The COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it a time of reckoning for our country’s institutions, including schools. Our response to this crisis must include bold, new ideas for what schools should look like and prioritize. Now more than ever, schools must focus on health, wellness, equity, and sustainability as foundational priorities to help children learn and thrive. However, school leaders alone cannot reshape how we do school. We must rely on the experience and wisdom of parents, families, and leaders in education, health, and sustainability to truly reimagine schools for our students and communities.
At Healthy Schools Campaign (HSC), we work every day toward a vision for healthy, equitable, and sustainable schools. As key community resources, schools provide children with more than just an education. They are safe and welcoming spaces where children receive nutritious food, opportunities for physical education and outdoor play, and access to crucial mental, physical, and behavioral health services. Here, we offer four ways in which schools can support the health and well-being of students. These recommendations are grounded in our experience in working with parents, teachers, principals, and communities in Chicago and across the country.
Schools Must Implement Cleaning Programs that Prioritize Student and Staff Health and Protect the Environment:
As schools look to reopen, a chief concern is the development of strong plans for safely restructuring classrooms, keeping schools clean, and prioritizing infection control. These plans must include strategies that minimize health risks for students, teachers, school staff, and families. One of these strategies should involve the implementation of more stringent cleaning and maintenance regimens that follow guidance from public health leaders and do not inadvertently expose students and staff to dangerous and toxic chemicals (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2012). Students and staff who live in underinvested communities, particularly communities of color, are more likely to be exposed to these types of chemicals, making it especially important to reduce exposures in the school setting (American Lung Association, n.d.).
For almost 20 years, HSC has been at the forefront of cleaning for health without harming the environment. This work supports K-12 schools as well as higher education. Cleaning for health prioritizes infection control and cleaning in a way that protects children’s health and the school environment, reduces waste, and does not needlessly expose students and school staff to harmful chemicals. This approach educates and empowers school custodians and maintenance staff to become green cleaning champions and make the connection between their work and students’ ability to be healthy and present at school. It is a powerful, health-promoting approach that will be an important component in helping schools to safely reopen and must become the standard by which all schools are cleaned and maintained.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, HSC has heard from school facility directors across the country that cleaning for health matters and that school maintenance staff, when educated and empowered, make decisions that benefit everyone. We have held a series of webinars with our partners to keep facility leaders informed and engaged. Each time we connect with facility leaders, two common themes keep coming up in relation to cleaning for health and COVID-19: communication and preparation. Gene Woodard, Director of the University of Washington’s Building Services Department, recently shared, “The main thing that I’ve learned is that this type of situation requires excessive communication both up, sideways, and down.” He went on to say, “And the leadership, you need to be present and so I’ve really been hands-on” (Porter, 2020). As for developing a cleaning plan for the upcoming school year, Woodard suggests a good place to start is reviewing what your local health department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are recommending for cleaning and then working with your school’s facility staff and environment, health, and safety department to develop cleaning protocols that align with these recommendations (Krause et al., 2020).
Schools Must Continue to Serve as Community Anchors and Crucial Links in the Social Safety Net:
Something that has come as a surprise to many people during the COVID-19 pandemic is how much families depend on schools for basic needs. Schools provide daily meals for students and many eat their breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks at school every day. This resource is especially important in communities that do not have adequate access to affordable, fresh, minimally processed, and nutritious food. A great deal of progress has been made in the last decade to increase the nutritional quality of school food and make these meals less processed, antibiotic-free, and locally sourced.
There is good reason for investing in this important work. Almost 30 million children across the United States participate in the national school meal program every day (U.S. Department of Agriculture, n.d.). With schools closed, the demand for meals has been astronomical – families must be fed in addition to students. On April 1, 2020, Chicago Public Schools reported it had already served 2.8 million meals since schools closed a few weeks before (Issa, 2020). As schools reopen, it is likely that some might employ a blended approach that combines time spent in school with time spent at home. In this case, a comprehensive approach to providing school meals – either in school or in communities when schools are closed – will be of the utmost importance. Schools must focus on students’ health, safety, and sense of belonging as part of their plans for reopening and academic success, and access to food is a big part of that. For example, research has shown that students who have access to breakfast at school are better able to focus and learn (Frisvold, 2015).
