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NCSA Teams Contribute to Return-to-school Planning

Photograph of a young girl wearing a mask swinging by her arms from two other individuals holder her up as they walk

While the past 12 months have presented challenges across nearly all walks of life due to the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the most prevalent for Americans is education.

How do institutions, from kindergarten to university, reopen safely during a pandemic? What areas must they address, and how can they adapt to meet the needs dictated by an infectious disease? To most school districts and educational administrators, these questions have been overwhelming.

Thanks to University of Illinois and NCSA researchers, however, a suite of tools is now available to help decision-makers navigate how best to return students to in-person classrooms. For Pre-Kindergarten and grade schools, the Shield K-12 Playbook has been devised by University of Illinois researchers (including some right here at NCSA) to help evaluate their needs and preparedness in critical areas.

“The purpose of the K-12 playbook is to help school administrators through the decision-making process and to collect the resources they will need to implement the plan. We selected the first six modules to tackle the most crucial of the control types within the school setting, but we hope to create new modules as we go.”

Rebecca Lee Smith, PI, Illinois Epidemiology Associate Professor

The playbook, developed by Illinois staff and faculty across campus, including NCSA, consists of six modules: cleaning, distancing, IT, mask, testing and ventilation. For each module, the playbook guides users through a series of questions to help them decide the best way to address each area of concern and the roles of school staff and students in stopping the spread of COVID-19.

With a comfortable user interface, designed by NCSA’s Lisa Gatzke, the SHIELD K-12 Playbook is both comprehensive in its options for educational operators and simple for administrators to use, guiding them through the process in a clean, user-friendly web format. The questions are presented as a checklist, and responses to the questions dictate how a given school can safely respond to COVID-19.

Of course, return-to-school concerns don’t only apply to grade schools. Colleges and universities face many of the same challenges, some more explicitly, when trying to decide how to bring students back to campus safely amid a pandemic.

To address this concern, The Illinois campus COVID modeling team – consisting of the NCSA Genomics team, the Data and Technology Innovation Lab, and Illinois Tech Services – used data from a combination of student surveys and testing data to help rank non-essential activities for students based on risk (pictured, left). Once ranked, the list was then presented to Illinois faculty, who passed the ranking along to their students.

“We have worked with the NCSA Genomics team to analyze the monthly risk survey data and daily test data,” continued Smith. “They are helping us to identify which activities on campus are (and aren’t) risky. This has been very useful operationally. For instance, it has shown that there was no increased risk to in-person classes during the fall semester, which helped us in messaging about plans for the spring semester.”

Ultimately, on a college campus, a more informed student population could be vastly beneficial in slowing the spread of COVID-19. Educating students about the COVID risk associated with given activities could help them discern which activities are high-risk and subsequently avoid those high-risk situations.

Whether it be in the kindergarten classroom or a university lecture hall, NCSA is proud to contribute to efforts to get students back into classrooms safely, using the most informed data possible. Though this work is substantial, it’s always evolving, which will mean constant re-evaluation and the potential addition of modules.

Try the SHIELD K-12 Playbook for yourself here, and read more about it via the Illinois News Bureau.


The National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign provides supercomputing and advanced digital resources for the nation’s science enterprise. At NCSA, University of Illinois faculty, staff, students and collaborators from around the globe use these resources to address research challenges for the benefit of science and society. NCSA has been advancing many of the world’s industry giants for over 35 years by bringing industry, researchers and students together to solve grand challenges at rapid speed and scale.

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