A Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child Approach to Responding to Health Crises

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By Sean Slade

Health and education affect individuals, society, and the economy and, as such, must work together whenever possible. Schools are a perfect setting for this collaboration. Schools are one of the most efficient systems for reaching children and youth to provide health services and programs [and] at the same time, integrating health services and programs more deeply into the day-to-day life of schools and students represents an untapped tool for raising academic achievement and improving learning.

This 2014 statement from ASCD & the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) on the release of the Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child Model (WSCC), underlines the role of schools and their communities in ensuring the health and safety of students and staff and the impact of health of the ability of students to learn.  The WSCC Model was codeveloped and launched by ASCD & CDC to better align health and education, and to ensure that the learning environment is healthy, safe, and conducive to learning.

The WSCC Model combines and builds on elements of the traditional coordinated school health approach and the whole child framework. It addresses the need for greater alignment, integration, and collaboration between education and health to improve each child’s cognitive, physical, social, and emotional development, by providing a framework to address the symbiotic relationship between learning and health.

The current outbreak of the coronavirus has made these issues all the more pressing, and we hope that our work in this area can provide guidance to school leaders.

In the Short Term – Physical Environment

ASCD’s joins other education organizations in urging schools to follow the health and safety advice from CDC on ensuring that our schools and communities are clean, and safe. CDC has provided dedicated information for K12 Schools regarding the coronavirus, including checklists and guidance for school leaders, teachers, their students, staff, and families.

At present, the majority of these recommendations address the physical environment of schools and respond to questions about reducing the spread of the virus. The WSCC model outlines the physical environment as front-line component of healthy schools: 

Physical Environment: A healthy and safe physical school environment promotes learning by ensuring the health and safety of students and staff. The physical school environment encompasses the school building and its contents, the land on which the school is located, and the area surrounding it. A healthy school environment will address a school’s physical condition during normal operation as well as during renovation (e.g., ventilation, moisture, temperature, noise, and natural and artificial lighting), and protect occupants from physical threats (e.g., crime, violence, traffic, and injuries) and biological and chemical agents in the air, water, or soil as well as those purposefully brought into the school (e.g., pollution, mold, hazardous materials, pesticides, and cleaning agents).

In the Medium Term – Social and Emotional Climate

In response to the Coronavirus spread, many schools have decided to close temporarily, and many others are weighing this option along with plans to continue at least some instruction via online learning. In this context,schools must be especially cognizant of not only the academic attainment of their students but also the well-being of both students and staff.

Another key component of the WSCC model is social and emotional climate, which refers to the psychosocial aspects of students’ educational experience. The social and emotional climate impacts students’ ability to learn and ensures that all learners feel safe, supported, and connected to their school and their learning, even when school facilities are closed.

While this outbreak is new, we can learn from other societal issues that have impacted school cultures and climate, such as violence and isolation.

Common recommendations in response to such issues, also relevant in current crisis, include:

  • Be transparent and communicative with your students, families, and staff.
  • Provide easy avenues for anyone to reach out with concerns and questions.
  • Establish actions and activities to ensure that students and staff feel part of the group/learning community.
  • See the role of a school leader and teacher to be as much one of nurturing as teacher.

What the learners and teachers often need in crisis situations are:

  • Reassurance.
  • Sense of belonging and community.
  • To be heard.
  • To have an avenue to raise their concerns and not to have their issue dismissed.

Our schools are social environments and as such relationships and connections will need to be continuously reinforced and when needed reestablished.

In the Long Term: Coordinating Policy, Process, And Practice

Unfortunately, the duration of the current outbreak is uncertain, and this crisis likely won’t to be the last of its kind facing schools. In light of this, schools should be looking at planning how to better integrate their system and their policies to prevent ongoing disruption. As the WSCC model states:

Policy, Process, and Practice: The day-to-day practices within each sector require examination and collaboration so that they work in tandem, with appropriate complementary processes guiding each decision and action. Developing joint and collaborative policy is half the challenge; putting it into action and making it routine completes the task. To develop joint or collaborative policies, processes, and practices, all parties involved should start with a common understanding about the interrelatedness of learning and health.

There are several processes we recommend to do this. They include establishing school health advisory Councils, developing or improving school health wellness policies; and developing cross sector and cross agency teams focused on the same goals.

For the longer term, we recommend that schools start to align their health and wellbeing planning with their continuous school improvement processes. These organizational strategies should not be separate but rather part of the same planning, evaluation, and improvement processes that schools do annually. Schools that align their policies and practices across health and education provide a unified approach to Student Supports; increase the range of services provided to staff and students; and can utilize funds and resources that spans education, health, and the broader community. 

To help with this work, ASCD has developed a series of guides, tools, and resources available to any school or district for free via the Whole Child Network. This network provides the process to help schools embed a Whole Child and WSCC Model approach into their ongoing improvement processes.

ASCD and the CDC developed the WSCC model—in collaboration with key leaders from the fields of health, public health, education, and school health—to strengthen a unified and collaborative approach to learning and health; and we encourage use of the model as a framework for improving students’ learning and health in our nation’s schools.

We know that health and wellbeing impact teaching and learning. We know that systems and policies are more effective when they work in collaboration with each other.  Let’s make sure that we address the immediate issues related to the Coronavirus, be aware of the impact that isolation and offsite can have for both students and staff, and then let’s utilize our time to better align our policies and systems.

Sean Slade is ASCD’s senior director for global outreach.

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