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Posts Tagged ‘School Pandemic Planning’

Shaking hands is, for now, socially unacceptable and ‘keeping your distance’ is the new normal in all public settings. Following the strict advice of our Chief Medial Officers of Health, the vast majority of citizens, groups and organizations are complying with ‘physical distancing’ to contain the spread of the deadly COVID-19 virus.  If the new public health conventions become ingrained and persist beyond the immediate crisis, the fundamental change in social norms outside the household sphere will profoundly alter life in public settings, particularly in K-12 schools and classrooms.

Seeing images of public schools in Taipei, Taiwan, in full operation during the COVID-19 heath crisis, is jarring, if not downright shocking. Based upon hard lessons gleaned from the 2003 SARS pandemic, Taiwanese authorities, including school heads, were quick to recognize the crisis and activated stringent emergency health management plans to keep schools running instead of simply closing them down.

School life during COVID-19 was transformed into a virtual health protection zone. Students at Daija Elementary School in Taipei were asked to disinfect their hands and shoes before entering the school building, while a security guard took their temperature, and, once in class, the children were seated in separated rows wearing masks.  What set that school apart, and drew international attention, was the sight of elementary children eating their own lunches while sitting behind bright yellow dividers on their desks.

With the frightening pandemic upon us, education planners and policy-makers need to look beyond the immediate crisis and start making plans for the resumption of in-person schooling, likely months from now.  A whole generation of students, parents and families, having survived the ravages of the virus, may be not only more receptive to online learning, but expecting, a different kind of K-12 day school education.

School practices intended to promote social distancing may well be an unintended legacy of the current crisis.  If and when influenza pandemic control measures become higher priorities, social distancing conventions that increase space between people and reduce the frequency of contacts may well overturn progressive teaching methodologies and spell the end, in real time, of clustered seating, learning centres, and interactive small group learning.

Today’s student-centred, interactive classroom based upon ‘hands-on’ learning was, it is becoming clear, greatly advanced by the widespread adoption of vaccines and school-based vaccination and related health programs. The emergency health risk posed by COVID-19 is more reminiscent of the scourge of childhood diseases, unchecked by vaccines, up until the 1960s. While class sizes were larger then, the traditional classroom exemplified social distancing  because children were seated in individual desks, spaced apart, lined-up before moving from place to place, and taught personal hygiene in elementary classes.

Classroom design and seating since the 1970s has tended to focus on creating settings that supported ‘active learning’ and reputedly ‘progressive’ teaching methods, such as learning circles, cooperative learning, and project-based groupings.  Scanning the North American physical classroom environment research, it’s striking how may action-research projects were undertaken to demonstrate that teaching children sitting in rows was detrimental to student engagement, widely considered an end in and of itself.

Neglected research on physical proximity and anxieties about crowding will get a much closer look in the post-COVID-19 era of education. Coming out of household quarantine and re-entering school, students, parents and teachers will be far more conscious of infectious diseases and the physical conditions contributing to its transmission. Ministries of education, school districts and principals will likely give a much higher priority to providing face-to-face teaching and learning in classrooms meeting stricter health protection standards.

Academic studies of “peers in proximity” and the few analyzing the “mixing patterns of students in school environments” do provide us with signposts for deeper dives.  One 2015 Dutch study of interpersonal processes in the classroom, conducted by Yvonne Van den Berg, demonstrates how  “a careful management of physical distance between classmates” can improve classroom climate, but it focuses almost exclusively on rectifying identified imbalances in social status in classes where students choose their own seats.

The role of children in the community spread of respiratory diseases such as H1N1 and COVID-19 identified by medical health authorities has attracted relatively little attention from education researchers based in graduate schools of education. One Canadian health policy study, produced in 2013 by University of Toronto researcher Laena Maunula may have compounded the problem. It claimed that public health messages were “dangerous” because they reinforce “bio power” and “governmentality” (i.e., a coercive state reducing citizens to ‘trained subjectivities.’)

For more promising disease prevention studies, we have to look to Europe and the pioneering work of two research teams, led by Marcel Salathé of the Salathe Lab at EPFL in Lausanne, Switzerland, and Juliette Stehlé of Marseille, working with the University of Lyon-based National Influenza Centre. Utilizing wireless sensor network technology, they have studied the social networks in both primary and secondary schools which facilitate infectious disease transmission. Logging the data for CPIs (close proximity interactions), the researchers honed-in on the problem presented by schools as high potential sites for pandemic spread. Follow-up studies by American health researchers applied this research and concluded that extensive alternative school-based interventions regulating free student movement, as an alternative to school closure, can significantly reduce contacts and potential exposure to infectious diseases.

A more recent 2018 Rand Corporation study, building upon the close proximity studies findings, examined American school influenza pandemic policies and practices. It found that, while strictly limiting student interactions in hallways and classrooms reduced transmission rates, only four of 50 U.S. states ( Georgia, Tennessee, Utah, and Virginia) had firm policies authorizing the full range of social distancing regulations. Ontario’s 2013 Health Plan for an Influenza Epidemic, much like those south of the border, relied upon school closures and made no provision for resumption of school after a pandemic outbreak.

Near future schools reopening after the hiatus will not look or feel the same, given the prospects for a second wave.  Taiwanese schools during the current pandemic might represent an extreme akin to a dystopian village, but post-COVID-19 K-12 public schools will in all likelihood incorporate some of those rigid protocols, at least until student, parent and teacher anxieties subside in the coming years.

*An earlier version of this commentary appeared in The National Post, March 26, 2020.

What will classrooms look like following the prolonged COVID-19 pandemic?  Will the heightened awareness of the threat of epidemic diseases impact upon attendance monitoring, classroom design and layout, and teaching methodologies?  Will the post-COVID-19 classrooms look more like those in Taiwan during the pandemic?  How much e-learning will survive when face-to-face, in-person teaching resumes in the coming months? 

 

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