You would be hard-pressed to find an industry that was prepared for the challenges introduced by the COVID-19 pandemic. To say that every sector of life has had to adapt would be an understatement. Many industries have flourished and found creative ways to improve processes and become more agile and flexible while others are experiencing the aches and pains of completely redesigning operational models.
The education sector has certainly not been immune to this upheaval as it has a unique set of challenges. It is one of the largest sectors of the nation and impacts, on at least some level, a large portion of the population. A tremendous number of moving pieces go into the planning of education. Funding, jobs, schedules, etc… There is a lot to consider and many of these factors are dependent upon one another. When complications with one of these pieces are introduced, the ripple effect on the others can be swift and impactful.
When looking at the effect of the current global pandemic on any sector, it is worth considering the impact it has had on the health-care system as health-care affects every single person in society. The health management system has been in absolute turmoil since the COVID-19 pandemic entered full swing in March 2020. Supplies, staffing, and hospital beds have all been in high demand.
In short, the system has trouble keeping pace with the repercussions of a wide-spread, unknown, and highly contagious illness. The effect on the healthcare system has spilled over into other sectors including, but certainly not limited to, education.
For a notable segment of the population, campus health services act as the sole avenue for consultation, medication, testing, and therapy. Students are often away from their primary care physicians in their hometowns and rely on the college or university health care services for their needs.
With many universities reducing classroom capacity and on-campus housing due to COVID-19 social distancing requirements, access to these services may be diminished. When that is coupled with the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought about an increased need for health services, the conditions are ripe for stressing the health care system. The coronavirus pandemic has brought about a once-in-a-lifetime challenge that the health-care system is navigating. Increased need and reduced capacity.
The response to managing COVID-19 in educational systems has varied depending on the state and local situation. While some schools and educational institutions have re-opened for full in-person classes, many systems are opting to conduct classes virtually for the protection of both students and staff.
For education systems that have opted in to having in-person classes, new challenges have emerged due to the variety of symptoms associated with COVID-19 and the relatively unknown factors surrounding its spread. More and more is being asked of the on-site health care management professionals as the pandemic rages on. A few of the challenges that schools are facing include:
Once a student or faculty member has tested positive for COVID-19, a set of tasks is set into motion designed to track the individual, where they have been, and who they may have potentially been in contact with. This process is called contact tracing. Depending on the spread of the infection and the number of individuals that it has impacted, this could be a significant amount of information to keep.
The first challenge of tracking COVID-infected students is just the simple fact that this is an unquestionably new responsibility for the education system. Keeping track of infected students in the midst of a worldwide pandemic is not something that school systems and universities have had to be prepared for in recent years. In fact, it was been nearly 100 years since a pandemic has been as widespread and impactful as COVID-19. The education system looked very different a century ago when the 1918 flu pandemic was occurring. Schools were far less prominent and less crowded and far less of our national infrastructure was reliant on the education system. In short – a global pandemic is not a phenomenon that our current education infrastructure has been prepared for.
A second challenge is the sheer amount of data that needs to be maintained in order to monitor infected students. Important pieces of information that need to gathered and tracked related to student infections include, and are not limited to, the date of infection, test dates, and results, symptoms, where the infection may have taken place, dates of quarantine, communications with health professionals, any medical documentation that the school system is required to keep on hand, and potential return dates. It can be a logistical challenge to maintain that mountain of information and extract just what is needed when it is needed. It takes a robust case management system in place to fulfill these needs.
The third challenge that may emerge after some of the dust of the pandemic settles are the long term effects. In the early stages of COVID-19, most business sectors were in quick response mode – making changes on the fly just the keep their heads above water. Quick patches related to staffing, social distancing, and infection tracking may need to transform into longer-term solutions in the form of policy and infrastructure changes. It is difficult to say for sure what that might look like but one example that might be expected to stick around is some element of virtual or online learning. Many public schools and universities have been forced to enter the world of virtual education with students and faculty not being able to attend classes physically due to distancing mandates. Many institutions may have found that there are decided advantages to this and may seek to implement it in the future after the pandemic has subsided.