This op-ed was originally published in the Boston Herald on January 15, 2021
By Chris Kolovos, Mark Poznansky, John Quackenbush, and Nidhi Lal
Evidence is mounting that primary and secondary schools do not contribute significantly to the spread of COVID-19, particularly where appropriate safety protocols are in place. Teachers, parents, and researchers continue to raise concerns about the mounting negative mental health impact and learning outcomes associated with prolonged distance learning, prompting calls by Governor Baker and education leaders to get the children of Massachusetts back into the classroom, despite record-high COVID rates.
At Boston University Academy—an independent, 200-student high school integrated with Boston University—we have just finished a semester of in-person learning open to all students four days per week with no reported positive cases among students and teachers, and only one case of a temporary staff member, which did not lead to any in-school transmission. Our experience offers lessons that may inform approaches at other schools.
1. Prioritizing In-Person Learning
We started with a clear commitment to maximizing in-person learning. The question was never whether we would welcome students back, but how and when. We decided that even if conditions pushed us to be fully remote later in the fall or in the winter, having some weeks or months of in-person connection—when rates were low—would make any future remote-learning experience better for our kids.
We also realized that any decisions we made would be better for the combined wisdom of educators and parent health experts working as a team. Together, we made a number of science-backed changes in the day-to-day student experience: new academic schedules; taking lockers and common rooms offline; reimagined athletic and music offerings; new lunch protocols. And we made significant investments in classroom furniture, HVAC, staffing, handwashing and sanitizing stations, and audiovisual technology to allow students and teachers to engage from home when needed. Those investments were costly but followed naturally from our commitment to getting kids and teachers back into the school.
2. Building a Culture of Compliance and Trust
The COVID challenge in schools has as much to do with human behavior as it does with science. Creating a culture of compliance and cooperation has been key.
Rules are part of that, including mandated face coverings, physical distancing, and morning health and symptom attestations. There are clear consequences for non-compliance.
But culture has done more than rules. This year more than any other, students want to be in school. The reason they follow the rules is not to avoid punishment; it is to stay in school, where they can see their friends and teachers every day. They remind one another to follow protocols, like the inconvenient and sometimes comedic one-way hallways and staircases around the building. They take pride in the job they are doing, as do the faculty and staff, who were deeply involved in the design process from day one.
Our parents and guardians share that commitment. We received a handful of calls from parents who heard about a party and (untrue) rumors of non-compliance around mask wearing. We welcome such calls, both because they give us the opportunity to follow up and because they show that this community shares our commitment. Transparent two-way communication has helped build trust, including town-hall-style meetings where our health advisory team answers questions—sharing what we know and admitting what we don’t.
3. Engaging in Adaptive Decision Making
All manner of new questions arise daily, calling for a flexible approach to decision making. Two examples.
From the opening of school, we had repurposed our gym as a space for students to eat lunch and work during free periods; the gym offers the possibility of well-spaced desks and a large volume of air—particularly important when kids are eating. It was the last space designated for HVAC upgrades and so, while work was being done, we propped open the exterior doors to improve airflow. The temperature dropped a few days before the upgrades were ready, but neither sending kids home nor closing the doors was a good option. The solution? Kids ate lunch and did their homework wearing their jackets—which they did without grumbling because they understood the big picture.
A second example: a regional spike in cases coincided with the coming of Thanksgiving. The science suggested that in-person gatherings, even small ones, would lead to a significant uptick in transmission. We asked our families not to have in-person celebrations with friends and family outside their quarantine bubble, and if they did, we required that their children learn remotely the week following the holiday and test before returning. The number of parents thanking us for taking a firm stance and adapting to the situation outnumbered complaints twenty to one.
4. Using Testing Data
Data has been a great ally. Our students, faculty, and staff undergo twice-weekly COVID testing at no additional cost at Boston University’s testing facilities, generally receiving results within 24 hours. Regular testing impacts students’ behavior and reinforces a sense of shared accountability. The ability to quickly identify, isolate, and trace individuals who test positive and any close contacts means that the majority of the community can carry on with in-person learning. If there is evidence of more widespread transmission within school, we can quickly pivot to remote learning. And testing helps everyone, including faculty and staff, feel more confident that risk is minimized.
Our school has the advantage of being affiliated with Boston University and its testing program. But as more rapid, affordable testing options come to market, schools should implement routine testing for their students, teachers, and staff.
The news about the vaccine is encouraging, but we are months away from widespread immunization and anything resembling a pre-COVID educational model. In the interim, our experience has shown that a decisive, dynamic, data-driven approach, built on a foundation of communication and community buy-in, can bring students back to the classroom. It’s possible—and it’s time. And this experience may offer a blueprint for how schools and other institutions can tackle a range of challenges that require collective action, from controlling the transmission of infectious diseases to combating climate change and systemic racism.
Mr. Christos J. Kolovos is Head of School at Boston University Academy, where Dr. Poznansky, Dr. Quackenbush, and Dr. Lal are parents and members of the school’s Health Advisory Committee. Dr. Mark C. Poznansky is Director of the Vaccine and Immunotherapy Center at Massachusetts General Hospital, and infectious disease physician and Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. Dr. John Quackenbush is Professor of Computational Biology and Bioinformatics and Chair of the Department of Biostatistics at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Dr. Nidhi Lal is a Clinical Associate Professor of Family Medicine at the Boston University School of Medicine and family physician at Boston Medical Center.