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Reports April 13th, 2022
Health • Education

D.C. COVID-19 Response Collaborative toolkit: how to build a peer learning network for COVID-19 response in schools

James Post
James Post Former Associate, North America View biography
Grant Mathis
Grant Mathis Manager, Strategic Partnerships, North America View biography
Rebecca Ierardo
Rebecca Ierardo View biography

Build a peer learning network for COVID-19 response

If you are interested in building a peer learning network for COVID-19 response in schools and need support or have questions, get in touch with a member of our team.

Get in touch

This toolkit was written by James Post, Grant Mathis, and Rebecca Ierardo. It was released on April 13, 2022, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license and should be cited as: “D.C. COVID-19 Response Collaborative toolkit: how to build a peer learning network for COVID-19 response in schools” (2022). Washington, D.C."

Introduction to the D.C. COVID-19 Response Collaborative

In January 2020, the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in the United States. At the time of writing this toolkit, over two years since the start of the pandemic, the COVID-19 crisis is ongoing. The virus has killed nearly 1 million Americans, and our nation faces widespread economic, public health, and educational disruptions. The pandemic’s impacts on our education systems, especially systems with limited resources, have been keenly felt as families are forced to choose between their children’s education and health.

In light of these circumstances, the Centre for Public Impact (CPI), the District of Columbia’s Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE), and Diana Bruce and Associates, LLC launched the DC COVID-19 Response Collaborative (the Collaborative) with support from The Rockefeller Foundation. The D.C. COVID-19 Response Collaborative is a peer learning network designed to help Local Education Agencies (LEAs) across Washington, D.C. share knowledge and resources about testing and responding to positive cases in schools. The Collaborative aims to:

  1. Increase knowledge among participants about best practices in COVID-19 testing and responses to positive cases in the school setting;

  2. Inform LEAs’ testing and positive case response programs, practices, and policies;

  3. Strengthen peer relationships and increase information sharing across LEAs; and

  4. Create a sustainable framework for this model replicable by other school systems.

With over 50 million children attending schools in prekindergarten to grade 12, keeping students and school staff healthy during the pandemic while recovering from interrupted learning and minimizing ongoing disruptions are chief public concerns. In Washington, D.C., the Collaborative equipped participants with the information they needed to minimize in-school transmissions and respond to positive cases through policies around contact tracing, exclusion, dismissal, and return to school.

Why create a peer learning network?

Key to the success of the Collaborative is its composition as a peer learning network. Peer learning networks bring together industry-specific professionals – in this case public health experts, the DC Office of the State Superintendent of Education, and school operations leaders, executives, and staff –  to discuss a particular complex issue. 

Given the rapidly changing nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, the peer learning network format provides the necessary space for school leaders to access critical health expertise on the virus and its spread. In consultation with peers, participants in the Collaborative were able to apply this knowledge to a school setting while regularly sharing challenges and best practices in testing, positive case response, vaccination, health infrastructure, communication, staffing, and more. Ultimately, the Collaborative helped school staff adapt their COVID-19 response to better meet the needs of the D.C. community.

Looking beyond Washington D.C., the Collaborative’s structure can be replicated and expanded to help school staff in communities across the country learn emerging strategies on a range of pandemic response topics. Further, as the frontline of community response, school leaders and staff equipped with accurate information and best practices for their local context can better address the real concerns of students, families, and employees, ultimately contributing to improved public health.

About this toolkit

This toolkit is a step-by-step guide to building a peer learning network capable of responding to the complex challenges related to COVID-19 in schools. It includes best practices and resources for creating peer learning networks. The following planning checklist provides an overview of steps needed to set up a learning network and can be used to track progress. While the table lays out a sequence of activities, some of the tasks below may be completed concurrently:

A note on priority levels: 

While we recommend users execute all activities in this toolkit, we understand that network organizers often face constraints in budget, time, and personnel. Priority levels are indicated for each activity to help users decide how to most effectively allocate their time for their own learning network goals. 

