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March/April 2021

School Doors: The Next New NormalWhen the New Normal Arrives: Applying the Lessons of the Pandemic

Compiled by James Fritts
 
A mission of the school is to teach skills to students in such a way that they can apply these skills successfully to future situations, even those that neither they nor their teachers can envision. One technique is to show how lessons learned in the past influenced society in future eras. School board members, administrators, and employees have applied what they learned as students and in their recent school roles to meet the challenge of the coronavirus pandemic of 2020-2021 to instruct their students while protecting the health of students and staff. In the process of meeting these challenges, new ways of meeting schools’ goals have been developed and tested.
 
Some approaches have proven ineffective or too expensive to adopt once the emergency has passed. Others have opened the eyes of school leaders, teachers, and families to means of improving learning and the operation of the schools.
 
As part of the coursework in a Finance and Budgeting class, teams of students in a principal preparation program were asked to identify innovations in building operation and maintenance, transportation, food services, technology, and other areas that improved the health of the school’s occupants, opened up space to batter support instruction, enhanced learning technology in the school and in students’ homes, moved students and instructional resources between home and school, and contributed to improved nutrition of school families.
 
Ideas flowed liberally, and sharing them had immediate benefit to the work. The assignment went beyond “current events” and asked teams to identify innovations that have delivered benefits to the point that they should be considered for adoption as part of the “new post-pandemic normal.” Because it was a course in Finance and Budgeting, the assignment concluded with the challenge to find ways to fund the innovations, whether by trading off other expenses, finding alternative funding sources including intergovernmental agreements and local fundraising, and financing the investments by one of the many borrowing alternatives available to schools. The ideas were developed into a presentation to a mock board of education. The assignment focused on non-instructional operations but many ideas on means of delivering instruction were also shared.
 
Below, organized by support service area, are some of these thoughts. It is hoped that the readers will use them to develop their own schools’ lists with input from their stakeholders. Some of the ideas were introduced by the instructor and a guest architect and facilities consultant; most were brought to the discussion by the students.
 
Cleaning and Maintenance

  • Revise cleaning standards and time allotments for high-traffic areas. Some rooms will be upgraded from “Level 2 or 3 cleaning” that is typical of normal cleaning to “Level 1” used for bathrooms, kitchens, health offices, and rooms for students with special needs. Reexamine and revise the building map that specifies the level of cleaning for each room

  • Consider team cleaning, whereby one custodian handles the dusting, cleaning, and wipe-down of high-touch surfaces, including doors, switches, tables, counters, desks, chairs, and plumbing fixtures, following which a second person applies an electrostatic disinfectant spray, posts the room as cleaned for the day and locks the room.

  • Redefine procedures and schedules for operation and periodic maintenance of heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) equipment, including fresh air settings, filter cleaning or replacement, and duct cleaning of central systems. Train members of the custodial and maintenance staff to inspect HVAC systems and perform necessary maintenance. Provide a room HVAC report to staff members who work in it.

  • If building cleaning and maintenance are outsourced, assure that the contractor understands the standards and procedures and have the work inspected by a district employee.

  • Install hand sanitizer dispensers in each classroom and office, by doors, and around common areas.

  • Provide extra cleaning supplies for classrooms and offices to use in the case of spills or emergencies.

  • Provide disinfecting wipes, gloves, and masks for staff.

  • Schedule heavy cleaning and sanitizing on days when rooms are not used due to remote instruction, professional development days, holidays, and vacations.

  • Provide sufficient staff or overtime authorization so that basic cleaning of the building continues at a high level when outdoor tasks, including landscape and snow removal, intrude on time required for indoor work. Consider contracting such outdoor work to free staff time for indoor care.

 
Facility Design and Layout

  • Provide health and safety directions in all languages spoken at the school.

  • Designate entrances for staff members and students based on classroom location.

  • Continue a form of staff screening or self-screening of students before they enter school at times when influenza or other contagious diseases reach a specified level.

  • Provide care rooms outside the nurse’s office for students and staff who exhibit symptoms, and provide more than one such room in larger schools.

  • Minimize personal furniture in classrooms and do not allow couches, blankets, pillows, rugs, etc. that cannot be easily disinfected.
  • ​In planning for new or remodeled facilities, widen hallways and provide for larger rooms and appropriate furniture and the ability to establish screened areas within the room.
  • Fit classrooms with at least some windows that open in such a way that security is maintained.

