By: Beth Rabbitt

The relationship between learner wellbeing and academic success has long been both intuitively obvious and well documented in scientific research. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, has thrown this relationship into even starker relief, forcing education systems to confront the complicated interplay between the “wellness” of individuals and their communities with their ability to achieve their academic missions head-on.

The challenge educators face in doing so is indeed complex, with new demands layered on already taxed traditional systems. Leaders are rapidly making sense of new evidence and guidance to put in place strategies to decrease viral transmission while meeting students’ learning needs. They’re also continuing to work towards providing the vital nutritional, physical, mental, and social supports they delivered before the pandemic. And they are doing all of this with even more limited resources and higher human needs than ever before.

Helping leaders navigate these challenges is the work of the Parabola Project, a unique cross-sector initiative of The Learning Accelerator, the education nonprofit I lead, and Ariadne Labs, a global health innovation organization. Our partnership aims to help educators by offering actionable guidance, tools, and examples for how to understand and balance risks while maximizing outcomes during COVID-19. Working alongside and learning from school communities, we seek to ensure any teacher or leader can find the resources they need to support students in research-informed ways.

The Parabola Project’s efforts to meaningfully bridge education and healthcare to improve wellbeing and learning have been born out of crisis. But, looking beyond this immediate, urgent response, we can begin to see how emerging lessons could lead us towards a future in which a focus on supporting student wellness could be core to learning models.

Here are four key opportunities for (re)invention:

1.  Recognizing that addressing wellness, in all its forms, is a prerequisite for achievement.

Education leaders have long known that addressing students’ comprehensive development — including the mental, physical, social, identity, and cognitive needs students bring into the classroom — is critical to engaging and accelerating academic achievement. Yet, we often feel a tug-of-war between desire and practicality when considering how to meet all these needs in the classroom. Efforts to address the whole child are often layered on, rather than integrated efficiently into the core of curriculum. They can also be deficit-oriented, focusing on remediation of “illness” rather than maximizing wellness.

COVID-19 has thrust critical wellness issues into the limelight; from proactively monitoring physical symptoms and addressing mental and racial trauma to more clearly recognizing the already central role schools play as hubs for food, mental, and health services, we have the opportunity to center our longer-term recovery and redesign holistically on fostering student and staff well-being across developmental domains.

A starting point for this lies in our collective definition of task, acknowledging that “readiness” to learn is a function of wellness beyond just academics, knowing that these domains are interrelated and reinforcing. Schools can build this practically into our systems for reflection and goal setting, and we have examples to build from with those that already do. One powerful one comes from NISN (the “NACA Inspired Schools Network”), which orients around five key domains for indigenous learning: core values, identity, holistic wellness, relationships, and academic excellence. These domains guide programmatic design and also serve as the basis for ongoing student self-reflection and monitoring.

2. Sharing and acting on new wellness data and resources to support students.

A bright spot in the pandemic has been the opportunity for schools, parents, and students to reflect on and communicate more openly and often about wellbeing. COVID-19 has served as an instigator for daily screening, parent surveys, and remote connection to home. When done well, these communications have opened up new conversations at the individual and community level about how students and adults are feeling and progressing, offering new means for and building habits of community reflection and action. Moving beyond COVID-19, how might we continue to hold a commitment to communicating early and often with each other and then acting on data about wellness?

One mechanism could come from the now common, daily screening protocols as well as new survey and communication tools (such as Remind and SeeSaw) to share news and solicit feedback from teachers and families. Could we evolve this approach to undertake daily check-ins on how students are feeling, or what challenges families are navigating, to offer teachers better data to support learning and engagement?

Learning from home has also prompted students to take on more self-monitoring and progress tracking. How might we encourage students to gather and track wellness information to make decisions and tap into supports? From screen-time monitoring to wearables that track physical activity, we have more opportunity to put data into the hands of students to inform their own learning.

3. Leveraging emerging online resources in a blended manner to bring wellness programming into school (without having to ask even more of teachers).

There are exemplar school models that offer “wraparound” health programming, but few traditional schools have the staffing or calendar resources to offer a comprehensive array of wellness support. Bringing in outside supports, such as additional counseling or fitness programming, is often logistically challenging and financially unsustainable. When teachers try to integrate wellness resources at the classroom level, time, training, and material constraints can feel overwhelming.

COVID-19 has spurred significant innovation in the delivery of supplementary wellness services; sectors like digital fitness and wellness apps saw a reported 46% increase in downloads during the first quarter of the shutdown. Investment in digital health is predicted to be $12.5 billion (up $4.6 billion from 2019). Providers of these services, from therapists to fitness instructors, are also learning how to work in new ways, offering remote services as well as developing more scalable content (e.g. videos, podcasts, digital curriculum).

All of this growth, innovation, and behavioral change holds the potential to make it possible for every teacher and student to access the materials and support they need to bring wellness into the K-12 experience in an integrated, more sustainable way. To be clear, figuring out how to vet and use these new tools is work practitioners, researchers, and tool developers need to do together. Most critically, schools need to ensure that interventions offered are research-based, adequately protect student privacy, and are developmentally appropriate. But, done well, the tools offer access to critical wellness support in ways we haven’t before, at lower cost (dollars, time, and complexity).

4. Sustaining ongoing collaboration between educators, healthcare, technology workers, and, yes, students.

In the best cases, COVID-19 has spurred leaders to build uncommon collaborations to solve new challenges. School districts are collaborating more closely with public boards of health. Governmental leaders are inviting technology partners to the table to solve urgent health priorities with accountability (for one good example, consider Rhode Island’s partnership with Salesforce, resulting in contact-tracing tools now used across 35 states). In some cases, wellness organizations positioned to provide support are stepping in to offer pro bono support. For example, digital fitness provider Peloton (with the help of Beyonce) recently partnered with 10 historically black colleges and universities to offer free memberships to students. Project Parachute, a partnership between UNC and Eleos Health, is matching frontline workers with pro bono therapists.

Cross-silo partnership isn’t new, but we often don’t default towards it. It’s worth considering how we could use COVID-19 as an opportunity to slingshot towards greater collaboration as a habit, supporting school-based delivery of vital supports not by asking schools to do it all but by building relationships with those already with the capacity to support them as central hubs of student and family engagement.

Doing this will require studying those places where this collaboration is going well, both the activities as well as the conditions that support it. It will also mean digging into cases where it doesn’t work, understanding why and how to make cross-sector partnerships more effective and less costly. We can also tap into students and their communities as designers for these new approaches. One example to build from comes from Health Leadership High School, where local health professionals, students and the community writ large work together to source high impact projects for learners to work on.

COVID-19 has dramatically reshaped our society, forcing all of us to work in new ways, adopting new practices, forging uncommon alliances, and leveraging disruptive solutions to better meet the needs of children during this time of challenge. By putting wellness into the spotlight, we’re learning a lot as a community. As we move through response towards recovery and greater system resiliency, there is significant opportunity to sustain this momentum. Together, we can build a future where school — a place where students may spend as much time as home — fosters wellness as a core input towards achievement for all.

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Beth Rabbitt is Chief Executive Officer of The Learning Accelerator (TLA).

To help inform and deliver new agreements, new practices and new tools Getting Smart and eduInnovation are exploring the Invention Opportunity thanks to support from the Walton Family Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The findings and conclusions contained within are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect positions or policies of the foundations.

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