Coronavirus: Teachable Moments for Schools

What should schools do to combat unforeseen emergencies?

Primal Dhillon
Mar 11, 2020 · 6 min read
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

As an educator in one of the largest public school systems in the world, I’ve been thinking about ways we can apply the guidance from experts to help slow down the spread of the most recent coronavirus (COVID19) in our nation’s schools.

I am not an expert in disease control; however, for the past 16 years, I have been a part of a collaborative school community where we have successfully dealt with numerous emergencies.

Our efforts must align with the guidelines of organizations such as the CDC (See: interim guidance for K-12 schools), the WHO, local health agencies, and school district leadership. Schools must gather input from all their community stakeholders and develop contingency plans based on local needs since solutions need to be customized.

Effective plans should revolve around preparing for the possibility of optional attendance, providing online classes, equipping educators with skills to help their students, employing effective communication and information dissemination strategies, increasing any cleanliness budget, decreasing overcrowding, and supporting the community to stay calm.

Most importantly, I keep thinking about how this is a teachable moment — one which highlights the importance of empathy, self-care, teamwork, access and equity, global responsibility, and resilience.

Issues with Shutting Down Public Schools

The University of Washington and Stanford have canceled in-person classes. Large tech companies such as Google and Facebook are encouraging employees to work from home. Many private K-12 schools and some public school districts such as Elk Grove in California have closed temporarily, and more schools may follow suit.

However, many public schools will be unable to shut down completely at this point. The New York City school district, for example, serves over one million students, of which over 72% are economically disadvantaged and over 20% are students with special needs (See: NYC DOE data).

Serving such a large, diverse student population in critical ways every day means that shutting down schools is a “last resort” (Chancellor, March 4).

Here’s why:

1. Parents need to be able to follow their work schedules.

Who watches the kids at home if schools suddenly close? Schools provide a function outside of education: they enable parents to go to work without having to worry about childcare.

Many parents have jobs that don’t allow them to watch their children and don’t have the resources to pay someone else to do so. As of today, there is no federal legal requirement that mandates paid sick leave.

This is a point that is hard to overstate:

Much of our economic, day-to-day structure depends on the assurance that parents can trust their children are safe, healthy, and learning in schools.

2. Many students depend on free or affordable school food for some of their daily meals.

During the 2017–2018 school year, almost 96,000 schools participated in the National School Lunch Program with about 22 million low-income student participants on a typical day (FRAC).

If schools close suddenly, some of these children will face food-related hardships.

3. Many students do not have access to technology at home.

This may be due to lack of internet access, or accessible PCs/laptops/tablets.

As of 2017, almost 900,000 households in NYC do not have access to broadband internet and of this only one-third have cellular data plans (NYC Comptroller Blog — July 2019).

Disparities in access make online education difficult for these students.

Allow Optional Attendance and Lean Towards Online Learning

Keeping these complications in mind, it may make sense to consider optional attendance as a critical step in slowing the spread. This would mean that schools temporarily change their policies towards attendance and provide opportunities for optional attendance.

For students to stay at home and continue their education, online learning provides an effective resource. However, public schools may have limited resources for enabling online learning — live streaming and A/V resources or centralized, accessible websites for hosted content may not be readily available.

Some possible solutions include:

  • Hosting class discussions via video conferencing tools. These include Google Hangouts, Zoom, and Skype, as well as Microsoft Teams and Slack for connected group discussions. Some companies, like Google and Microsoft, have even rolled out free access to different tiers of Hangouts Meet or Microsoft Teams.
  • Using digitally available education resources. These are sites like Khan Academy and many of them include world-class education materials.
  • Emailing upcoming lesson plans to students and parents.
  • Making textbooks available and accessible online. This can be accomplished by working with publishers and/or mailing textbooks home.
  • Enabling students to borrow a laptop or tablet.

Proactively Disseminate Relevant Information

Schools may also play an important role in educating the community and providing parents with resources that support them during this difficult time.

Solutions include:

  • Embedding health discussions in the curriculum. Clearly explain what a virus is, how it spreads, and what methods have traditionally helped limit the spread.
  • Making information available on the school website. Provide links to relevant authentic resources such as the CDC and WHO.
  • Emailing the information to students as well as parents. Use apps such as Remind and TalkingPoints to help reach parents.
  • Including locally available resources on backpack flyers. Outline best practices and point to relevant resources in the community.
  • Gently reminding students about hygiene over the speaker system. Make announcements reminding people to wash their hands and follow other hygiene protocols. Send texts and emails with similar reminders.

Increase Spending on Cleanliness

Solutions include:

  • Increasing the frequency of deep cleaning the premises, especially high-touch surfaces (doorknobs, taps, desks, etc.).
  • Providing teachers and other staff members with abundant supplies for surface cleaning (such as wipes and hand sanitizers).
  • Making extra cleaning supplies visible and accessible throughout the school so that students use them without even having to ask the teacher. For example, provide hand sanitizers in entryways, lunchrooms, hallways, landings, etc.
  • Building in structured time for students to more frequently wash their hands with soap, especially before and after lunch.

Decrease Crowding

Solutions include:

  • Staggering dismissal times for every period so that all students do not crowd the hallways when the bell rings.
  • Staggering lunch periods for large groups of students to avoid overcrowding, or provide additional spaces for lunch.
  • Proactively canceling non-essential events and trips.

Help Students Stay Calm

Schools must help students stay calm and informed, without causing unnecessary panic.

Solutions include:

  • Adding budget and resources for counselor support.
  • Assessing the possibility of online counseling.
  • Determining whether apps can be useful for your school population. Such apps include Talkspace and Headspace, for example.

A Learning Moment, for All of Us

Last but not least, this is a time that presents us all with the opportunity to practice and teach things like:


Teach students how to de-stigmatize and not stereotype.

Self Care

Help students understand why health comes first. Provide them with interactive lessons with a long term focus on health.

Interdisciplinary Teamwork

Help students get an appreciation for collaboration between science, healthcare, governments, communication, and technology.

Access and Equity

Encourage students to become advocates for access and equity.

Some tech companies, such as Cisco, Microsoft, and Google have taken certain initiatives to help such as giving free access to video conferencing or team group chat software. However, a lot more needs to be done.

Tech companies and internet service providers can work towards making internet access more affordable or free for at least emergencies. Access and equity is a responsibility that we all share.

Global Responsibility

Inculcate in students a desire to make an impact through contributions to society, and inspire and equip them with tools to make the world a better place.

In times like these, more than ever, we have a responsibility to teach our students resilience. It is on us to enable our children to be flexible, create instant plans for unexpected problems, and courageously deal with whatever threats are coming our way.

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Primal Dhillon

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Educator, Assistant Principal, #New York City, #education #parenting #growth #innovation #edtech #empower #happiness, views my own

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Primal Dhillon

Written by

Educator, Assistant Principal, #New York City, #education #parenting #growth #innovation #edtech #empower #happiness, views my own

Ascent Publication

Strive for happier. Join a community of storytellers documenting the climb to happiness and fulfillment.

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