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33 Questions Every School Should Answer as You Prepare to Reopen

School Health

An additional list of questions to consider for the 2021-2022 school year is available here.

The most common question right now in the education sector is: what will school look like next year?

In my own district, I have answered that for six weeks with a simple response: I don’t know. In recent days that has started to shift as the added uncertainty was creating anxiety, frustration, and even animosity at times.

It is increasingly clear that reopening schools this fall in some form or fashion is likely for many parts of our nation. That reopening will present financial challenges for many districts. Given the lack of significant funds from the CARES Act and other sources, the reopening process raises some real questions for districts and schools. As you consider what the 2020-2021 school year may look like for your community ― and what changes may need to be made to reopen safely and efficiently ― here are 33 questions you may want to ponder:

Questions to ask about managing student and staff health

This may be the most important filter to apply to decision-making. Some key questions to consider:

How can you effectively mitigate risk for staff and students with underlying health conditions such as immunocompromised, lung or heart conditions, diabetes, mild or severe asthma, and/or obesity?

How our district is responding: We are in the process of creating options for staff and students that may not be able to re-enter traditional face-to-face education that leverages technology, synchronous and asynchronous broadcasting, and potentially matching up staff and students that are unable to be physically present in school.

Which data or metrics are you using to inform decision-making for next year?

How our district is responding: Our County has been aggressive in transparently providing data and we have aligned to the key metrics outlined in the Waukesha County COVID-19 Dashboard.

Have you established a relationship with your local health department or official?

How our district is responding: As districts get closer to the start of a new school year, you may want to establish a reciprocal mandatory reporting relationship with your local health official. Transparently sharing important pandemic information while respecting patient privacy will be critical if we want to stay safe to stay open.

Other questions to consider about student and staff health

  • What is the most effective symptom screening process?
  • Should symptom screening be done at school or at home?
  • If you are symptom screening at a school site, what equipment needs are you considering and how are you funding them?
  • What mechanical ventilation system modifications need consideration?
  • How are you modifying student/staff mobility during the school day?
  • What personal protective equipment (PPE) requirements and recommendations are you considering?
  • How can you deliver on effective hand washing and sanitizing needs?
  • In the event of a confirmed case involving someone at the school, have you considered two-way mandatory reporting with your local health officer or department?
  • In the event of a confirmed case at school:
    • What isolation protocols are in place?
    • What cleaning protocols do you need to have ready?
    • Do you have a trained strike team for execution of contact tracing, cleaning, closing/reopening, and continued learning?
  • How are you leaning into your key partners and vendors like transportation, food service, day care, and others?

Questions to ask about continuity of learning

Many school districts are currently wrapping up (or have recently wrapped up) nearly three months of emergency remote learning. During this time, we have learned a lot about the importance of technology, collaboration, virtual conferencing, and many other important components. Here are some key questions to consider about continuity of learning moving forward:

Over the past several months, students and staff navigated various learning management systems and platforms. Do you need to declare a preferred LMS for the next school year? Should you differentiate where developmentally appropriate?

How our district is responding: Many schools quickly jumped into Google Classroom, Seesaw, Canvas, and other LMS systems, leaving some learners having to navigate multiple LMS systems. With younger learners, parents were asked to navigate multiple platforms. If school is going to be in and out of emergency remote learning, a uniformed approach to your LMS may make sense.

Virtual conferencing remains a critical component of distance or remote learning.  Should you declare a preferred platform? What will happen when some platforms return to regular fee schedules?

How our district is responding: Google Meet, Skype, Zoom, and others quickly rolled out free software or dramatically reduced costs for schools to get virtual access. Schools will want to consider the level of flexibility for conferencing, device compatibility, and future costs as they navigate next steps.

How will you help students, staff, and families access broadband internet?

How our district is responding: Many districts had to quickly roll out hotspots and other strategies to increase internet access for all kids. As internet companies return to fee-based strategies, districts need to be positioned to think broadly about strategies and solutions for reduced internet access, such as WiFi hotspots on buses and other WiFi broadcasting solutions.

