Creating a Pandemic Response Manual is Critical
By Steve Zurek and Mary Henderson
Our schools, families, and kids have been through one of the most trying years in history. Could we have imagined the entire world being affected by a microscopic pathogen to the point where entire economies shut down and kids had to completely relearn how to be in school? The only way we could have known would have required time travel. Now that we are emerging from the pandemic and vaccines are being administered, we need to capture what we’ve learned so that future leaders of our districts can benefit from what is currently community knowledge, information residing in the minds of those who’ve experienced and navigated the situation. All districts need to create a Pandemic Response Manual.
Why is a Pandemic Response Manual critical for school districts? Think about how we prepare for other disasters: fire drills and evacuation procedures, lockdown drills and procedures for notifying families and the community, policies for how we interact with the media. These are relevant to event responses with relatively short durations. What we have experienced has been over the course of more than a year: a multitude of decisions made, procedures implemented, and preparations undertaken as districts anticipated bringing students back to classrooms. Now think about the future of the district, when those who led through the current situation have moved on. Where do you go to learn about what was done? The solution requires a proactive, data-driven mindset now.
A minimum of 11 different workstreams can be considered for a pandemic response by a school district to bring kids back to buildings and remote learning. Knowing these will allow a district superintendent to implement proactive solutions. Transference of community knowledge will provide a view of what is coming and how it should be handled. This will allow leadership to assign workstreams to other administrators, planning committees, and staff to free up time to deal with the nuances of the situation. Many of these workstreams fall under what we call “placing big rocks.” The big rocks are safety, technology, learning, and community. Having a solid foundation in these areas is vital to executing a response plan with excellence.
Learning Model: By far, this is the most critical and dynamic area of consideration. During the COVID-19 outbreak, states forced schools to shut their doors and go to a remote learning model. While there were significant challenges, planning needed to begin immediately for students returning to school either in-person, remotely, or through a hybrid model. Considerations within this workstream include A/B schedule, five-day-per-week dedicated instruction, synchronous or asynchronous, and simultaneous (teaching to remote and in-person at the same time) models.
Classroom Configuration: Returning students to buildings could pose a significant challenge with likely requirements for social distancing of desks, student/teacher safety, and in-room hygiene protocols. Knowing you cannot manufacture more real estate, it’s important to understand all available space and how it could be used for instruction, lunch breaks, and physical activity.
Response to Exposures: Response to exposures is one of the most nuanced pieces of the puzzle. Initially it presents as a straightforward reaction, but you will quickly learn it is a complex, process-driven algorithm. Health departments at federal, state, and county levels will likely dictate a general response, but the district is responsible for thinking through the acquisition of personal protective equipment, potential medical response, quarantine protocols, and community notification.
Available Space: Creativity and experience will accelerate future responses. Pre-COVID, kids learned in dedicated classrooms, purposeful in their design. Now, social distancing requires identifying what space is potentially convertible as well as what spaces will be dedicated quarantine locations in the event that someone begins displaying symptoms while in the building.
Hygiene Protocols: A sound, well-thought-out hygiene plan is critical. This is an area where the most fear will reside with families, students, and staff. Responding to a pandemic is about not only the actual response but also how you effectively communicate. Health departments might give guidance, but likely, the district will figure this out for itself. How to clean buildings, classrooms, transitional areas, and buses will need to be decided and communicated with staff and student families to give assurance that the district is implementing a rigorous hygiene plan.
Safety: Safety is a consideration regardless of a pandemic, but there may be holes you didn’t know you had. If students now have to stay in the same room all day instead of changing classes every period, how does that change lockdown procedures, and fire or natural disaster responses? Does the public address system work in every room or in the hallways? For online learners, are they safe from hacks and other online threats that might get into the district’s network?
Staffing: Staffing considerations will be highly dependent on the learning model. Some may not want to come to the buildings, or the learning model selected is straining their capabilities. Staffing considerations include assigning certified staff, securing consistent substitute coverage, accommodations for paraprofessionals, and more custodial staff to maintain hygiene protocols.
Finance: Having solid district finances is the key to surviving a crisis. Public schools are funded through tax revenue and reserves should be built in good times so that the district can have an appropriate and complete response to a crisis or economic downturn. It is vital to have a clear understanding of what district funds are available, what intergovernmental support is coming, grant availability, and potentially what state and local funds can be secured. A good chief school business official (CSBO) will be worth their weight in gold to get the district through a protracted crisis.
Communication: While communication has been mentioned in other workstreams, it is a priority in need of its own attention. Clear, concise, and frequent communication is key in any crisis but especially in one that is long-lasting and of monumental importance. During the pandemic, information was flying at staff and families fast and furious and from a variety of sources. Breaking things down into digestible chunks and realizing that information needs to be repeated and easily accessible will put a district on the path to success. In addition, this is a district’s opportunity to rally communities and lead them to work for the good of all. Balancing the need to inform with the need to demonstrate care is a necessary skill.
Legal: The attorney for the district should be engaged from the beginning. Knowing legal liability is critical, including in the event that the school becomes a significant source of outbreak. The attorney can also advise on ramifications to the district of not following health department recommendations. The community may pressure the district if such guidance is “just a recommendation” and not a mandate. However, do you want to be the first district in court telling a judge that you did not follow health department recommendations that led to serious illness or death?
Board of Education: The board is the advisor and window to the community. Listen to the board and keep board members informed. The superintendent and the board president must work together to set direction for the district, manage the message to the community, and help support teaching staff and families. A crisis will separate good leaders from bad almost immediately. Board members in most municipalities are elected volunteers, a fact that can pose challenges in terms of their personal leadership experiences. Strong and cohesive leadership from the superintendent and president is critical.
As you can see, pandemic response is extremely complicated. As you move the district forward and bring kids back to school, but circumstances will be constantly changing. Having a proactive response and knowledge of historical responses will allow decisive action to occur quickly, minimize mistakes and allow leadership to focus on the nuances of the present situation.