Schools across the country have reopened and, in doing so, have once again revealed the complex interplay between health and education. Educators have once again found themselves in the middle of public health debates about mask mandates and vaccinations while simultaneously working to supporting mental health and remediating learning loss.
“If you care about education, you should care about health,” said HGSE’s Dean Bridget Long of the intersection of these disciplines. “Healthy kids translates into the opportunity for high-quality learning. And the opposite is most certainly true. There are numerous studies that document that poor health is related to lower academic achievement. Simply put, it’s hard to concentrate and to learn when your health is suffering.”
To support educators as they balance the demands of health and education brought on by the pandemic, the first episode of Education Now’s fall 2021 season was hosted jointly with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (HSPH). Long was joined by co-moderator HPSH Dean Michelle Williams, as well as by panelists Joseph Allen, associate professor and director of the healthy buildings program at HSPH; Josephine Kim, senior lecturer at HGSE; Meira Levinson, professor at HGSE; and Natalia Linos, executive director of the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights.
“Healthy kids translates into the opportunity for high-quality learning. And the opposite is most certainly true. ... Simply put, it’s hard to concentrate and to learn when your health is suffering.” - Dean Bridget Long
“A conversation like this where we take science and bring it out into action — actionable messages people can deploy — is a way for higher education and an education institution like ours to be engaged in problem solving,” said Williams.
The panel provided a collective perspective on how to keep schools healthy as well as practical ideas, actionable steps, and inspiration for educators navigating the challenging school year and working to support their communities.
- Re-establish and repair trust. Over the past year, many communities have been torn apart by politics and differing ideologies. Many communities may feel they cannot trust other adults to care for their children. In schools, classroom teachers and staff may not feel they trust administrators. To combat mistrust at all levels, listen to concerns first. Respond thoughtfully with these concerns and reservations in mind.
- Invest in infrastructure — especially ventilation and filtration. The indoor environment and air quality has been shown to have an impact on student learning, yet many school buildings have outdated systems that hardly meet the minimum building standards. Rescue plan funds are available to help schools improve ventilation and filtration systems. However, if resources are scarce, open windows or provide portable air filters.
- Create psychologically safe spaces for students. Rates of anxiety and depression skyrocketed during the pandemic. Additionally, more than 40,000 children are estimated to have lost a parent during the pandemic. Mental health needs to be at the forefront of discussions around helping students succeed — importantly, mental health supports need to be preventative rather than just interventions. While school and district leaders can help by offering professional development around mental health and hire more counselors, classroom teachers can also help by creating space for check-ins, talking about and normalizing discussions of feelings, and following up with students who are struggling.
- Keep an eye on the bigger picture and plan ahead. Children and educators are also part of families and communities. Families and communities may be impacted by things like evictions as eviction moratoriums are lifted or the demand for workers to reenter the workplace. The pandemic has shown how interconnected systems and structures are in our daily life and its important to not lose sight of that. As a result, it’s important to think about how changes to the workforce or housing laws may disproportionately impact the communities schools serve. Be proactive about having supports in place.
- The Lancet COVID-19 Commission Safe Work, Safe School, and Safe Travel - 5 Task Force Publications, including:
- Healthy Buildings: Schools for Health
- A Practical Guide to Mental Health & Learning Disorders for Every Educator: How to Recognize, Understand, and Help Challenged (and Challenging) Students Succeed
- The Steve Fund: Equity and Mental Health Framework