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APPA COVID-19 Message Following the July 17, 2020 APPA Town Hall

July 20, 2020

headshot of Lander Medlin

An occasional blogpost from Lander Medlin, APPA’s Executive Vice President

Special Communities: Challenges & Strategies for K-12 School Districts, Community Colleges, and Preparatory Schools

July 20, 2020 — The resurgence of the coronavirus has led to another milestone: 1 out of every 100 Americans has tested positive for COVID-19. It’s an alarming statistic that follows day-after-day records of rising cases in 39 states with over 68,000 in one single day totaling 3.5M.  50% of the most recent infections are 18-40 year olds. The positivity rate remains alarmingly high approaching the double digits; hospitals are running out of ICU beds in hot spots; with deaths cresting 138,000. It’s likely this is the tip of the iceberg and could be 10 times higher. We have not “flattened” the curve; we have “fattened” the curve. We cannot wish it away. The virus is out of control. It will not stop on its own. We must cool it down. How? Follow the 3 Ws: Wear a mask; Wash your hands; Watch your distance. Then, “Box in the Virus” through: Strategic testing; Effective isolation; Rapid contact tracing; and Support quarantine. It’s not just one thing that will get us out of this mess. It’s a comprehensive response.

Economically, this is wreaking havoc on small businesses, of which 44% of all closures will be permanent. 5.4M Americans lost health insurance in this pandemic – nearly 40% higher than occurred during the Recession of 2008 and 2009. U.S. consumer confidence has evaporated in July. And, although retail sales increased in June, the virus is threatening those gains. Devastating!

Education’s face-to-face reopening plans have gotten even more complicated with COVID’s rapid spread to date and the raging debate over kids returning to schools, the risk to them and their role in transmitting the virus. Still, there remains much preparation from facilities to ready their schools. Hence, we engaged three school “duos” for APPA’s 16th Town Hall to share their strategies, challenges, and questions for reopening from their particular community’s perspective. You will quickly see there is NO one-size-fits-all or a simple solution, but rather some patterns and emerging trends you will find immensely helpful no matter your institutional type or size. As COVID has reshaped our very way of life, the road to reopening takes leadership and collaboration, an aligned culture and sheer stamina no matter the chosen path.


  • Clarence Carson, Chicago Public Schools
  • John Shea, New York City Public Schools
  • J.B. Messer, Community College of Allegheny County
  • Tony Guerrero, University of Washington Bothell and Cascadia Community College
  • Connie Simmons, Phillips Exeter Academy
  • Victor Pesiri, Brentwood School

Clarence provided strategies he is deploying for the 3rd largest school district in the U.S. along with some challenges for its reopening. John gave us a sense of the challenges managing the nation’s largest school district and what that means for a reopening. J.B. discussed how he is working through his scenario for reopening and what challenges have emerged. Tony gave us a glimpse into the issues he faces with ensuring “one student experience” within two campuses and the things we can learn from his experience so far. Connie considered the differences of her preparatory school and how she is approaching them to create a safe environment for returning students. Victor spoke to how he is managing his school and community’s response, especially given the latest surge of cases in Los Angeles, California, and some of the challenges we need to understand.

Some interesting highlights from the Town Hall follow:

  • Consider the scale of the New York City Public School System with 1.1M enrolled students. That’s 1 in every 300 Americans and the complexity is even more mind-boggling with 10% of those students homeless on any given day; 200,000 students having special education needs; and over 130,000 are English language learnings. These challenges are significant on a regular day. Adding the global pandemic takes it to a whole new level.
  • Since public schools are many times the center of the community, especially in large urban environments, other needs and priorities come into play. For example, providing in-person instruction to children of First Responders; managing hundreds of “feeding” sites; distributing anything the city needs to get to people who don’t have the resources themselves like diapers, feminine hygiene products, etc.; opening up testing centers for corporate testing; and building 700 coffins a week during the height of the outbreak in New York.
  • At COVID’s onset, the Chicago School District immediately recreated an “enhanced” routine cleaning program to augment their existing programs.
  • Patterns have emerged such as: disinfecting protocols complemented by the use of electrostatic sprayers/ foggers; cleaning high touch points throughout the day; deploying multiple hand sanitizer stations; movement to touchless features where financially feasible; locking down or turning off water fountains and moving to distributed water bottle stations; flushing all plumbing systems before restart; use of Plexiglas partitions in high trafficked areas; hybrid delivery of coursework with staggered schedules to reduce density; use of teachers/ faculty to disinfect between classes; staggered work shifts to manage virus transmission risk amongst work teams.
  • These challenges continue to emerge as issues to further address: fear requiring assurance that buildings are indeed clean and safe; changing guidelines from Health Departments and top officials/ decision-makers; using contact tracing effectively; establishing proper measures for isolation and quarantine; informing or enforcing use of face coverings; PPE supply chain needs from procurement to fulfillment; hiring additional people as needed; funding shortfalls and prioritizing need; and the sheer scale of need and speed for seamless turnaround.
  • To reduce density in dorms, classrooms, dining areas, etc., creatively repurpose facilities (e.g., faculty housing converted to dorms; outside tents for music classes and dining; temporary trailers for potential quarantine beds; etc.)
  • Phillips Exeter is deploying a three-part testing protocol (before arrival; upon arrival; and 10-days later).
  • Establish policies and procedures for handling face covering non-compliance and/or exceptions.
  • Identified a new “Clear Mask” product that has a clear panel on the front so students (especially younger ones) can see the movement of the teacher’s mouth. This would also be effective for foreign language instruction.
  • For smaller children, the use of self-contained portable sinks is a great solution to hand sanitizing on the way in and out of the classroom. This needs teacher monitoring and supervision.
  • Positive use of UV-C light system (PURO) to augment manpower and reduce costs of cleaning and chemical products after applying the initial disinfection protocol. The system has a 4-6 week lead time for purchase. It is not inexpensive but may be useful depending on your situation. The UV-C light system must be supplemented with a more comprehensive cleaning and disinfection set of protocols.
  • Reinforced the importance of maximizing air ventilation and bringing in outside fresh air. Older HVAC systems pose multiple problems as MERV 13+ filters cannot be used given incompatibility with original system design. However, exchanging room air multiple times per day is highly advisable. Where this is not possible, some are installing exhaust fans others will actually require opening windows, which will impact the use of air conditioning units even in hot weather conditions. Still others are evaluating the use of HEPA filter systems.
  • Prepare proper documentation for possible CARES Act or FEMA funding.
  • For private schools and institutions operating under a “negotiated conditional use permit” (CUP), it is highly recommended that you read the documents and create a list of conditions that may be challenging to meet given the new health requirements (e.g., transportation requirements, hours of operation, etc.) You can be penalized for not meeting those requirements. Talk with your elected official to obtain an executive order to gain relief given the pandemic.
  • One good outcome from this COVID situation, it has put collaboration on steroids and given new meaning to community and contribution. We are recognizing we cannot do this alone. It is all emerging, changing, and extremely fluid. Leaning on each other makes better teams.

Especially when circumstances are dire and consequently so stressful, you can still lead with optimism so your team stays resilient amidst uncertainty. How? Be a role model and choose a positive mindset. It helps everyone foster a sense of connection with each other. Then, connect that positive energy with their achievements.

I recognize you are under enormous stress and things are insanely difficult right now. Yet, as leaders in your organization, you have an opportunity to set the conditions for a collective positive outlook on your team. Take advantage of it. You need it…your team members need it. In the words of William James, “The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” Choose wisely!

E. Lander Medlin
APPA Executive Vice President

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