3 - This task is not only required to set up a learning network but also crucial for creating a high-quality learning network. 

2 - This task is required to set up a successful learning network.

1 - This task helps set up a successful learning network.

Who is this toolkit for, and how do I use it?

This toolkit is primarily intended for K-12 school districts, charter networks, and other school communities focused on responding to COVID-19. In addition, it may be used by officials in public health, philanthropy, government, or business who support COVID-19 response efforts in schools.

By following the steps below, users can stand up a peer learning network capable of improving COVID-19 response and strengthening connections between schools when addressing public health challenges. The milestones, tasks, and resources can be easily adapted to meet your community’s unique needs and capacity.

It is important to remember that each community and peer learning network will have a unique set of strengths and constraints. Consider any limitations of the peer learning network you envision (size, timing, budget, etc.) and the unique needs of your community before launching a network, and adapt as appropriate.

Best practices

When designing and running a learning network for COVID-19 in schools, we recommend users keep the following best practices in mind:

Understand your local context and network members: 

  • Conduct an initial assessment to determine how and why this network can benefit your community. 

  • Leverage local experts to help you design and champion the program. 

  • Be intentional about what logistics work best for participants (e.g., do not schedule network meetings during school arrival/dismissal). 

Design with equity in mind: 

  • Ensure your sessions include racially and ethnically diverse speakers.

  • Set up sessions to be accessible to all members of your community. 

  • Develop an intentional plan for reaching and including underserved populations.

Address a breadth of topics in your sessions:

  • Know when to encourage your audience to reflect generally about the current environment versus when to dive into the weeds of local policies and day-to-day tactics. 

  • Secure a mix of speakers, with some providing a perspective on state or federal policy and others focused on hyper-local contexts. It’s also important to include speakers with a mix of academic, health, education, and on-the-ground expertise. 

Build in feedback loops: 

  • Make time for the network leads and session participants to reflect on how the experience can be continuously improved. 

  • Capture participant input through polls and interviews. 

  • Schedule regular debrief meetings to reflect on how the process is going.

Be agile and adaptive to meet the current moment:

  • When possible, adjust your session topics and expert speakers to address new variants, surges, policies, and other issues schools are grappling with in real-time.

  • Be prepared to sunset a topic entirely if new public health developments mean that it is no longer relevant.

Stage one: planning your peer learning network

Launching a successful peer learning network requires intentionality and preparation. This section details all planning activities you should complete prior to your network’s launch. Be sure to use your planning checklist to track your progress!

Set your ‘why’ (Priority level 3 | 2 weeks)

  • Conduct a landscape analysis to determine the specific community problem(s) your learning network will address. Dig deeply into the problem(s) through consultations with community members and local experts.

  • Research existing networks and initiatives in your community and nationally to 1) define the specific gap your network will fill (opportunities to build cross-school connections, access to experts, etc.) and 2) learn best practices that you should incorporate.

  • Determine who your network aims to benefit by considering all groups and individuals in the local educational ecosystem (from administration to students to families) that will benefit from your network’s efforts.

  • Identify target network members that should directly participate in your peer learning network and define the specific value they will add to the network or gain from their participation. Conduct a survey to assess these potential network members’ interests. 

Determine scope and timeline (Priority level 2 | 3 weeks)

  • Set parameters and goals for your network, including the details of how it will operate and what it will (and won’t) be responsible for. Determine the tangible key milestones and deliverables your network must meet along the way.

  • Define success for the network. Be specific by including measurable criteria such as key performance indicators in your definition of success, and set up tracking and reporting mechanisms.

  • Create a timeline that plans each phase of the network and maps when to meet key milestones and deliverables.

  • Conduct a risk assessment to understand any potential programmatic, operational, financial, and social/political risks and how you will manage them. 

  • Determine session cadence and schedule by mapping to your overarching timeline, milestones, and goals. Be sure to consider the real-world constraints of members.

