Lessons learned from grassroots academic-community partnerships during COVID-19

After suspending kindergarten through 12th grade in-person education in March 2020 to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19, school districts across the country were met with a harsh reality: remote learning was difficult and often not successful. Many students were left behind. Without precedent, sufficient public funding, and an incomplete understanding of COVID-19 epidemiology in children and the transmission dynamics in the school environment, school district leaders sought help from local healthcare professionals and institutions to determine when and how their schools could reopen for safe in-person learning.

One of these grassroots partnerships was between the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health (SMPH), UW Health, and Wisconsin public school districts. School districts requested medical advisors from SMPH’s Department of Pediatrics to participate in school board meetings, have discussions with school leaders, and serve on medical advisory committees. Recognizing the need to interpret existing COVID-19 literature and provide educational content for school districts and communities in a consistent, large-scale, and equitable way, the Department of Pediatrics and UW Health’s child health advocacy coalition, Healthy Kids Collaborative, formed the UW Health Coordinated Response to Schools Task Force.

The Task Force met weekly with local superintendents and school leaders and had close interactions with the Wisconsin Departments of Public Instruction and Health Services and local public health department experts. Additionally, the Task Force developed an online educational series, Safe, Strong & Healthy Schools, to present current COVID-19 scientific evidence to a school stakeholder audience. The series featured twice-weekly pre-recorded presentations and conversations with Wisconsin doctors on high-interest topics, such as the basic science of COVID-19, school transmission, safety of athletics, vaccine 101, and the impact of COVID-19 and remote learning on adolescent mental health.

SMPH’s partnership with Wisconsin school districts ­­is one of four academic-community partnerships described in a new study, “Building a national framework to pair scientists and schools during a global pandemic,” published in the February 2022 issue of Pediatrics. Sabrina Butteris, MD, professor, Hospital Medicine, and Gregory DeMuri, MD, professor, Pediatric Infectious Diseases, were among the study’s co-authors. Shawn Koval, healthy schools coordinator for the Healthy Kids Collaborative, also contributed to the study.

The study gathered actions and guidelines from four partnerships between school districts and medical providers. In addition to SMPH, school district partnerships with Duke University and the University of North Carolina, Children’s Mercy Kansas City, and Washington University in Saint Louis were examined. The Pediatrics article compiled challenges that were faced and lessons learned from the four partnerships:

  • Because of politicized or polarized stakeholders, academic institutions worked through mediated relationships, and did not offer opinions on whether to reopen schools. Instead, they focused on how they could reopen safely if they were to reopen.
  • School districts separated by only a few miles often held vastly differing viewpoints. A personalized approach was often necessary when there was local control in decision-making.
  • Academic institutions and school districts needed to take the time and effort to learn about each other through bidirectional learning and sharing.
  • As the pandemic grew, financial support from the academic institutions was minimal or absent, leaving the scientists and school districts uncertain if they could continue long-term. Funding is necessary for these partnerships.
  • Profound inequities in child health were revealed and compounded by the pandemic. The future of robust children’s health is critically dependent upon public school systems being closely bound with public health systems. Mitigation strategies must take in account these inequities.

The connections between medical institutions and schools were successful and eventually resulted in a coordinated approach to address mitigation of COVID-19 in K–12 schools.  The authors offer their lessons as a potential blueprint to keep children safely in school in the event of future pandemics.