Providing Stability in a Time of Crisis

Coronavirus (COVID-19)
Safe Schools and Learning Environments

This article is part of a collection of blog posts related to the education in emergencies response to COVID-19.

What leaders can do help calm their community and keep students ready to learn?

Courtesy of Usable Knowledge and REACH, Harvard Graduate School of Education. Original article published on 10 March 2020.

LeadersWhile communities and schools are mobilizing and implementing public health guidelines around COVID-19, compassionate leadership in the face of the outbreak is also critical to ensure communities feel supported. Preventative measures often disrupt routines and a contribute to growing unease, especially as schools are a consistent source of support and security in many communities.

To help maintain a sense of human connection in communities, leaders can consider drawing on lessons from practices used in global emergency education settings. The Inter-agency Network for Education Emergencies (INEE) uses standards developed by a community of global educators and policymakers, including Sarah Dryden-Peterson, an associate professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education and director of REACH, an initiative that focuses on education in settings of migration and displacement. These standards, while infrequently used in the United States, have been developed over the past 20 years and have helped leaders use education as a stabilizing force in the face of crises. 

The ideas and guidance contained within these standards are applicable to any time of disruption and uncertainty, including the current moment.

Organizing principles include:

  • Safety, security, and belonging
  • Relationship building at the heart of student learning
  • Communication and transparency around decision-making
  • Equity

Productive practices for education in times of emergency:

Ensuring that students feel secure, safe, and have a clear sense of belonging so they can learn.

  • Teachers and families need to be in good communication.
  • If a school closes, teachers need ways to continue relationships with children and families in a daily way, both focused on continued community building and others forms of learning. Many schools are considering virtual spaces as a possible option.
  • Children need to learn about COVID-19, in age-appropriate ways, so they can understand the reasons for which schools are closed and their learning has shifted. Secrecy and lack of knowledge can drive fear.
  • Communities and families that are directly impacted by the virus may need emotional support as well. Leaders should ensure implemented practices and policies do not excessively penalize or marginalize those directly affected. Also consider providing mental health supports to assist children and families in understanding and coping with fear and uncertainty. 

Beginning new modes of learning on day one, to avoid feelings of uncertainty or chaos (or the expectation of no schoolwork for an indeterminate length of time).

  • Plan to ensure that, with quick turnaround, all children have the materials they need for independent work at home. Most immediately, this could be paper, pencils, enough independent reading books. With more planning, this could be individual copies of books for class book study that could happen virtually; handouts for social studies unit; math problems that teachers can share via online platforms.
  • Teachers can develop a consistent schedule for “live” virtual time and independent student work times, making sure to check in with students and families as well.
  • Ensure that teachers can be on-call for additional virtual support time for students who need it and check on children’s independent work. This can be done with emailed photographs, phone conversations, or through a digital learning platform.
  • Plan for virtually mediated instruction that enables children to gather online at set times for mini-lessons delivered live; for discussions; for community time (e.g. virtual charades or other games, yoga, reading buddies); for read aloud. Consider the age and content when planning structures for these sessions.

Preparing students and families for a shift, so that new modes of learning do not come as a surprise and everyone feels as ready as possible to adjust.

  • Think through the best platform for virtual convenings by classroom and ensure that all families have access and know how to use them.
  • Mobilize parents or older siblings who could take the lead in some of these learning sessions or help with planning. They could conduct read-aloud or supervise virtual games.

Considering principles of equity in each decision, while recognizing that doing nothing drives further inequalities.

  • Determine connectivity status and needs immediately, to be prepared in the event of a school closure. Do all families have access to Wi-Fi or cellular data and a relevant device at home? If not, are there ways to pool personal, community, and corporate resources to collectively ensure that all families do?
  • School closures may also mean that parents need to take time off work or that students don’t have access to a hot meal. For many, schools are not just spaces to learn. Communities can think collectively about ways to practice recommended social distancing while also distributing meals and providing access to warm spaces or childcare as needed and feasible.


The views expressed in this blog are the author's own.