 
Transportation

  • Purchase, lease, or contract for vehicles of different sizes, but large enough to provide two-per-seat for all runs and one-per-seat for runs with medically fragile children.

  • Use vans or buses designed for student activities for transporting food, technology, instructional supplies, and other purposes other than to-and-from school trips. This might include providing “hot spots” for areas where internet service is not available, out of operation, or not affordable to families.

  • Sanitize bus railings and seats regularly according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and keep cleaning materials in a secure place on the bus.

  • Provide hand sanitizer on buses.

  • Open some windows unless the bus is air-conditioned.

  • Imagine all the ways that vehicles can be used other than to transport students to and from school. Even when no crisis occurs, these expensive vehicles can extend the school to students’ homes.

  • Route buses and publicize stop schedules to minimize students’ waiting times in inclement weather.

  • Work with parents nearby school areas to identify alternative walking or biking routes or parent carpools to reduce the number of students relying on busing. In doing so, provide sufficient bus capacity for winter and inclement days.

 
 
Food Services

  • Take advantage of expanded and liberalized food service regulations to expand menus and serve students and families who otherwise would not have sufficient healthy meals.

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  • Consider “community designation” whereby all students qualify for reimbursed free breakfast and lunch without the need to complete individual, intrusive applications. Qualifying requirements are found on the Illinois State Board of Education School Nutrition site.

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  • Coordinate food distribution to needy families with local food pantries and businesses.

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  • Reschedule and reconfigure meals and facilities in school to provide more food lines, hand-cleaning stations before entering and leaving the cafeteria, and offering bagged breakfast and lunch in classrooms for a recess supervisor to distribute. Students can be rotated every few weeks to have lunch in the cafeteria and their classroom. 

 
Technology

  • Provide one-to-one equipment as opposed to shared laboratories.

  • Add classes in computer uses for students and corresponding professional development for staff using online platforms.

  • Provide school equipment to students at home due to extended absences.

  • Instruct students in reliable health-screening and maintenance technology.

  • Use meeting and webinar technology for student and parent meetings including college and career presentations, principals’ presentations, translations, IEP/504 conferences, homebound instruction, and short-term absence instructions.

  • Publicize the instructions for attending school board and other meetings of interest to parents and students.

  • Teach students age-appropriate and safe uses of meeting technology.

  • Develop or purchase software to monitor health and safety procedures required in the buildings and other locations.

  • Use Google Voice and similar district-provided technology to facilitate teacher communications to students and parents while remaining within policies which prohibit staff/student contacts on personal phones or e-mails. The load on school telephones is also lessened.

  • Go paper-free for sign-ups and other paperwork, expediting communications while saving money for creating and handling paper documents.

  • Use Google Classroom and Google Suite for creating and transmitting assignments and classroom schedules and calendars.

  • Hold parent-teacher conferences online at mutually convenient times and places.

  • Work with community internet providers to secure free or discounted access for low-income families.

 
Developing the Budget and Funding Sources
Federal, state, and local funding are each playing a role in enabling schools to fulfill their mission during the pandemic emergency and will continue to do so as they transition to new — and sometimes more costly — means of delivering services. The district’s business officials and department heads are charged with identifying both means of funding and cost trade-offs where possible. Government programs are expected to play a larger and longer role in enabling the necessary changes than many thought necessary and possible a year ago. 
 
Knowledge of a community’s governmental and nongovernmental resources and their potential to help is equally important.
 
A partnership of district finance and operations leadership with principals, faculty, support staff, parents, and older students can be developed to compare needs and identify sources of funding that will enable more items on the “wish list” to come to be. Some will be donations, some sharing of services, some will be funded by reductions in other budget areas and some will be financed. Ultimately, the community may be asked to raise taxes. A partnership approach will demonstrate that the schools are capable of filtering and prioritizing possibilities and securing outside funding where possible.
 
“Three houses”
Last fall, I showed my class a webinar featuring two superintendents on how they were addressing the process of planning for the “new normal.” One commented that the district was “building three houses,” a remote one, a hybrid one, and a new kind of in-school house — and that one would be torn down. The last few months have shown that all three houses might have to be maintained for a while as changing metrics translate into shifts in instructional plans. If that comes to be, a plan for instruction and support services — that is flexible when events require it — will best serve children, parents, staff, and community.
  

James Fritts, Ph.D., is the author of IASB’s publication, Essentials of Illinois School Finance, and Senior Editor of Good School Maintenance.