Tips and insights for schools preparing to reopen amid pandemic
By Dr Shelina Bhamani and Dr Ali Faisal Saleem
The COVID-19 pandemic is now a brutal reality leaving its imprint on human life across the globe. We heard in our student life that “virus has no borders”, and the novel coronavirus just stamped it.
It seems like a new world order, that push leaders across the globe to act so much different and unusual.
The pandemic forced countries to take several initiatives affecting not only within the country restrictions but across countries and across continents. Most critically to limit the spread the virus a partial or complete lockdown, social distancing, work from home, workplace and school closures were practiced.
These measures, though deemed necessary, have resulted in multi-dimensional impacts on the global economy, the healthcare systems, presenting an imminent threat to mental health, and severely disrupted the learning of 90% of the worlds’ students.
Governments around the world are mitigating and calculating the risks of easing the lockdown and a phase-wise re-opening of schools, industries and public services.
While some nations have reopened and slowly returning to normalcy, there are many countries struggling to get the teaching and learning routines in place with preventive health measures.
In Pakistan, a federal level school closure was implemented after 12th March, 2020. Initially it was announced the school reopening to post Eid but with the rising curve, the government has now postponed school reopening to 15 July 2020. However, the Supreme Court of Pakistan issued orders to allow businesses and commercial markets to reopen and operate under certain standard operating procedures (SOPs). If the risk to public health minimizes over the coming weeks, similar orders could be given allowing educational institutions to reopen.
“School re-opening”, What is this? A nightmare, an apprehension, or a fragile act. There are a lot of uncertainty among the parents, teachers and leaders.
Are we ready now? Our school system is ready to cater the heavy-weight questions and concerns of the partners? Unfortunately, the school infrastructure (building) is one of the most limiting and fear-factor. While the challenges will be great in educating teachers, children and parents to observe precautionary measures. It will be relatively far more challenging in the early years and preschool/kindergarten schools to ensure the best safety for the youngest age-groups.
Children somehow are less-affected from COVID-19.
There is a lot of data currently supporting this, however, this doesn’t mean they are protected. Schools must operate under a strategic school reopening plan and to do this efficiently, the school leaders will have to play a fundamental role in assuring that children are safe in schools.
Furthermore, school leaders will have to ensure that the teachers, staff and parent community are ready to adapt to this new world – a world amidst COVID-19 crisis.
However, common sense, prevention and individual and collective responsibilities could help school leaders plan and mitigate well in advance.
Firstly, it is critical to map out a quick parental survey/stakeholder survey to understand the fears and apprehensions of students and parents.
Schools must also collect information on the state of the economic conditions, changes that may have occurred in the home settings, and general and specific concerns of young children.
This exercise will allow schools to have clarity and context of the challenges students and families could be facing to plan a robust school reopening and operations strategy. Schools should access to experts in the COVID and mental health to ensure the COVID related safety measures and gradually alleviate the stress and learning hinderance in children and parent.
Secondly, it is essential to build a communication (a close loop communication) network among teachers and parents.
This networking will enable the school leaders to have a communication pool whereby personnel are assigned to ensure every single child’s health information and any special need that has been identified by the medical team (if any) during COVID era.
The role of this communication network will be to provide necessary information to the parent community, and where necessary, effective coordination in times of emergency. Moreover, it is imperative to continue educating the relevant stakeholders, i.e. teachers, students and parents regarding the novel coronavirus. Making efforts to communicate what the virus is, how it spreads in young children and adults, how to respond if a child or family member is infected will empower the community to fight against the virus.
Thirdly, school leaders should focus on preparing essential preventive care and adhere to guidelines on disinfecting the premises. Use of guidelines will enable school leaders to train their housekeeping staff in managing cleanliness on campus aligned with the global and national health advisories. Supplies like sanitizers, towels, disinfecting liquids, and personal protective equipment (PPE) should be procured in advance based on the quantity required by the school.
Also, the supply chain department of the educational institutions should be advised to replenish their stock and monitor the expiry and safekeeping of the equipment.
Furthermore, school leaders will have to review the essential list of inventory items to be maintained in the school’s housekeeping stock to continue preventive measures on campus. Availability of health care worker (potentially a registered nurse, with special training on PPE, identification of early warning sings) should be mandatory for all schools.
The schools should also connect with the most near located secondary/tertiary care facility in the case of emergency and urgent situation arise.
The role of the school leaders will be significant throughout the lifespan of COVID-19.
The entire school infrastructure, access gates to classrooms, playgrounds to toilets, libraries to laboratories, play area to sickbay, will have to be re-envisioned and realigned for a safe and healthy learning environment. Now, more than ever, the focus will shift from the taught curriculum and regular assessments for learning to create a culture of care and responsibility with care and responsibility.
The mindset and approach of staff and students will have to be changed – how staff offices and teachers’ resource rooms will be restructured to ensure their safety as well duty roasters, putting preventive health care charts and bulletin boards across the school for health awareness to realigning learning routines to confirm curriculum coverage – the challenges ahead seems daunting yet possible to overcome.
Efforts will also be required to realign human resource structure, including a full-time school nurse, mental health counsellor, parent educator and a health officer to help maintain the new status quo. In addition, school leaders will need to plan and initiate new standard operating procedures of relevant remedial and remote support for the children who might contract the virus or any infection that could have similar symptoms. This also calls on for redesigning attendance policy to recommend sick leaves as symptoms in the child appear.
Last but not the least preparing oneself, teachers, staff and the parent community to get accustomed to this new era and to adapt to the new routines amidst COVID-19 will continue to be a strong focus for school leaders.
How to optimally support young children and their development and taking everyone along into the new world will be a constant struggle but certainly promise new learning.
Schools will have to play a very crucial role in building new knowledge, capacity and skills for teachers, staff and the parent community to administer the highest level of care whilst facilitating growth, learning and development of our country’s future.
This also call for an action by the civil society organizations, not for profit organizations, private school organization, provincial education secretariat and academia to take a multisectoral approach towards preparing schools for reopening by building their capacity and provision of relevant childcare preventive health supplies. Also, to dedicate a monitoring team to regularly audit the SoPs set by the schools and ensure its ground level implementation.
Dr Shelina Bhamani is an Assistant Professor, Research and Lead Parenting Education Program at the Women and Child Health, Aga Khan University.
Dr Ali Faisal Saleem is an Assistant professor, Pediatric Infectious Diseases and Service Line Chief, Children’s Hospital at the Aga Khan University
Both authors lead the training and providing continuous support to schools, college and other institutes for a re-opening and normalcy plan in COVID and post-COVID era.