  • Socialize potential scope and timeline with key stakeholders to receive their buy-in and ensure the network meets the needs of those who will be using it.

Identify key resources and partnerships (Priority level 3 | 2 weeks)

  • Determine your staffing needs to operationalize your network and meet its goals. Consider the characteristics, knowledge, and skills you need in your team to be successful. 

  • Identify key partners (local education agencies, nonprofits, consultants, etc.) that can fill knowledge gaps, bring local expertise, recruit network members, and/or help you run the network. 

  • Create a budget and secure funding for your network based on its timeline and staffing needs. Be sure to understand how various types of funding can be used and define which funds are essential versus nice-to-have.

  • Hire staff, confirm partners, and define roles to ensure all operational individuals and entities understand their roles and responsibilities.

  • Select your tech for continuous feedback and improvement (surveys, polls, etc.), convening and session activities (video conferencing, Google Docs, etc.), and communication (customer relationship management (CRM) software, email services, file share, etc.).

Outline network sessions (Priority level 2 | Ongoing)

  • Research the challenge(s) your network seeks to address to identify 1) what you need to learn to curate meaningful experiences and 2) the resource channels (subscriptions, experts, online resources, etc.) that you will review on an ongoing basis to keep sessions relevant and accurate. 

  • Identify speakers that members should hear from (consider the authors of the articles and resources from your research or recommendations from partners). Track potential speakers in a centralized document or system where you can record outreach efforts.

  • Use a session map to plan session topics based on your research and potential speakers. Define the structure for each session (fireside chats, Q&A, small group discussions, etc.) based on its topic and the specific value you are promising network members. 

Recruit participants (Priority level 3 | 2 weeks)

  • Create a network one-pager that tells a compelling story of the problem(s) your network will address and its value for members. Include details on who is invited to become members (school administrators, teachers, school administrators and teachers, etc.), session dates, planned topics, and how to register.

  • Invite your target audience (defined when you set your ‘why’) through direct outreach. Be creative in your outreach by working with community champions, shared connections, and trusted sources. Remember that recruitment may be an ongoing effort, even after your network officially launches, and that current participants can recruit on your behalf.

Stage two: operating your peer learning network

Once you’ve planned your peer learning network, it is time to launch your first session! Though your first session technically requires the same activities as your later sessions, you should prepare for greater upfront work as you start from scratch on your materials and processes. For subsequent sessions, use the materials developed for session one as templates (remembering to iterate and improve based on network member feedback).

This section details activities to complete before, during, and after each network session. 

Before the session (Priority level 2 | 3 weeks)

  • Communicate key information with members.

    • Develop a schedule for pre-session communications to send for each session. This will be a greater lift prior to your first session, but can be replicated for each subsequent session and is important for streamlining communication to members.

    • Before your first session, consider resources that facilitate and support seamless communications efforts; this could range from CRM software such as Salesforce (if funding allows) to a spreadsheet and mail merge to your email’s BCC.

    • Draft a pre-session email that includes all information network members need to participate in the session (speaker bios, core learning questions, pre-reads, etc.). Remember to use your session one email as a template for future sessions. Add visuals and links where you can, and keep the email brief so that participants take time to read it.

    • Send pre-session email(s) to all registered network members and anyone else involved in outreach.

  • Draft key session materials.

    • Use a session checklist to track activities that must be completed before, during, and after each session, and to assign responsibilities.

    • Use a facilitation guide as the central reference for network support staff running the session. The facilitation guide should include the session agenda, talking points, resources, activities, and staff roles.

    • Develop materials for the specific session that are useful to moderators, facilitators, technical support staff, and network members (presentation deck, note-taking documents, question bank, etc.).

  • Recruit and prepare speakers.

    • Consider appropriate speakers for the session topic. Include individuals from various areas of expertise (academics, health practitioners, on-the-ground organizers, education leaders, etc.). Be sure to reference your potential speakers list developed when you outlined network sessions.

