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Balancing Change and Constancy: Re-opening of Schools during and post-pandemic

Updated: Jun 11, 2020

The COVID19 pandemic has been ravaging not just the economy but at a micro-level, it has the potential to leave a long-lasting effect on the physical and mental well-being of men, women, and children. One cohort in particular who can see a lasting impact and delayed recovery is that of the school-going children. The loss of learning days hampers not just the technical skill acquisition attained through coursework but also the physical and emotional aspects of child and youth development. The biggest enabler during child and youth development are schools. Schools play a key role both serving as a miniature version of our societies and reciprocally influencing our communities. They assist in the development and enhancement of social, emotional, cognitive, and behavioral competencies. The schools reacted to the onset of the pandemic by moving learning to virtual platforms/online learning. And changes in school and learning environments can have a variable and mostly decremental effects on the four competencies earlier mentioned. School also acts as a control mechanism for everything from learning difficulties to safety buffer. Schools have also played an active and crucial role in delivering child-care, and changes like the rotating schedules might burden parents and caregivers further. Hence it becomes essential that due diligence is made as to how we re-open our schools.

Image via OECD

Across the world, some schools have re-opened and some are in the process of re-opening. Some of the changes that could be seen in the schools that have re-opened are:

Staggered Class Schedules: In view of limited space and constraints for maintaining appropriate social distances, class sizes have been reduced and everyone has been put under a defined staggered attendance

Staggered Entry: To avoid crowding during the early hours at the school gates, schools have created an entry schedule asking parents and students to stick to the timelines for entry. During entry visual markers are being used as cues to maintain appropriate social/physical distance

Directional Corridors: Schools have created directionally marked corridors to prevent crowding and close face to face encounters. Some schools have adopted uni-directional corridors, and some have created markings and portioning to help communicate the maneuvering rules

Spaced-Out Sitting: Benches are being kept six feet apart in many schools to enable staggered attendance

Compulsory Masks: Wearing of masks has been made compulsory

Thermal Monitoring: Thermal sensors are being placed to monitor student

Image via Reuters temperatures, and students with

temperatures higher than the desired thresholds are being asked to take leave of absence

Plastic Dividers/Partitioning: In addition to physically spaced benches, benches have been retrofitted with plexiglass/plastic dividers to arrest any kind of contamination

Open Ventilation: Classrooms are operating with open windows and open doors to improve ventilation and students have been asked to wear appropriate clothing’s hence

No Assemblies: Morning assemblies have been canceled to avoid crowding



Gymnasiums converted into Meeting Halls: Schools have moved teacher-staff meetings to gymnasiums to maintain appropriate social distance

Self-Administered Testing and Safety Marking: Some schools have started providing test kits for students to test themselves twice a week. Negative cases then wear a green marker badge to signal the test results

No Contact Sports: The physical routines in the school curriculum are being modified to exclude contact sports. Children are being separated in the playgrounds using placeholders

With more schools scheduled to re-open, steps like these will be a common scene. But utmost care must be taken to see to it that on one hand when policy measures are being taken on how schools should adopt newer paradigms in their functioning create positive externalities on infection rate, they do not create negative externalities on learning and development of a student.

What is likely to work

Some of the considerations that must be kept in mind while developing the re-opening plan and assist students to adopt this new normal are:

1. Acquisition and Compliance to New Prosocial Behaviors:

As schools strive to introduce strict hygiene routines within their premises, the uptake and adherence to these routines need to be carefully designed. Key areas to look into are:

a. Emphasize Context: The context has to be communicated clearly as to what hygiene routines are expected from students, and where are they expected to be carried out to increase specificity around the routines

b. Positive Reinforcement: Positive Reinforcement can increase the stickiness of the new behaviors, and help in signaling socially desirable actions to the audience

c. Increasing Agency: Students should be capable of carrying out the routines independently

d. Develop Shared Goals: Students must treat health as a co-owned and co-managed entity where well-being can only be achieved when everyone is healthy

e. Create the appropriate antecedent stimuli: Efforts should be made to associate hygiene with general well-being and safety, and not to anchor the routine as a fight against COVID19 in particular.

2. Risk Management:

Schools are seldom characterized as high-risk environments and, in a situation, where the external risk environment shadows the safe school environment, adequate risk management is needed to reduce its potential impact in child development.

a. Maintain temporal proximity to risk: Perceived distance to risk must be reduced among students to avoid rebound-effects and compensatory risk-seeking actions, i.e students must not feel that there is no risk of contracting the infection anymore.

b. Increasing Control: Students can be engaged in cleaning protocols to a degree where they own and manage their space within classrooms

c. Improving Adaptability: In environments of high uncertainty and high risk, schools must provide flexibility in exam schedules, assignment deadlines, and learning pace.

d. Visual Cues of Assurance: Individuals must be assisted to self-appraise their behavior for safety. Providing visual cues for physical distance, direction markers, safety symbols or badges, school level health can be helpful. For example, cones can be used to signal social distancing during school entry, health bulletin boards provide school-level information, green stickers for negative tested students.

e. Increase goal conduciveness: The student’s intent towards being safe after reopening must be supported by relevant infrastructure, which must act as an enabler for the intended hygiene routines

3. Perceived Semblance:

The post-COVID school must resemble the one which students had left before the shutdown. The familiarity of the environment provided by the school can have positive coping effects on the adoption and adaptation to the changes.

a. Maintain Pre-COVID level of predictability: Schools provide an environment of predictability in a child’s life through daily routines, fixed curriculums and stable relationships with teacher and friends, and similar levels of predictability must be maintained by acknowledging uncertainty and providing a set of well-defined unambiguous timelines

b. Minimum spatial re-orientation: Student must be able to see a certain degree of constancy in how classrooms, cafeteria, halls or gymnasiums looked before

c. Managed Student-Teacher Interaction: Changes brought by staggered attendance, and also lack of movement in the physical space during the class must be managed so as to not disturb the sense of proximity to support/authority or sense of their(teacher) availability. Teachers must have mandatory scheduled sessions/activities to manage interactions.

In the future, at least in the near one, schools might see tectonic shifts in how they function, and how they deliver learning to millions of children around the globe. The shifts will have to cater to the primary goals and needs of child development. In this process, adoption of the design approach and identification of appropriate behavioral levers become the essential first step for school administrators and education policymakers.

Who would this be most useful for?

  • Education Policymakers

  • School Administrators

  • Local Government Authorities


Akin-Little, A., Little, S. G., Bray, M. A., & Kehle, T. J. (Eds.). (2009).School Psychology. Behavioral interventions in schools: Evidence-based positive strategies.American Psychological Association.

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