For Schools to Recover from COVID, Collaboration Will Be Key

The pandemic has shown we need to quickly engage a much wider group of professionals, including those in facilities management, HVAC, architecture, mental health and more.

For Schools to Recover from COVID, Collaboration Will Be Key

This time of year, reflection is appropriate and maybe even mandatory. Let’s be honest, 2020 has given us much to reflect on. Nowhere is that a starker reality than in school safety and security. It is reasonable to assume that significant amounts of money from both state and federal governments will likely become available to schools to address our shortcomings in COVID-19 response and ongoing vulnerabilities. This won’t last. Understanding that, it becomes critical schools prepare to use the opportunity to best effect.

Going forward it will be important that we avoid three potential pitfalls:

  1. The overwhelming desire to get schools back to normal could cause an under-correction. And just like on the freeway, that under-correction will assure you will have the accident that you see coming.
  2. The intense pressure to do “something” can lead to the knee jerk reaction of over-correction. Again, like on the freeway, over correction often causes a much worse accident that you did not see coming.
  3. Worst of all is the oscillation back and forth between the two extremes. When this happens, you can get into both the accident you saw coming and the one you didn’t anticipate.

The key going forward will be the determination of what constitutes under and over correction, and how to find right balance between the two.

Multi-Disciplinary School Safety Committees Are Effective

Following the Columbine High School shooting and the rash of other mass campus shootings that followed, the active shooter/targeted violence event became the overwhelming focus and driving force that framed nearly all the discussions on school safety and security. Effective school safety and security has always been a collaborative effort among four educational elements; school operations, school facilities, school technology and school community. Understanding that, the district/school multi-disciplinary safety committee has proven the most successful approach for school safety and security planning.

The current COVID-19 pandemic has given us the opportunity and more importantly the necessity to re-frame the discussion with a much wider focus. The lessons learned from our COVID-19 experience indicate the need for wider collaboration. We will need to engage a much more diverse group of professionals with wider expertise to help us address the changed circumstances and new reality in schools.

This wider group is likely to include experts from architecture, HVAC engineering, facilities management, industrial hygiene, interior design, public health, infectious disease, mental health, school security and others as the need is identified. Each bring a specific point of view. As this effort goes forward and changes are considered, it will be incumbent on educators to engage in the process and maintain the focus on the core mission of schools: the education of students.

National organizations will have an essential role to play. Groups like the National Council on School Facilities (NCSF) provide reliable information, well researched, easily verifiable and readily available. The identification of data-driven potential solutions to address specifically identified vulnerabilities made easily available to state and local educational agencies for consideration will be critical.

Equally critical will be adaptation of the such recommendations by local experts to meet local conditions. For example, HVAC changes to increase air filtration will look different at a school in Northern Michigan than at one in Southern Florida.

Ask These 4 Questions When Considering Changes

This brings us back to the determination of the appropriate amount of correction. There is and will continue to be intense scrutiny and overwhelming pressure to make schools safe from contagion. Such a charged environment can foster imprudent purchases and ineffectual practices. Determination of a reasonable and effective path forward for any local school district will depend on the work of their district/school safety committee.

A good rubric for the consideration of potential changes by that committee can be the following four questions:

1. What is the issue to be addressed?

This is the “what is the problem” question. Too often a failure in school safety is assured by the failure to narrow the question. I want to make my school safe is a bit like the beauty pageant interview answer of “world peace.” It sounds good, everyone will agree and there is no actionable path forward. In the alternative, “I want to limit airborne virial transmission inside the school building” provides a framework for the next question. Every consideration in school safety and security can benefit from narrowing the focus to a specific actionable issue.

2. Is the change effective?

This is the “should you do it?” question. Foremost will be, how will this impact your core mission? A room-based HEPA filtration system that produces too much ambient background noise for effective teaching is not a viable solution.

It is also very much a due diligence question. Is there evidence that the change being considered will have a positive effect and lessen the identified vulnerability when used, installed or applied as recommended? Have others had a positive outcome using the same or similar change? Is there reliable third-party research (not vendor generated) on the efficacy? Does the solution serve both an immediate and long-term purpose? Here is where the work done by national organizations will be very beneficial.

3. Is the change implementable?

This is the “can you do it today?” question. Here, there are several considerations. Have you developed the necessary stakeholder support for the change? This includes both the community affected by the change and the staff required to implement the change. This is an often overlooked but absolutely critical first step in the implementation process. Do you have the adequate resources for implementation? Is your staff adequate or will new staff be required? Are you prepared to provide the necessary training and support?

4. Is the change sustainable?

This is the “can you do it tomorrow?” question. This is not just a question of commitment or ongoing resourcing, although that should be a consideration. It can also be a question of institutional inertia versus institutional commitment, particularly in operational types of changes. Until the benefit from the change is apparent there will be pressure to return to business a usual.

We’ve Responded Well Before; We Can Do It Again

This process served schools well when the question was the response to targeted violence. National, state and local governments provided financial support. National organizations researched the issues and offered recommendations. Schools and their state and local law enforcement partners reviewed the recommendations, developed processes, trained procedures and applied technology, tailored to the local resources and conditions. There were hiccups along the way, but we all learned, and students are safer from targeted violence today because of the collaboration. And this process continues.

COVID-19 and the pandemic response is different to be sure, but the model is valid none the less and includes:

  • National, state and local governments providing financial support.
  • National organizations providing well researched, reliable information to state and local experts.
  • Educators and school safety committees working with state and local experts and their community to identify effective, implementable and sustainable changes to school facilities and operations to mitigate potential contagion.

Make no mistake, there will be hiccups along the way, but if we have learned from past experience, students and staff will be both healthier and safer in schools as a result.

The pandemic has given us an unprecedented opportunity. Let us not waste it. Now is the time to go to work. Let the collaboration begin!

About the Author

Contact:

Guy Bliesner is a School Security Analyst for the Idaho Office of School Safety and Security.

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