Reflecting Back on a Year of COVID-Moving Forward to the Future

Article | 06.29.2021

The May Wednesdays With Wightman Town Hall session reflected upon a year of COVID, in-person education during a pandemic, and moving education into the future.

Wightman's Regional Director of Architecture, Education Sector Leader, and Recognized Educational Facilities Planning (REFP) expert, George Kacan, facilitated the session and panel discussion. The panel included Nicki Britten, Health Officer for the Berrien County Health Department, and Wightman's Director of Architecture and Accredited Learning Environment Planner (ALEP) expert, Greg Monberg.

Ms. Britten, who holds a Master of Public Health in Epidemiology from Yale University, serves on Governor Whitmer's COVID-19 Return to School Advisory Council and Student Recovery Council. With her education and experience, Nicki is uniquely qualified to provide insight regarding emerging best practices relative to mitigating the spread of COVID.

Ms. Britten began by reviewing guidelines such as the MI Safe Schools Roadmap that were put forth last year and used by school districts to formulate their plans based upon what was required and recommended. She stated that new recommendations are forthcoming from the Student Recovery Council. In Berrien County, leaders of both public and private schools met regularly to discuss the COVID-related issues they were facing and team to find optimal solutions at a county-wide level. In the fall of 2020, Berrien County students could choose to return to in-person learning or continue to learn remotely. The majority of the students decided to return to in-person learning. Currently, approximately 80% of students in the County are learning in person. Ms. Britten stated that there were many instances of students having to quarantine due to exposure to COVID outside of school but relatively few due to exposure within. Approximately 1.5% of these quarantined students eventually became ill with COVID themselves. Ms. Britten stated that students in quarantine would receive additional support in the coming year.

Ms. Britten noted that, throughout the pandemic, school leaders met regularly with the county health department to review and interpret relevant statistics, discuss the issues they were experiencing, and explore potential solutions. Next year, protocol regarding mitigation measures, such as the wearing of masks, would be stipulated. Ms. Britten also stressed the importance of providing students and staff with support relative to their social, emotional, and mental health.

A key takeaway is that it is critical to forge strong, trusted, and credible relationships among school leadership and the county health department to reach a consensus regarding risk tolerance and make informed decisions that result in successful outcomes. Ms. Britten noted that communities that already had such relationships forged before the pandemic began weathered it than those that did not. Ultimately, in the coming year, Ms. Britten stressed that it is essential to determine ways to increase support for students and their families as they move in and out of quarantine.

Here is a recording of the session.