Schools also serve as providers of mental, behavioral, and physical health services for students. HSC has been helping states across the country expand access to Medicaid-funded school health services. School closures due to COVID-19 have cut children off from these crucial supports. Unlike school meal programs, which have pivoted in many cases (but not all) to an effective community delivery model, the need for comprehensive mental, behavioral, and physical health services that children traditionally receive at school often remains unmet. As schools reopen, children will need help coping with grief and social isolation. In May 2020, HSC spoke to a school psychologist in the Washington D.C. area who compared this uncharted territory to the first school shootings more than 20 years ago, when school communities realized they had not planned for how to address student grief and trauma on such a massive scale.
Children will need support at unprecedented levels and to address these needs, the social services, including comprehensive health services, that schools provide must be more formally woven into their priorities. To accomplish this, schools should set goals around student health and wellness, both physical and mental, in their school improvement plans and collaborate with community partners and agencies to leverage additional resources to meet the needs of students and families. Schools must also engage families in this work to ensure their children’s health needs are addressed by school reopening plans and that appropriate supports are in place.
Schools Must Help Students Stay Active, Spend Time Outside, and Access Green Schoolyards:
Research shows that physical education and outdoor play are essential to the health of all children, and time spent outside and in nature have deeply restorative benefits (Best, 2010; Hillman et al., 2009; Pretty et al., 2009; Wells and Evans, 2003). Since schools closed in March, HSC has heard from parents daily about their struggles to keep their children active and spending more time outdoors. Parents understand that inactive children can be moody and unmotivated, and physical activity is directly connected with a student’s ability to stay focused and learn (Enhance P.E. Task Force, 2013). To address their concerns, we have been sharing resources to help parents keep children active during this time, and urge parents to take children outdoors to play when safe social distancing guidelines can be followed. Some cities, including Minneapolis and Oakland, have implemented broad plans for opening streets and adding bike lanes during this crisis.
As documented in Green Schoolyards: A Growing Movement Supporting Health, Education and Connection with Nature, research shows the physical and mental health benefits are even greater when physical activity occurs outdoors and in nature. One way in which schools can encourage more physical activity and learning in the outdoors is through the addition of green schoolyards. Green schoolyards, with their many educational, health, environmental, and community benefits, must be the new standard as our country reimagines schooling and embraces an expanded vision of school that goes beyond the four walls of a building.
HSC’s Space to Grow partnership has built 20 green schoolyards across Chicago and is currently breaking ground on five more. These dynamic spaces include playgrounds, outdoor classrooms, edible and native gardens, tracks, and athletic fields. When a schoolyard opens, HSC and its partners hold workshops to show teachers how to use them as an extension of the classroom. In addition to using schoolyards for sports tournaments, recess, and physical education lessons, teachers report using these outdoor spaces for students to take mindfulness breaks and do yoga; to stage plays and provide inspiration for creative writing assignments; and to conduct science experiments to understand how water infiltrates into permeable surfaces and teach about plant species, water cycles, and pollution and how food is grown.
Space to Grow addresses disinvestment and equity by prioritizing underinvested neighborhoods and constructing green schoolyards at schools that serve students of color. The positive effects of a Space to Grow schoolyard on students were immediately evident to Wanda Carey, principal of Willa Cather Elementary School: “We are literally seeing significant changes in how our students eat, move and play…Students are eagerly rushing to our brand new playground area before, during and after school to play in a safe, secure area” (Space to Grow, n.d.).