    • Invite potential speakers early by reaching out with the session topic, core learning questions, and time requirements for speakers. Keep in mind that your potential speakers have busy schedules, so you should reach out as early as possible. Utilize champions and stakeholders to gain traction. 

    • Meet with confirmed speakers several days before the session to review its structure, themes, speaker questions, and their role in the session (making a presentation, participating in a fireside chat, joining breakout rooms, etc.). Share guidance on current legislation and local context with the speakers, so they understand any caveats or nuance behind key talking points.

    • Send a run-of-show with all information speakers need for participation a few days before the session, including registration links, agenda, questions, and point of contact for the day of.

  • Meet with and prepare facilitators if your session requires moderation for breakout room discussions. Be prepared to review the role, answer questions, and provide facilitator resources (facilitator guides, reflection questions, note-taking templates, best practices, etc.)

  • Host a session dry run with all relevant network staff members using your facilitation guide. Assign a moderator and practice the technical needs and timing of the entire session (setting up and operating breakout rooms, polling, sourcing audience questions from the chat, etc.). Update your facilitation guide to capture any details that were not included initially.

During the session (Priority level 3 | 1 week)

  • Immediately before the session, open up your internal communication channel that moderators, facilitators, and tech support staff can use during the session to share insights, ask questions, and troubleshoot challenges.

  • Immediately before the session, perform a tech pre-check on microphones, cameras, screen sharing, and creating breakout rooms.

  • Moderate the session according to the roles and activities outlined in your facilitation guide. Some tips for moderating the session include:

    • Kick off with a warm welcome.

    • Encourage session participants to introduce themselves in chat and to continue to use the chat to share their thoughts throughout the session.

    • Review the agenda, session topic, and network goals early in the session to align expectations.

    • Conclude with what’s coming up next. Preview upcoming topics and speakers to generate network buy-in and continued engagement.

  • Encourage participants to ask questions and share their thoughts via the chat. If the session format allows, invite participants to ask questions live or have the moderator elevate questions from chat to the speakers.

  • Administer polls at the start and end of the session to gather demographic information, future session topics, feedback, and the impact of the session.

After the session (Priority level 1 | 1 week)

  • Summarize key learnings and share with network members via a post-session email that might include highlights from the prior session, links to resources, and a preview of future sessions. The email should be templatized and sent at a regular schedule following each session.

  • Thank the speakers via email for sharing their time and expertise with the network.

  • Internally reflect on the session within 48 hours, unpacking what worked and what didn’t. Network staff should discuss what they learned, how the session can be improved, and polling results. Use these insights to iterate and improve for future sessions.

The power of peer learning networks

According to members of the peer learning network on which this toolkit is based, the D.C. COVID-19 Response Collaborative, participating in the Collaborative helped them better navigate the difficult landscape of COVID-19 in schools. The Collaborative interviewed network members and analyzed survey results to understand the impact of the network; in particular, participants reported:

  • Deeper knowledge of best practices in COVID-19 testing and response to positive cases in a school setting;

  • Greater confidence when implementing testing and positive case response programs, practices, and policies because decisions were backed by learnings from the Collaborative; and,

  • Stronger relationships with other LEAs that are the basis for a new ecosystem of peer support. 

We believe the Collaborative demonstrates the true potential of a peer learning network. It is a space for sensemaking, for listening and deep reflection, for consideration of different viewpoints. When addressing a challenge as complex and rapidly evolving as COVID-19 in schools, it is a space that is absolutely necessary for informed decision-making and the dissemination of best practices that are being developed and tested by millions of education professionals daily.

We are eager to see how this toolkit is implemented to create other peer learning networks in other communities. We believe this model has the potential to fundamentally improve our handling of COVID-19 in schools and, in the future, be applied to respond to a range of complex challenges faced by communities across the globe.

Contributing organizations

This toolkit was developed through a collaboration of the Centre for Public Impact and Diana Bruce and Associates, LLC.