Other questions to consider about continuity of learning

  • What device break/fix protocols will you need to beef up in the event that you have to move in and out of emergency remote learning?
  • Professional development will remain a high priority this summer. We have to get better at delivering synchronous and asynchronous learning. What is your professional development dashboard for the summer? Does it include assessing student achievement in a virtual world? Should you modify the calendar to increase teacher professional development this summer?
  • What school schedules may need to be modified to reduce student mobility during the day and mitigate risk? For instance, should you have teachers travel to classrooms for specials or electives at the elementary level?
  • What supply chain challenges exist for devices? Will you need to expedite ordering today to have your inventory in place for the start of the 2020-2021 school year?

Questions to ask about other district and school systems and processes

This is some of the most complex work I have seen in my nearly thirty-year career. It is similar to untangling a ball of yarn. Here are some other wonderings I’ve faced in recent weeks:

What modifications need to be made to our visitor and volunteer management system?

How our district is responding: It is clear that there will be some modification of visitor and volunteer systems as schools try to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Temporarily pausing volunteer programs and more tightly controlling your visitor management system appears to be a necessary strategy.

What office design modifications need to be made for your staff to return to work? 

How our district is responding: Think about school offices, your cubicle-based work force, and your health rooms. Dividers may need to be installed, similar to how retailers have responded to point-of-sale structures. Meanwhile, you may have to consider adding extensions to increase the height of cubicle dividers. As you contemplate your health room protocols, give some consideration to isolation space for symptomatic students who will need to be isolated until the student can be picked up by a family member.

What do we do about internships, cooperative programming, and other work-based learning we place students in as part of our school-to-work efforts?

How our district is responding: Pivoting many of these experiences into a virtual setting may be necessary until the resolution of the pandemic. Career-based learning should remain a priority for some of your middle and high school students. Shifting career speakers, internships, and executive coaching into the virtual experience needs deep consideration.

Other questions to consider

  • What decisions about co- and extra-curricular offerings need to be made?
  • How will you mitigate risk during new staff orientation and back-to-school events?
  • How will you deliver music ensembles?
  • What tools and supplies will teachers and other staff need in each scenario, including virtual scenarios?
  • What bussing and transportation scenarios will unfold, and how will we modify parent drop-off and pick-up if there is a dramatic surge in this method of transportation?
  • How will you beef up your virtual library so students can access literature?
  • Staffing/hiring ― will teachers be reluctant to return to school? Will they refuse to return to school (and will that mean schools will need to aggressively recruit)?
  • Will substitutes be reluctant to work in person? Will that mean a shortage of substitutes, or does the higher number of unemployed people mean that more will turn to substitute teaching to supplement their income? (And therefore, will there be a higher number of highly qualified substitutes?)

Final thoughts

In my nearly thirty years in the education field, this is the most complex work I have been engaged in, ever. Mitigating the health risks associated with COVID-19 while also understanding the social, emotional, and academic impact our decisions have may define us in the short term. In Wisconsin, these decisions appear to be landing at the local level. Someone once said that tough times never last but tough people do. It is time to stand up and lead, even when it is tough going. My best wishes to the thousands of leaders that are charged with making sense out of something we didn’t pick.

Health data is critical to reopening schools, but do you have the systems in place to collect the data you need? Learn how Frontline School Health Management software can help

Mark Hansen

Mark serves as Superintendent in the School District of Elmbrook, a school district located fifteen minutes outside of Milwaukee, WI. Elmbrook serves about 7,500 students and is the 15th largest school district in Wisconsin. Prior to serving as superintendent he worked as a teacher, associate principal, principal, and assistant superintendent. In 2006 he was named State of Wisconsin High School Principal of the Year and was one of three finalists for National High School Principal of the Year. He is an adjunct professor in the Carroll University Educational Leadership Program, helping develop the next generation of educational leaders. He and his wife, Scarlet, live in Brookfield, WI with their two sons, Zach and Max.