Reopening Our Schools

Gil G. Noam
4 min readJul 7, 2020

Racing to “catch up” and going back to what once was won’t work.

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto on Pexels

Schools will open, one way or another. Many states have already released guidance on the enormous changes schools will need to make between now and the fall to be ready to open. For example, the requirements just released by Massachusetts includes students staying in the same groups all day, face masks for all, social distancing in the halls and classrooms, constant hand-washing, and more, all to create a safe physical environment. Schools are also required to develop three separate work plans over the summer for a return that includes in-person, hybrid, and remote learning.

But beyond the physical and organizational matters of time, place, and technology, a similar focus has to be placed on preparing for the psychological experience and engagement in learning of the children and adults. That kind of thinking is not happening sufficiently across the country. No matter which scenarios play out when students return, there will be a particular pressure placed explicitly or implicitly by educators, families, and students themselves to “catch up.” This is understandable, as most school districts have been closed since mid-March, and there are fears of more students becoming potential “ virtual dropouts.” The online experience for teachers and students was very mixed and the losses in learning will be felt unequally and have the potential to significantly increase preexisting inequities between White and Black and Brown children.

Although there is nothing wrong with “catching up,” it can easily bring out the worst in schools. We must instead think through how we can create schools that are livable, creative, and joyful institutions of learning that tend to the developmental and educational needs of students while supporting a staff who have also experienced their own stressors and hardships. There is an opportunity to build new connections after this long period of isolation. The first two weeks are critical for educators to help youth reconnect with their school communities and reengage with them in learning. But the whole year will need to be one of flexible adaption to unprecedented conditions. Let’s not waste an incredible potential when students are motivated to re-attach, educators can reconnect to their mission of mentoring young people, and families are hesitant yet relieved to have their children return to a safe place with peers.

To open successfully, schools must:

1. Focus on relationships: Students missed their friends and adults outside their home. Time and the support of caring educators are definitely needed to heal and to adapt to the process of learning again. Don’t let rigid rules of the school get in the way of those primal drives of affiliation. Hold events where students can express themselves and be involved, and not just talked to. Relationship building with families is also critically important to include parents and caregivers in the planning. You will need their help to support the school climate, reinforce the structure put in place at school, and help get students to concentrate on schoolwork at home. Set a shared mission of being a relational school community. It sounds like common sense, but it is lacking in most schools and is transformational when truly implemented.

2. Have a plan for mental health needs: Positive relationships are the medicine after hardship during a pandemic. Research on the youth experience of past crises shows they have an amazing power of resilience, and close ties with teachers and other adults are a good step to foster this resilience. That said, schools have to be ready for an influx of youth with mental health disorders exacerbated by the pandemic. The typical expectation is that 13–20 percent of youth have mental health disorders at any given time, but it is very possible that as many as 30 percent of students will now need mental health support. This cannot be accomplished by schools and districts alone and requires an immediate and concerted effort across institutions. We also know from other calamities such as natural disasters and recessions that problems can emerge over time. To prevent this, schools will have to plan a system of interventions that increases the mental health knowledge of school counselors, teachers, and youth workers, and expands the referral system from schools to clinics.

3. Create flexible learning environments and norms to keep students engaged: We have an opportunity to teach students through example about the necessity of being able to adapt and innovate in an unpredictable environment. Schools must teach flexibility as children will need this skillset throughout their lives. New norms and discipline structures must also be set to account for the adjustment back into the school routine. The more students help set the norms, the better they will be able to abide by them. The curriculum must also be interesting to students who will want to work on projects that are relevant to their times and their questions. Every learning opportunity should relate to creating hope and optimism for the future when most information has been bleak and hopeless. Knowledge and skills are a good way to instill a sense of future, but that will only flourish if embedded in strong relationships and a connection to the present moment of history.

Educational institutions have been presented with an opportunity to pivot in important ways. A foundation of change must begin with shared values, voice, and deeper relationships across the school community, including families. These issues should not be seen as secondary to academic achievement, but as fundamental requirements to successfully opening school in the fall.

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Gil G. Noam

Founder of The PEAR Institute: Partnerships in Education and Resilience at McLean Hospital, Faculty Member at Harvard Medical School. All opinions are my own.