The Intersection

Homeroom with Education Leaders Webinar Recap: Reopening School Buildings

July 24, 2020

“From a national perspective, everyone is very concerned about health and safety. How can we make our students, staff, and families safe in this new normal? We want everyone to be educated, preferably in school, but safety is the priority here.”-

– Dr. Lynne Holden, President & CEO, Mentoring in Medicine

Four months have passed since state governments issued their first widespread responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, ordering schools, institutions of higher education, childcare centers, businesses, and public gathering spaces to be shut down in order to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, formerly known as the novel coronavirus. Schools were among the many entities in public life forced to pivot on a dime as districts transitioned immediately from in-person to remote instruction, and the impact of such shift on students’ academic progress and well-being has and will be immense. In the past two weeks, the debate over reopening public schools has dominated public discourse, with some arguing for a full reopening of school, some arguing for a continuation of remote learning, and many arguing for an integration of both approaches in the fall. As this debate heats up, The Hunt Institute sat down with Oregon’s Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction, Colt Gill, California’s State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tony Thurmond, and Dr. Lynne Holden of Mentoring in Medicine about the debate regarding reopening, thinking about how schools buildings could reopen, and what needs to change for that to happen.

Opening this discussion was Dr. Lynne Holden, who outlined what schools need to consider should they decide to reopen this fall. Dr. Holden highlighted a couple key considerations, including the need for stakeholders involved in the reopening process to understand how the virus spreads. So far, public health officials know that COVID-19 spreads via respiratory droplets, contact with contaminated surfaces, and fecal matter. Understanding how the virus spreads will impact how stakeholders approach reopening, particularly in terms of what kinds of personal protective equipment to purchase and utilize, as well as how classrooms and other common areas in school facilities will be structured.

State Leadership and Efforts to Reopen

“We’re living in an era where we’re all in the digital divide, especially our students. This pandemic is non-stop, and its impacts are incredibly intense on every facet of society, especially our schools.”

– Tony Thurmond, Superintendent of Public Instruction, California

“From classroom teachers to state-level leadership, we are trying to lead through something that our generation has never experienced – a global pandemic, and a national reckoning with the effects of racism in our country.”

– Colt Gill, Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction, Oregon

State response to the reopening question is evolving. As stated by Superintendent Thurmond, the state’s guidance on reopening changes frequently, as the state is closely monitoring the spread of COVID-19. The state of California has provided support to its 10,000 schools already, supplying personal protective equipment; the state is also mobilizing its counselors to provide social-emotional support to the state’s students, particularly those who have not been able to connect to these services previously. Superintendent Thurmond also discussed the steep rise in COVID-19 cases in California, a trend being seen throughout the nation. Because of this spike in cases, Superintendent Thurmond stated that there is uncertainty on whether many schools in the state can reopen safely in the fall.

In Oregon, state leadership released its school reopening guidance on June 10th and is iterating that guidance every three weeks. Just like what is being seen in California, Oregon is re-thinking its approach to how schools will reopen in the fall, particularly in the context of rising cases. In its approach to the question on reopening school buildings, state leadership in Oregon has been using several guiding principles in this work:

  • Wellness, Health, and Safety Considerations
  • Cultivating Connection and Relationships
  • Equity
  • Innovation

In his discussion on Oregon’s response to the reopening question, Director Gill noted that schools have three instructional models they can consider for the upcoming academic year:

  • In-person instruction with significant health provisions in place;
  • Comprehensive distance learning and offsite instruction with daily synchronous contact, standards-based instruction, and assessment; or
  • A hybrid model of the two.

Finally, Director Gill noted the equity considerations that are at the center of the state’s response, being attentive to the needs of and the pandemic’s impact on all student populations, including students of color, students in the LGBTQIA2S+ community, foster care students, incarcerated students, and homeless students.

Looking Forward: Using Collaboration to Envision a Reopening

“Opening schools safely can be done by educating any and all who come in contact with the school. We also have to make sure everyone has the proper equipment to protect themselves. There are things we can do to reduce the spread of the virus, but everyone has to participate in order to prevent the spread.

– Dr. Lynne Holden, President & CEO, Mentoring in Medicine

As states are thinking about how to reopen, collaboration among different systems will be critical to ensuring that students, educators, and school leaders can return to school buildings safely. In California, state leadership has been looking to early childhood programs for guidance on how to safely bring students into classroom environments while mitigating the spread of COVID-19.

It will also be unlikely that all schools will reopen at the same time, and Oregon is taking that possibility into account by working to build a robust distance learning infrastructure, specifically focusing on building a uniform distance learning system for educators, which would come with professional development for educators concerning this system.

Finally, for schools to reopen successfully, there will need to be considerable consensus on how COVID-19 impacts children. As stated by Dr. Holden, medical experts and the public understand more about the virus each day, but there remain conflicting reports regarding the virus’s impact on children, and those conflicting reports can create confusion on how to reopen schools safely and effectively. The coming months will be difficult in terms of determining how to reopen schools in the midst of a pandemic, a challenge unlike anything many have seen in their lifetime, but with clear guidance, constant communication with public health officials, investments in personal protective equipment, and collaboration on all fronts, the education community has a chance at conquering this challenge.

View the complete webinar below.

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