Strategies for A Safe School Reopening

On a recent episode of Charter Conversations, Building Hope’s video series for charter school leaders, Tricia Forrest, partner and project manager at Urban Projects Collaborative in New York City, talked about considerations for schools as they seek to reopen safely and protect their communities from COVID-19. Here, Tricia goes deeper on the topic, sharing resources UPC has developed for schools in partnership with their clients.

Educators and parents are faced with the uncomfortable position of re-opening schools during a global pandemic. As many states grapple with controlling community spread, schools must prepare, not only to navigate the challenges of operating while keeping their students and staff safe, but also be prepared to act in instances of transmission with sound mitigation strategies to control spread.

Safe school facilities planning must be rooted in our collective best understanding of COVID-19, and what is required for its containment as communicated by public health authorities. Also, as this is an ever-evolving public health crisis, educators and administrators must ensure their plans are adaptive in the face of changing circumstances.

“Schools need to consider that the protocols to ensure safety of staff and students begin before they enter the doors.”

Schools need to consider that the protocols to ensure safety of staff and students begin before they enter the doors. They should implement and enforce self-checking and reporting measures through communications that encourage individual responsibility to ensure that families keep children presenting any indicative symptoms at home. Additional pre-screening should be done before anyone enters the facilities.

At Urban Projects Collaborative (UPC) we’ve been working with our education clients to assemble guidelines around safe operations and then using those guidelines to create safe and practical plans that factor in all components of their operations and mandates to their communities. The first documentation of this process was the Back to School Facilities Toolkit, first published in May 2020. The result of a collaboration between Brooklyn Laboratory Charter Schools and UPC with five architectural and urban design firms. The toolkit looked at the myriad challenges to re-opening schools, from entering the building, to classroom layouts to circulating between spaces.

“We recommend schools develop protocols for designing functional elements rooted in guidance from health authorities and shaped by their operations teams and assigned health care professionals.”

Based on some of the concepts around arrival and entry developed in the toolkit, UPC continued our work with Brooklyn LAB and two design firms to develop the Front Porch for the new school year and beyond. The Front Porch essentially allows a school to extend its entrance into the surrounding public domain, via a branded sidewalk shed, to facilitate safe queuing, social distancing and pre-screening while keeping the student body contained within a partial enclosure that provides a safe and sheltered space. The Front Porch can also include wayfinding, social distancing graphics and possibly safety measure infographics as reminders to students, staff, and the community. It also presents opportunities to further engage students and the community through art. The Front Porch is critical in managing both arrival and dismissal. We recommend schools develop protocols for designing functional elements rooted in guidance from health authorities and shaped by their operations teams and assigned health care professionals.

Playbooks, Plans and Protocols

Once inside the building, the work of keeping students and staff safe continues. We recommend school administrators develop a tangible Guide or Playbook for their facilities maintenance and use, covering a wide range of protocols for COVID-19 safety. Protocols should govern social distancing strategies, occupancy levels and classroom layouts, on-site health screenings, enhanced cleaning and disinfecting protocols, as well as PPE use and management.

Organizations should also develop and communicate protocols around isolation for virus containment, contact tracing in conjunction with health department mandates and facilities restoration in the event of a presumed and/or confirmed positive cases. The playbook should serve as the organization’s safety plan and should be managed, deployed, and updated when applicable by a crisis response team, selected and trained specifically for the responsibilities of managing the school’s response.

This is a difficult and uncertain time for everyone. We all want to return to a sense of normalcy. We all agree that the best, most effective way for our children to learn is in person. But first we need to be able to ensure their safety at school and the safety of teachers and staff. Our most important job as educators, administrators, parents, advisors and community members is to “do no harm.”

Watch the Webisode

Eric Tucker from Brooklyn Laboratory Charter Schools and Tricia Forrest join Dru Damico to dive into considerations needed for a comprehensive back-to-school-plan and an introduction to their Back-to-School toolkit to help leaders determine best practices for their schools.

Picture of Tricia Forrest

Tricia Forrest

Tricia Forrest is a Partner and Project Manager at Urban Projects Collaborative, LLC (UPC) with over 15 years’ experience in project management, operations and strategy, having worked with firms dedicated to design, owners representation and professional management services. Tricia leads UPC’s K-12 education practice and has worked on new schools and renovation projects throughout the New York region. She has a B.A. In International Business, Management & Finance and an MS in Economics, Global Business and Finance.