Back to school: the new normal during the pandemic

August 13, 2020 | Joanna York

The COVID-19 pandemic has made educators redefine the classroom as schools switched to online learning overnight. 

Now, for many schools, a return to the physical classroom beckons this September. 

It won’t be back to school as usual, but rather the “new normal.”

Even in places where the virus is considered under control, social distancing measures are still in place. 

Health and safety have long been a priority and a complex issue for schools. But education in the context of the pandemic requires large-scale changes that could alter the classroom dynamic and the school at large.

So, what can teachers expect from a physical return to school this September? 

All schools will have to make significant changes to the way classes are delivered and major social distancing and sanitation efforts.

And, amid all the changes, how can you make sure your school is safe? Let’s unpack the following topics more closely to help answer that question, starting from the top:

  • What is a safe and healthy school?
  • What physical changes will be in place in schools?
  • How will these changes affect school culture?
  • How will reopening affect mental health for students and teachers?
  • What happens if schools close again?

What is a safe and healthy school?

A safe and healthy school is a place where students and staff feel confident that their physical and mental health is not under threat. 

It is a place where good physical and mental health is supported and developed. 

Feelings of anxiety that come from an unsafe, unhealthy environment severely affect cognitive functions such as memory and concentration. 

As well as being distressing, anxiety impedes learning. 

Feeling safe and secure at school sets students and teachers up to truly benefit from their environment and achieve learning outcomes.  

Ensuring that a school is a safe and healthy environment means: 

  • Protecting students from physical harm due to safety hazards and violence. Managing the physical environment and maintaining health and safety compliance around the school grounds, building, equipment and transportation.
  • Providing a supportive cultural environment that promotes good mental health and learning. Building relationships between students, teachers and staff members founded on respect, fairness and socially responsible behavior.

What physical changes will be in place in schools as a result of COVID-19?

One of the most apparent effects of the pandemic on schools will be physical changes in the school building to minimize chances for the virus to spread.

On top of the usual safety precautions, keeping students safe as schools reopen now also means respecting social distancing measures and dialing up the sanitation measures.

Depending on your school, new routines for students when schools reopen may include:

  • Staggering when students arrive at school in the morning, eat lunch and take breaks to minimize crowds.
  • Blended learning models that rotate students between in-class and online learning environments.
  • Introducing one-way systems in the school building. 
  • Minimizing movement between classrooms for students.
  • Seating students at individual desks, six-feet apart in the classroom.
  • Increased cleaning of the school building and equipment such as computers and bathrooms.
  • Less (or no) sharing of resources such as lockers and classroom supplies.
  • Increased use of hand sanitizer, temperature checks, and wearing protective masks. 

How will these changes affect school culture?

It’s no surprise that teachers and students are feeling anxious about returning to school in the fall.  

recent survey showed 49% of teachers in the US believe they will likely have difficulty enforcing social distancing measures in school. Two-thirds of teachers questioned would prefer to start the 2020 school year online rather than in-person. 

Students have anxieties about returning to classrooms. Especially when the emphasis is on isolation and protection rather than sharing and collaboration. 

Additionally, there may be fewer extracurricular activities such as sports and fewer opportunities for socializing and teamwork. 

It could even be hard for students to simply let off steam by interacting with their peers like they’re used to.

The benefits of attending school in person are also undeniable for many students, teachers and parents. 

As schools around the world have reopened, many have experimented with different ways to keep their communities safe and maintain a sense of normalcy. 

And many have adapted safety measures as they go. For example, when to wear masks, how many students can socialize together, and which age groups need to be socially distant. 

Rule changes have come as scientists research how children and teens spread COVID-19 and are affected by the virus. But they have also been made out of the recognition that students’ mental wellbeing benefits from a healthy social life in school.

There are no clear answers on which strategies are the best or the most appropriate for students. 

The only thing that seems sure is that some of the measures currently in place will be temporary. With time and experience, school policies will evolve to balance both the health and social needs of students and teachers. 

How will reopening affect mental health for students and teachers?

Teachers working in US summer schools have found one of the reopening challenges is that it’s not a case of merely picking up where they left off.

A safe and healthy school is a place that supports students’ emotional and mental health. In the current circumstances, this is something that many students may need more than usual. 

Some teachers have addressed mental health by giving lessons on topics like mindfulness and perseverance. Others have built their awareness of trauma-informed teaching techniques. 

What happens if schools close again?

Realistically, as they reopen, many schools will rely on digital learning resources more than they did previously. 

Schools are already committing to open with blended learning models, mixing digital and in-person learning to keep class sizes small. Many are starting to see that online teaching could be the future of education.

While we don’t have all the answers yet, it is reasonable to expect that if schools close again that educators will revert to fully online learning. And online learning comes with its own set of challenges in regards to safety. 

When it comes to digital safety, teachers have the same duty of care as real-life classrooms. This can be intimidating when you are aware of how hard it is to monitor students’ behavior and stay up to date with digital literacy online

Start by making a connection between the standards you set for behavior in the real classroom and virtual classroom. The vast majority of students know that they should treat each other with the same respect, fairness and socially responsible behavior online as they would in person. 

But as the move to online learning happened so fast for many schools, it’s worth reiterating safety points in person. Here are a few ways to start:

  • Set standards by getting students to write (and sign) an online behavior contract.
  • Make sure students know how school procedure for reporting cyberbullying works.
  • Discuss what personal information to give out (or not) online, and how to assess whether information on the web is trustworthy
  • Try the R.E.S.T. technique for digital safety.
  • Take a course on digital literacy to ensure you and your students can better discern information online and stay safe.

Planning for a safe and healthy future

When there are still so many unanswered questions about the pandemic, it’s hard to fully anticipate what a safe and healthy return to school will look like until we get there.

One of the best things you can do as an educator or school leader is to get up-to-date with best practices in general. This will help you prepare for your school’s reopening and prepare you for other pressing health and safety issues that may arise in your school. 

As you and your students go back to the classroom, here’s to a safe and healthy new school year.

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