The IWBI Special Report Chapter Series: “K-12 Education: The Pandemic's Impossible Choice”

SOURCE: International WELL Building Institute


In September 2021, IWBI released an in-depth report that lays out research approaches and specific operational strategies as the world continues to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and prepares for acute health threats into the future. Prevention and Preparedness, Resilience and Recovery: An IWBI Special Report integrates proven strategies from the WELL Building Standard (WELL) and actionable insights garnered from IWBI staff and nearly 600 members of the Task Force on COVID-19 and Other Respiratory Infections.

Over the next few months, we will repost a chapter from the report every week to help highlight specific themes and insights. The IWBI Special Report Chapter Series continues with “K–12 Education: The Pandemic’s Impossible Choice,” authored by IWBI’s Allison Kim, Senior Director, Commercial, and Angela Spangler, Director, Commercial.


Excerpt republished from: Prevention and Preparedness, Resilience and Recovery: An IWBI Special Report

When the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic in March of 2020, school officials around the world faced often impossible choices, choices to be made against the backdrop of grim circumstances present before the pandemic—including long-standing issues with the state of our school buildings.

As spring gave way to summer in 2020 and the debate over whether to reopen our schools reached a fever pitch, one Arizona superintendent in the United States described the agony of the decision. “This is my choice,” he said, “but I’m starting to wish that it wasn’t. I don’t feel qualified. I’ve been a superintendent for 20 years, so I guess I should be used to making decisions, but I keep getting lost in my head. I’ll be in my office looking at a blank computer screen, and then all of the sudden I realize a whole hour’s gone by. I’m worried. I’m worried about everything. Each possibility I come up with is a bad one.”

The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in nationwide school closures in 188 countries around the world, affecting upwards of an estimated 1.6 billion children globally—over 87 percent of the world’s student population. One of the clearest and most immediate lessons to come out of school closures was just how integral schools are to the fabric of our communities at large. We may all be able to immediately recognize how our children access fundamental educational needs through schools. But COVID-19 made clear that these places serve as a bedrock in our communities in far-reaching ways, and when schools close, other fundamental needs are compromised as well: social and emotional needs; nutritional and physical needs; needs of working parents who lost a crucial source of community support in the way we share caretaking duties for our children across society.

Despite the clear, critical and multidimensional function schools play in our communities, we have been largely neglecting them. Coming out of this crisis, we have an opportunity to re-invest in the resilience of this basic infrastructure of our society, and with schools, this means improving the fundamental state of educational facilities themselves.

Where We Learn Matters
“Where we learn matters.” This was a powerful rallying cry advanced when IWBI’s President and CEO Rachel Hodgdon was leading the Center for Green Schools. “It had a deep and personal meaning to me having visited school after school and seeing stunning conditions that were compromising not only learning but health,” she said. “These cherished places house our children and are meant to prepare them for success—but they were not living up to the promise. For a sector that should be a paragon of health, many schools were cheerless places where too often students and teachers alike longed simply for working buildings that could adequately protect them from the cold in the winter and the heat in the summer.”

Our school facilities, where students, teachers and administrators spend so much of their time, have a huge effect on their lives. In fact, each of us will spend roughly 90 percent of our lives inside a building. For the billions of students who go to school every day around the world, that equates to more than 15,000 hours in a school by the time secondary school ends, representing their longest indoor time, second only to being at home.

Long before COVID-19, we knew schools were struggling to address a litany of pervasive health risks and barriers to learning: poor indoor air quality, including harmful toxins like mold, radon and asbestos; thermal discomfort; noise and bad acoustics; and inadequate lighting. A U.S. Government Accounting Office (GAO) study from 2020 found the neglect was so widespread in the U.S. that more than half (54 percent) of public school districts need to update or replace multiple building systems or features in their schools.4 Drilling down further, the study found an estimated 41 percent of districts needed to update or replace heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems in at least half of their schools, which represents a staggering 36,000 schools.