About the Centre for Public Impact

At the Centre for Public Impact, we believe in the potential of government to bring about better outcomes for people. Yet, we have found that the systems, structures, and processes of government today are often not set up to respond to the complex challenges we face as a society. That’s why we have an emerging vision to reimagine government so that it works for everyone. 

A global not-for-profit organisation founded by the Boston Consulting Group, we act as a learning partner for governments, public servants, and the diverse network of changemakers who are leading the charge to reimagine government. We work with them to hold space to collectively make sense of the complex challenges we face and drive meaningful change through learning and experimentation.

About Diana Bruce and Associates, LLC

Diana Bruce and Associates, LLC is led by Diana Bruce, a nationally recognized school health leader who brings a unique approach advancing health and education equity through policy. For more than 25 years, she has advocated child and adolescent health, school health, reproductive health, HIV/STI prevention, sexuality education and LGBTQ advocacy, mostly through policy and program development at the local, state and federal levels. Most recently, she’s advised DC schools in interpreting and implementing COVID-19 response guidance and protocols.


We would also like to acknowledge and thank those without whom the Collaborative would not have been set up or been a success, including the D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education, the experts who spoke at network sessions, and the D.C. schools who participated in this network.

The DC Office of the State Superintendent of Education

The DC Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) works urgently and purposefully, in  partnership with education and related systems, to sustain, accelerate, and deepen progress for DC students. OSSE’s vision is that DC will close the achievement gap and ensure people of all ages and backgrounds are  prepared to succeed in school and in life.
D.C. COVID-19 Response Collaborative Speakers

The Collaborative would not have been successful without the insights of our speakers: Mara Aspinall, Dr. Lee Beers, Kisha Borden, Ken Cherry, Carlos Diaz, Dr. Gabrina Dixon, Bren Elliott, Dr. Christina Grant, Adam Rupe, Dr. Christina Silcox, Nick Simmons, and Eva Stone. Thank you for sharing your time and expertise.

Schools that participated in the D.C. COVID-19 Response Collaborative

The Collaborative would not have been successful without all of the D.C. schools whose leadership and staff attended the network sessions:  AppleTree Elementary, Bridges Public Charter School, Capital City Public Charter School, Inc., Capital Village, Carlos Rosario International PCS, Cedar Tree Academy PCS, Cesar Chavez Public Charter School, Creative Minds International PCS, DC Bilingual Public Charter School, DC Prep, DC Public Schools: Central Office, DC Scholars Public Charter School, Digital Pioneers Academy, E.L. Haynes PCS, Eagle Academy Public Charter School, Early Childhood Academy Public Charter School, Elsie Whitlow Stokes CFPCS, Inspired Teaching Demonstration PCS, KIPP DC, LAYC Career Academy, Mary McLeod Bethune PCS, Maya Angelou Public Charter School, Meridian PCS, Paul Public Charter School, Rocketship Public Schools, Roots PCS, Sela PCS, Sojourner Truth PCS, The SEED School of Washington, D.C., Two Rivers Public Charter School, Washington Latin PCS, Washington Leadership Academy, Washington Yu Ying Public Charter School, YouthBuild DC PCS. Thank you for your contributions.

We would also like to recognize and thank the following individuals for their valuable contributions to the Collaborative and this toolkit: Kate Stenclik, Diana Bruce, Kevval Hanna, Elysa Neumann, and Brian Nichols.


  • The D.C. COVID-19 Response Collaborative is supported by The Rockefeller Foundation. The content and recommendations in this toolkit is an independent effort by the D.C. COVID-19 Response Collaborative, without approval by the funder or any external parties. It does not necessarily reflect the viewpoints of The Rockefeller Foundation.

  • The Centre for Public Impact, a BCG Foundation, is not affiliated with Public Impact, an independent education research and consulting firm dedicated to improving learning outcomes for all children in the United States.

Build a peer learning network for COVID-19 response

If you are interested in building a peer learning network for COVID-19 response in schools and need support or have questions, get in touch with a member of our team.

Contact us