Of course, bringing a green schoolyard to life costs money and many schools will be dealing with financial challenges and hardship for the foreseeable future. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic swept the country, school budgets were strapped and the needs were rising. One way to overcome this challenge is through community partnerships. Space to Grow provides an example of how financial resources can be leveraged from other sources, in this case water management agencies, when projects have co-benefits and meet the priorities of multiple public agencies. In addition to serving as playgrounds and outdoor classrooms, Space to Grow schoolyards are designed with green stormwater infrastructure (GSI) to hold hundreds of thousands of gallons of water during a rain event. These features prevent millions of gallons of water from reaching the sewer system during the heaviest of rains. Space to Grow’s focus on GSI, equity, and community resilience makes the program a key priority in the city’s Resilient Chicago plan. The partnership’s model of sharing capital costs between the school district and water management agencies is an essential investment for outdoor learning and play facilities at schools.
Schools Must Engage Parents and Families as Partners in Education:
For over 15 years, HSC has had an active base of Latinx and African-American parent and community leaders in Chicago who work to incorporate health and wellness priorities into their schools and the district and hold school leaders and decision-makers accountable. We also have cultivated deep relationships with principals, teachers, and school nurses. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been in constant conversation with these networks. On any given day, you will find us meeting with district leaders to strategize how to keep the focus on student health and wellness during this unprecedented time and creating resources that principals can share to help children stay active at home. We are reaching out to parents by connecting via social media, sharing information on where to access school food in their communities, and hosting virtual meetings to hear directly from parents about what is happening in the hardest hit communities and how we can be of support. We are also hosting virtual school wellness committee meetings, sharing mental health resources with parents and school stakeholders, and creating content for principals and parents who are working hard to embed health and wellness into their school policies and plans.
Nurturing strong connections with parents and families, especially in historically underinvested communities, will be critically important as schools reopen, and beyond. Schools and districts will depend on parents and families like never before to be their partners in teaching and learning. This work to engage and mobilize parents and communities must be broadly supported. Decision-makers will need to have strong, authentic connections to families to hear their priorities, understand the best way to design the school day and instructional models, identify crucial supports, and get honest feedback about whether the new school model is working for all families. As our colleague Rosa Ramirez Richter recently said, “When this pandemic subsides, the African-American and Latinx communities where we work will be more vulnerable than ever, and our work to prioritize children’s health and address health disparities will take on even more urgency” (Richter, 2020).
During this time of unprecedented, fast-moving change, it is difficult to predict what schools will look like when they reopen. What we do know is this: we must act now to put structures and systems in place that put health, wellness, equity, and sustainability at the center of schooling in this country. We need to support school leaders and provide them with the information, resources, and expertise needed to create safe and healthy learning environments for their students. We need to strengthen connections between schools and the families and communities they serve to ensure students receive the support and services they need to learn and thrive. We need to grasp this important opportunity to reimagine school for a healthier, more sustainable future and not let it slip through our fingers.
Claire Marcy is Senior Vice President of Healthy Schools Campaign. In this role, Claire leads major programmatic, policy, and strategic initiatives; oversees the organization’s communications department and a diverse set of Chicago programs; and stewards relationships with key programmatic and philanthropic partners. Claire has over 20 years of experience in nonprofit leadership, program design, community organizing, and advocacy. Before coming to Healthy Schools Campaign, she was Co-Executive Director of Blocks Together, a grassroots organization in Chicago’s West Humboldt Park community. Claire holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from DePaul University and a Master’s in Public Policy and Administration from Northwestern University.
Rochelle Davis is founding president and CEO of Healthy Schools Campaign, where she oversees all aspects of the organization’s mission to make schools healthier places for all students. Rochelle brings deep experience in children’s health, education, food access, wellness, and environmental health issues to her role. She co-chaired the National Collaborative for Education and Health and the Working Group on Health and Education, convened by the U.S. Surgeon General. She also served as principal investigator for the National Institutes of Health-funded Partnership to Reduce Disparities in Asthma and Obesity in Latino Schools and served on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Committee for the Protection of Children’s Health.