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Keeping Schools Open: A Discussion About Mitigating Learning Loss

On Monday, January 24th, R-Zero hosted a webinar discussion about navigating the risks associated with keeping schools open. This challenging issue has forced the public education system to confront the social and educational consequences associated with learning disruptions during the global pandemic. 

Moderated by R-Zero Co-founder and CEO, Grant Morgan, the webinar featured former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and public health expert Dr. Richard Wade.

Arne Duncan was one of the longest-serving members of President Barack Obama’s cabinet and is among the most influential secretaries of education in history. Before joining President Obama’s cabinet, Duncan’s work as the CEO of Chicago Public Schools resulted in a significant increase in student performance on national and state tests, as well as increased graduation rates. 

Dr. Richard Wade is the chief scientist at R-Zero and a leading expert in toxicology. He has spent the last 43 years in microbiological contamination, toxicology, and risk management roles in both the corporate and governmental sectors. 

During the webinar, these experts engaged in a unifying and heartfelt discussion of fundamental strategies K-12 schools can use to provide the best learning and environmental outcomes possible for students during ongoing COVID health concerns and beyond. Mr. Duncan and Dr. Wade both acknowledged that we are in the midst of a trying time for educators across the country. Their comments and expertise provided helpful perspective to the teachers, administrators, and staff heroically keeping schools in session. 

During the webinar, Mr. Duncan and Dr. Wade addressed the following topics:

  • The realities of Omicron and ongoing COVID-related challenges
  • The negative academic, social, and emotional impacts of learning loss
  • The ways schools can mitigate these issues by incorporating indoor environmental health solutions like UV disinfection into layered protocols

Galvanizing Alignment For Parents, Teachers, Staff, and Students

Former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan kicked off the conversation by providing perspective on the importance of authentic engagement with parents and teachers. He explored how and when educators can communicate to parents, teachers, and students about what feels like constant changes in plans. “There is tremendous power in vulnerability and honesty,” Mr. Duncan explained. “Parents are looking for authenticity. We’re all learning in real time–let’s do that with urgency. We should do whatever we can to support teachers’ mental health. That is the least we can do–we owe that to our teachers.” Mr. Duncan added that the most helpful thing school administrators can do now is to continue to invest in educators and staff to ensure they feel their best so they can give their best. 

To complement these suggestions for interacting with adult stakeholders in education, Dr. Wade offered insight into how to understand the impact for children. Commenting on the unfortunate learning loss since COVID hit, he said, “We have sacrificed 2-3 years of children’s education.” He went on to note that the latest Omicron variant is less severe and poses less risk to children. In light of this reality, Dr. Wade suggested, “We need to take a really hard look at the importance of keeping schools open and how we minimize the risks to children.”

Both Mr. Duncan and Dr. Wade agreed that keeping schools open remains a critical objective. Mr. Duncan observed, “As everyone on this call knows, schools are so much more than places of learning. Schools are social safety nets and the lifeblood and heart of a community. They educate, but they are also a space where kids can be around positive role models and mentors to feel safe, cared for, and supported. Every single day is a precious day.” He called on communities to help keep schools open and emphasized that supporting schools is a group responsibility. he asserted, “I want superintendents, school boards, and principals to own that. It can’t be up to every staff member to just take care of themselves.”  

Keeping Schools Open with the Right Environmental Tools

In acknowledging the interdependency between communities and schools, both Mr. Duncan and Dr. Wade cited the need for collaboration. Keeping schools open is only possible if schools and communities ensure environmental safety for students. “From a health standpoint,” said Dr. Wade, “We have the tools to do this. We need to get those tools in play throughout school systems to get our kids back in school.”

Mr. Duncan reminded listeners that COVID has been shown to have spread from the outside in (it doesn’t multiply in schools at the rate it does outside of them). In light of this fact, Mr. Duncan asserted, “Schools should be the last thing that closes.”Dr. Wade corroborated this assertion, noting, “The transmission in school is about 2% within the classroom versus 20-30% in the community. So kids are safer in the classroom because of the precautions that have been taken.” Dr. Wade shared that statistics show that each of us takes 18,000-20,000 breaths each day, and a whopping 4-6% of the volume of air we breathe in was recently in someone else’s lungs. The transmissibility of germs and pathogens via the air we share in school environments makes air quality all the more important.

Furthermore, enhancing air quality has proven consequences for productivity and test outcomes in schools. Making evidence-based decisions for what tools schools need to stay open is essential. “The science hasn’t changed, but our understanding has changed,” said Dr. Wade. As our understanding evolves, it is increasingly important to improve indoor air quality and invest in updating infrastructures that are, more often than not, outdated. While wearing masks, distancing, cleaning with chemicals, and updating air filtration systems are essential for schools, they are part of a layered approach that should include UV-C light disinfection from a reputable source. “It sanitizes the air in real time to reduce viral concentration, is cost-effective, and safe,” concluded Dr. Wade.

To underscore the importance of these environmental interventions, Mr. Duncan shared that tens of millions of kids have fallen half a year or more behind during COVID. In addition to this learning loss, he highlighted the socialization loss from not being able to interact with peers in elective classes and extracurriculars. Speaking about the students impacted by COVID, Mr. Duncan noted, “We’re fighting for their lives here. This isn’t just about education: we’re fighting to break cycles of poverty – we’re fighting to give people a chance to have some upward mobility.”

Watch the “Keeping Schools Open” Webinar

If you missed this outstanding webinar, you can view the session and related content on demand. The full webinar recording, presentation slides, and transcript of the discussion are available here.

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