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Harvard Experts Outline Critical Steps for School Reopenings at HGSE Event

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Experts from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Harvard School of Public Health said in a Wednesday event that Covid-safe school infrastructure and individual student support systems are critical to successful school reopenings during the pandemic.

Moderated by HGSE Dean Bridget Terry Long and HSPH Dean Michelle A. Williams, the panel — part of the HGSE’s recurring webinar series “Education Now” — included Meira Levinson, an Education professor at HGSE; Josephine M. Kim, a senior lecturer on Education; Joseph G. Allen, an associate professor of Exposure Assessment Science at HSPH; and Natalia Linos, the executive director of Harvard’s François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights.

Williams opened the event by explaining the close ties between education and public health.

“Education, like public health, [is] the taproot, the seed corn, or, if you will, the bedrock of all that drives and sustains civil society,” Williams said.

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Following Williams, Long spoke to the need for healthy school environments.

“Healthy kids translates into the opportunity for high quality learning, and the opposite is most certainly true,” Long said. “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 if your health is suffering.”

Allen explained that deleterious conditions can occur in schools when they only meet the “minimum standards” of proper air ventilation and filtration systems.

“Forty years ago, we started to set our building standards for bare minimums — not for health, not for student well being, not for teacher success and performance,” Allen said. “The standard by name is called the ‘Standard for Acceptable Indoor Air Quality,’ so when did ‘acceptable’ become acceptable? It’s objectively not.”

Later in the panel, Kim, Levinson, and Linos pivoted toward the importance of supporting people in all roles at schools — students, teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria staff, and so forth — amid reopenings.

When asked which group she thought would have the greatest challenge reacclimating to in-person instruction, Levinson said everyone in a school is interconnected.

“We can’t think about children and students’ well-being separate from the well-being of teachers, school administrators, custodians, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, et cetera,” Levinson said.

“When you ask me who I am most concerned about, I am most concerned about seeing people, schools, and groups as members of interest groups who are in opposition to one another and are getting caught up in that, and I’m most hoping that we can start to take a more holistic approach,” she added.

Linos added that, though anxiety is high due to the Delta variant, it is important to acknowledge the progress made and continue to trust the emerging science on the matter.

“In this moment of anxiety around Delta, I think it’s important to acknowledge that we are in a better place,” Linos said. “We know that universal masking works; we know that the way to keep kids safe who can’t be vaccinated is to vaccinate everybody around them who can be.”

—Staff writer Omar Abdel Haq can be reached at omar.abdelhaq@thecrimson.com.

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