Lessons in Trust: The Role of Educational Leadership During a Respiratory Pandemic

Photo by Ivan Aleksic on Unsplash

By David J Bidler

This school year is going to be hard. Whether you are teaching online, or returning to the classroom, the stakes have been raised to unprecedented heights.

Within the complexities and challenges of the Fall 2020 school year a more subtle problem runs a serious risk of being overlooked.

The most valuable link in the entire learning process is in jeopardy.

This link is trust.

I work with students of all ages through our nonprofit organization, Physiology First. We talk very openly about the upcoming semester, as well as the future of education.

They are scared, just like you. They want this all to be over, just like you do. They know that you can not “stop” COVID-19. They do not expect you to be a superhero. They anticipate the challenges of the Fall semester with alarming clarity. Their already keen perception is heightened by the threat in the air.

What they tell us that they need most right now are leaders who they can trust.

We are facing a respiratory pandemic.

As a result, students need respiratory education.

We are facing the airborne transmission of a potentially deadly virus.

For this reason, students need to know how airborne transmission actually occurs.

The following questions fill the minds of parents, educators, and students as the school year begins.

What role does air volume play in public safety? How do an office, a classroom, a restroom, and a courtyard differ from a risk management perspective?

What is the viral load necessary to contract COVID-19? (This helps to determine which environments are safe, and which are not. This knowledge plays a critical role in mental well-being and public safety.)

What constitutes an infectious dose? (What viral load can one be exposed to-and for what length of time-before becoming infected with a virus? Is it one viral particle? 100? 1000? This will help students practice appropriate respiratory hygiene as well as assess the amount of time spent in specific environments based on factors such as air volume, ventilation, and how many people, if any, have previously inhabited the environment within a specific span of time.)

What can I do to prepare for wearing a mask at school all day?

What do I do if I begin to feel anxious or claustrophobic in my mask?

Students need to know how respiratory hygiene impacts their health and safety.

If students are learning online, curriculum around stress management, anxiety mitigation, and respiratory hygiene plays an equally critical role in helping them navigate the pandemic and focus their attention on learning in this new, and sometime challenging, format.

Presenting the Breathe to Perform program at Waynflete High School

Why Respiratory Education, Respiratory Hygiene, and Respiratory Resilience is a Critical Addition to 2020 Educational Curriculum.

A light, nasal breath releases roughly 500 respiratory droplets. A cough releases approximately 3,000. A sneeze sends 30,000 respiratory droplets into the atmosphere at upwards of 150 mph. Droplets released at this velocity can travel around a classroom in seconds.

As described in this article by Erin Bromach, Professor of Biology and Comparative Immunology at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, the successful equation for infection is exposure to virus x time. It is this equation that is critical for students and teachers to comprehend this Fall.

This information not only helps to keep students and teachers safe, it aids in resolving the underlying and unspoken fear that they are putting others, including vulnerable loved ones at home, in danger.

There is a psychological toll in feeling as though we are complicit in the endangerment of others that far exceeds our fear for our own safety. Leadership, honesty, and accurate information can help absolve them of a portion of this fear by confirming that best practices where understood and followed.

Teaching students how breathing impacts the body and the brain.

Masks: The Elephant in the Room as Schools Reopen.

Students are scared to go back to school in masks.

The chances are that you are scared, too.

It is really hard to wear a mask for a full school day while attempting to verbally communicate ideas.

Fortunately, there are many steps that can be taken to prepare the body physiologically for the increased exposure to carbon dioxide that occurs when wearing a mask. In the video below we demonstrate two simple steps to increasing carbon dioxide tolerance prior to returning to the classroom.

Masks can actually improve our breathing in the long term. With a small amount of training you can successfully navigate this transition and mitigate discomfort this Fall.

Physiology is not Psychology: How Understanding the Respiratory System Positively Impacts Mental Health

Presenting our Breathe to Perform professional development seminar to educational leaders in Hoboken, N.J

Students need to know that carbon dioxide (Co2) is not unhealthy. We breathe in oxygen and breathe out Co2. Our tolerance to Co2 influences our breathing rate and volume, our stress and anxiety levels, and our physical and mental well-being.

Understanding “why” wearing a mask can feel uncomfortable puts the challenge in the box of physiology as opposed to psychology. This is an important distinction which prevents students (and teachers) from wondering if they are experiencing generalized anxiety which is commonly considered to be a mental health condition.

Students are trusting that someone will guide them through this process. In many cases, they will be wrong. Their trust will inevitably erode as a result.

Exercises in Futility: The Cost of Confirmation Bias in Times of Crisis

Students will like to have their temperature taken upon arriving at school this September. They will quietly resent this process. They will feel demeaned, both physically and intellectually. They will likely remain quiet and compliant as to serve as aid in the collective reintegration process, as opposed to obstructions. Yet, they recognize the futility and the pageantry of this measure.

Everyone does.

Having a temperature does not mean that you have COVID-19.

Not having a temperature does not mean that you do not have COVID-19.

Leaders in infectious disease and epidemiology recognize this publicly. Students recognize it as well.

“We know that this is not effective. I mean, really, just as a screening tool it is not effective at all.”

-Colin Furness, Infectious Disease Epidemiologist. University of Toronto

Perhaps you have to employ temperature checks as a matter of policy.

No one expects you to reject this policy like a renegade when there are so many critical battles to fight.

What students expect, or, at least hope, is that someone will be straight with them. They expect that you will not play a game of confirmation bias in which one of the only visible “precautionary measures” in place is elevated to a status which it has not earned based on existing scientific data in order to placate students, teachers, and administrators alike.

They simply need leaders who will not lie to their face when questioned about the efficacy of the practice this semester.

The currency of the 21st century is attention and trust.

When we lose trust, we stop paying attention.

There is simply too much information in the data stream to process all of it. COVID-19 is confusing and scary for all of us.

It is in these moments of confusion, fear, and uncertainty that true leadership opportunities emerge.

In order to inspire leaders, leadership must be modeled. In the face of a respiratory pandemic, respiratory education must be prioritized. In the face of self-delusion, honesty is like cold water in the desert. We are all parched, and we need a drink of honesty together.

If you need assistance bringing a respiratory education, respiratory hygiene, and respiratory resilience program to your school please reach out. We are partnering with schools across the country to meet this challenge together through our COVID-19 reintegration program.

If you need resources to manage the pressure of navigating the Fall semester we put together this digital toolkit for teachers to share the latest science of stress management with the educational leaders like yourself.

We recognize the heroic role that so many of you are playing. We respect the complexity and the enormity of the challenges that you are facing. We appreciate your service to our communities and we are honored to share resources and support you in any way that we can.

If there is one opportunity to seize together this Fall it is the opportunity to re-prioritize the pandemic as a central theme for learning and trust as the central medium for the effective exchange of information between generations.

If we can do this, we have truly transformed challenge into opportunity while giving our future leaders a model for guiding the world forward from the brink of a pandemic to the edges of a brighter future illuminated by trust, clarity, and honest communication.

David J Bidler is the President of Physiology First, a nonprofit organization that shares the science of stress and anxiety management with students and teachers. Our goal is to build education about the brain and body into the foundation of 21st century educational curriculum.

David is the author of Breathe to Perform: 3 Simple Breathing Exercises to Reduce Stress, Improve Energy, and Peak Athletic Performance. As a co-founder of Breathe to Perform he shares breath education curriculum with workplaces, schools, and teams.

Breathe to Perform helps to improve health, fitness, and performance through better breathing. Professional development services for workplaces and teams.