional and chaotic time for faculty, staff, and students. If you move to a remote schedule, it’s important to build in time for meetings, independent work, individual conferences, and physical movement for students and teachers. Do not simply transfer your current schedule, as it won’t provide the flexibility you need. Consider time restraints like trips to healthcare providers or if a family has an insufficient number of devices (for example, think about a teacher in your school who has two children—they will need three devices to access “school” at the same time). We’ve provided a sample schedule for middle and uppers school here.
- Assure continued access to support. During work and conference time, there must be opportunities for teachers and students to speak one-on-one or in small groups to check in, answer questions, and provide general support. However, perhaps now more than ever, students may also need access to emotional support. It is advisable to make time for the advisory program, one version of which is outlined in the sample schedule. In addition, it is advisable to have counseling staff available during portions of the day to help students talk through issues.
- Access to tech support. There will inevitably be technology bumps in the road. Students and teachers need to have means to get those issues fixed.
Remain prepared, informed, and in continual communication with local and government organizations to do what’s best for your school and your students during this time.
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