Are school systems ready to reopen this fall? A new VCU study aims to find out.

The study by School of Education professor Dwayne Ray Cormier is exploring pandemic preparedness in Richmond-area school systems.

Dwayne Ray Cormier, Ph.D., pictured in front of the VCU School of Education building.
Dwayne Ray Cormier, Ph.D., is leading the study, “Exploring PreK-12 Public School Systems' Pandemic Preparedness During COVID-19 School Closures." (Photo by Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

At Virginia Commonwealth University, researchers have been launching projects to address and assess the impact of the novel coronavirus. Their work ranges from vaccine development and building biobanks to study the virus to examinations of how the pandemic is affecting food access in vulnerable communities. These are some of their stories.

As public school systems across the country are readying plans to reopen ?— in some fashion ?— this fall, a new study at Virginia Commonwealth University is investigating the preparedness of two school districts within the greater Richmond area amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The study, “Exploring PreK-12 Public School Systems' Pandemic Preparedness During COVID-19 School Closures,” is led by Dwayne Ray Cormier, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Foundations of Education in the School of Education and a visiting iCubed scholar.

“I wanted to see: what do the protocols and processes look like?” Cormier said. “And I then want to see if there’s anything we can learn that can be shared throughout the state or throughout the country that would help schools prepare.”

The study is one of 31 projects supported by VCU’s COVID-19 Rapid Research Funding Opportunity, led by the Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation with support from the C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research. The program awarded nearly $350,000 in funding this spring to VCU research that seeks to address the impact of the coronavirus.

Cormier was inspired to study pandemic preparedness within schools partly because of his background — he served as a medic in the U.S. Navy, was a middle school science teacher, and ran a nonprofit organization — and also because of the disproportionate impact of COVID-19, particularly among the Black community.

Those inequalities, he said, are almost certainly being reflected in how urban school systems are preparing to reopen amid the pandemic in comparison to more affluent districts.

“I think it’s important to understand that whatever inequities are found or understood with this study, COVID-19 didn't bring about these inequities,” he said. “All COVID-19 did, in my opinion, was shine the light and rip the scab off the wound of inequities within pre-K-12 schooling. Especially for families that are minoritized, marginalized and otherized, meaning either by race, economics or ability.”

An empty classroom with desks.
Cormier's study will result in a checklist of topics that school districts could consider as they reopen amid the pandemic and for future pandemics. (Getty Images)

Cormier will go about studying pandemic preparedness in the two school systems by conducting focus groups with educational stakeholders from the elementary, middle and high school level.

“In essence, we will give [the focus groups] a prompt, asking them: What has troubled you, concerned you, or challenged you during the pandemic school closure? And that’s the prompt, and from that they essentially will just start generating ideas,” he said.

As the focus groups provide their thoughts, the research team will gather the data and sort it into topics, possibly including concerns such as a lack of Wi-Fi access by students, a lack of capacity to implement social distancing in school facilities or a lack of available COVID-19 tests. The groups also will be asked to fill out a questionnaire and assign each idea or concern a level of importance.

The team will then use software to analyze the data and find commonalities among the topics and concerns raised.

“With this analysis, we can look across two districts and see if there are any similarities or likenesses. And then we can also [compare] across the grade levels within each district and see if there’s any similarities or likenesses,” he said. “And with that, hopefully we’ll see some [trends] and we can make recommendations to school systems as they prepare to reopen and try to get to a sense of a new normal post-COVID-19 or recovering post-COVID-19 pandemic school closures.”

Cormier’s study will result in a checklist of topics that school districts could consider as they reopen amid the pandemic and for future pandemics. It may also lead to a survey that would be sent to school districts to see if its findings are consistent across Virginia and the country. The project’s findings may also eventually be presented in a video or website.

The project is important, Cormier said, because guidance for schools from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been insufficient, focusing more on logistics of reopening and little on teaching and learning. While wealthier school districts are better positioned to go beyond the CDC’s guidelines, less privileged districts may need the information that Cormier’s study aims to bring to light.

Cormier added that the study is being conducted amid a pandemic that is having a disproportionate impact on the Black community and amid Black Lives Matter protests across the country against police brutality. He hopes it contributes to future public policy that reduces racial inequities in classrooms and among school districts.

“Hopefully with this moment — kind of similar to what you’re seeing with the protests around George Floyd — is that this is an opportunity to really push school change via policy and legislation,” he said. “And when those things happen in the legislative branch, then real resources will follow, [allowing] schools to get the systematic upgrades they need to be competitive across school systems no matter where they’re located.”

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