Clearly, investing in the school buildings themselves is a top priority. This is easier said than done. National and sub-national governments need to get serious about addressing and overcoming entrenched structural and systemic failures that inhibit fair and equitable funding across school facilities. And it’s not any given school’s fault. All around the world, funding for schools is at best inconsistent, often falling behind in addressing operations and maintenance needs or other annual upkeep. Regrettably it is a largely broken system, distressed by chronic underinvestment and riddled with disparities from one community to another. The U.S. prides itself on its public education system but has as steep a hill to climb as any country, underscored by the fact that it is already contending with an annual $46 billion investment gap in its school facilities. Further, we know this gap is disproportionately affecting schools in our poorest and most vulnerable communities.

We can do better. As Mary Filardo, Executive Director of the 21st Century School Fund, put it, “Our public school facilities are also a part of our public health toolbox. Our schools need to be modernized to deliver healthy indoor air and daylight efficiently, to be resilient in the face of natural disasters, to be free of hazardous materials, to be aligned to our public education mission and to be an anchor for communities. This is a tremendous task, but not out of our reach.” Getting this right is central to upholding the solemn responsibility and goal that we all share—to provide all children everywhere with a strong education helping them reach their full potential.

Against this backdrop, COVID-19 laid bare many failings and wreaked havoc on our school systems, turning cracks into fractures everywhere across the school landscape. Invariably, the health risks posed by aging school buildings elevate significantly when faced with protracted underinvestment, but they are made downright frightening when fighting an airborne disease that reached global pandemic status.

COVID-19 can be a historical turning point. It should be a moment when we forever change how we think about school facilities; a moment when we all commit to delivering on the promise of better schools that protect and support health and well-being.

Already, we are seeing the types of solutions that will get us there. In England, a funding program is supporting schools in London to add new air-quality sensors to better address environmental and health inequalities. The effort, called “Breathe London,” will track and monitor thresholds for three particularly harmful pollutants, PM2.5, PM10 and NO2, as well as maintain a national and searchable database.6 All of our schools around the world could benefit by moving in this same direction.

Excerpt: The Challenge of Reopening
In the near term, schools around the world have struggled with the challenge of when and how to reopen. To help guide these decisions, we have turned to what we know from the research on COVID-19 and how it affects school-aged children as well as the adults who teach in and operate our schools. Studies indicate that fewer school-aged children contract COVID-19 compared to adults. If contracted, the disease appears generally mild in most children, with some experiencing no symptoms at all. Children are, however, still able to transmit the virus to others…

Excerpt: Empowering our Educators
“We cannot replace the presence of teachers and pedagogical relationships,” said Italian Education Minister Lucia Azzolina during the first online meeting of education ministers from several countries around the world organized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization(UNESCO) in March of 2020. “But we have no choice and must do our best to support principals, teachers, parents and learners while ensuring their safety.”…

…Other sections with additional recommendations include:

  • Equitable Access and Diverse Kinds of Support
  • Getting Creative to Support our Schools

Excerpt: Conclusion
COVID-19 has forced us to re-think many parts of our ways of living, and to realize that some of our previous conduct and decisions no longer have a place in our world moving forward. Some of the changes we have had to adopt will be temporary. Some in fact will likely become permanent—such as what we can do to improve the physical state of our underinvested school buildings, and how we can prioritize the needs and well-being of our children and the educators who support their growth. Much is still unclear, but what we know for sure is that our schools are here to stay, and improvements enacted in all our schools can lead to critical benefits not only in cognition and learning for our students, but in the overall health and well-being of our children, educators and communities around the world.

Read the full section here. And be sure to watch IWBI’s webcast on the 2021 State of our Schools Report here.

Tweet me: .@WELLCertified released an in-depth report that lays out research approaches and specific operational strategies as the world continues to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and prepares for acute health threats into the future:

KEYWORDS: International Well Building Institute, COVID-19

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