With the next phase of the pandemic upon us, state and local governments need to deploy resources to schools that aid in continuous COVID-19 response and recovery strategies. Many K-12 schools are expected to have well-developed emergency operations plans for responding to public health and other emergencies. Yet, many schools struggled to implement and update these plans throughout the pandemic.
Ever-changing rules and guidelines, coupled with evolving scientific recommendations, placed unprecedented pressure on schools as the safety of their students, educators, staff, and families was threatened. Despite these challenges, many educators and school systems have demonstrated a deep commitment to the importance of every student getting an opportunity to learn in a safe environment.
Drawing on two years of experience supporting state and federal COVID-19 response and assisting schools in developing safe in-school instruction plans, Maximus Public Health has developed a list of recommended strategies for continuing the improvement of school emergency preparedness. These strategies include:
- Updating preparedness communication and response plans
- Using data to guide decisions
- Investing in workforce development
- Increasing resource coordination
Schools present unique challenges to battling COVID-19—a higher number of contacts per case in classrooms, difficulty maintaining social distancing and masking recommendations, and a large proportion of unvaccinated children. No single strategy is sufficient to prevent the spread of COVID-19, so it is critical for states and local governments to support schools in implementing these recommended strategies in order to keep everyone safe.
Strategy 1: Update preparedness communication and response plans
Effectively communicating changes in guidelines to staff, students, and families ensures these guidelines are followed. These communications can also point individuals to resources if they have further questions about their specific role in upholding guidelines. Unclear, mismanaged, and not culturally-competent communications can create confusion and, ultimately, put students and staff at risk. That is why Maximus Public Health recommends modernizing school emergency response communications plans, so they are evidence-based, tailored to the needs and resources of each school, and include contingency plans for scaling up to meet community needs.
Schools should develop, implement, maintain, assess, and update these plans over time. The most effective emergency response communications plans are designed to evolve as the emergency situation evolves but are grounded in a strong foundation. They require the coordination of stakeholders and partners for the development of educational materials, specific policies and procedures, risk protocols, and surge action plans.
Strategy 2: Use data to guide decisions
COVID-19 highlighted the importance of accurate, timely data collection and analysis to manage response efforts better and keep schools open for in-person learning. Having access to and understanding of the most up-to-date information allows schools to better understand risk and make data-driven decisions. We recommend partnering with local public health departments for data integration, exchange, and analysis.
Schools play a critical role in capturing and sharing relevant data on contact tracing, case investigation, and vaccine administration. Partnerships that promote data sharing and timely analysis will help ensure data is timely, complete, consistent, and accurate.
Strategy 3: Invest in workforce development
Contact tracers played a critical role in the country’s initial COVID-19 response, but as case counts are declining, so are these positions. State, local, and school-based contact tracing roles should pivot to other public health positions such as community health workers. These, and similar jobs, can play a critical role in health promotion throughout schools. Some responsibilities can include but are not limited to coordinating vaccine campaigns and events, answering health-related questions from families, and connecting students to additional resources.
While this transition requires additional training of the workforce, these public health professionals carry lived, on-the-ground public health expertise. They can leverage these experiences to support school communities by promoting healthy lifestyles and health education and running initiatives beyond childhood vaccinations to include nutrition, vision, hearing test requirements, and more.
Strategy 4: Increase resource coordination
Having the ability to coordinate between public health and community health services is an important responsibility for schools. Maximus Public Health recommends hiring and training new community health workers within schools to act as these liaisons. This role ensures that health resources are equitably distributed and efficiently coordinated. They can support timely data collection, reporting, referrals to health services, and up-to-date, culturally-appropriate information sharing with the community.
Community health workers are trusted members of the school community, which allows them to connect with students and families beyond school-related challenges. They can initiate addressing social determinants of health and health equity concerns with families. These non-traditional school roles can help families collect emergency food supplies and income supplement programs for rent or utilities and overall improve the coordination to keep schools healthy.
Having a holistic support system across public health departments and schools, including communication plans, actionable data and supportive staff, will ensure schools continue to respond to the evolving pandemic and are prepared for whatever is next.