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Planning for Safety in a Temporary Science Instructional Space: Hands-On in a Temporary Science Classroom

By Ken Roy

Posted on 2020-12-01

With the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, science teachers have been asked, and in some cases, told to proceed with the hands-on doing of science. This may be in a face-to-face lab activity in the school or for students to do virtually at home.

In some school districts, efforts have been made to place students in special cohort groupings. This usually is applicable to elementary and middle school. In such an instructional model, science teachers are displaced from their usual science labs and assigned to regular classrooms along with other academic subject teachers for a specific cohort group of students.

Additionally, some administrators expect that the science curriculum requirements are to continue being followed, in this case, including hands-on activities. If science teachers conduct these hands-on lab activities in typical classrooms, which do not meet legal safety standards and/or better professional safety practices for science, they and their school district are open to serious legal implications should a safety incident take place and someone become injured. This is especially serious for the teacher who knowingly conducted the activity in a regular classroom. For example, if engineering controls are non-existent and absence of them contributed to the accident, it is bad news for the teacher. 

One additional reason for moving teachers out of their science labs is when lab renovations or new construction is occurring. As in the cohort model, science teachers find themselves and their students in some cases being assigned by administrators into regular classrooms temporarily with few to no engineering controls. Teachers are asked to just “make it happen” for the hands-on piece. Unfortunately, this also can lead to legal entanglements.  

Administrators need to be aware that it is not “business as usual” in these types of situations. For example, if an accident resulting from a hazardous chemical splash occurs and the classroom has no eyewash station or shower, there are potentially very serious legal ramifications not only for the teacher, but also the administration and board of education. All involved could be considered legally reckless, given the fact that it was known that there might be need of such engineering controls when using these hazardous chemicals, yet the activity was still done without them. This is a clear-cut case of school employees faulting relative to duty or standard of care, not only for the student, but potentially also for the teacher as an employee.

Rising Up to Meeting the Standards?

A standard classroom often measures 800–900 square feet (SF) (74.3–83.6 square meters [SM]), which for a class of 24 students, amounts to only 33–37.5 SF/student or 3.1–3.4 SM/student. This is well below the established occupancy load standard for laboratory work of 50 SF/occupant (4.6 SM) Net (National Fire Protection Association and International Code Council legal standards). Few, if any, safer activities can be carried out when there’s no elbow room!  

If hands-on activities and/or science demonstrations are to be done in this temporary location, a number of safety requirements must be addressed, including the following:

  • Engineering Controls–ventilation, eyewash, shower, sinks, fire extinguishers, goggle sanitizer, and so on;
  • Administrative Procedures or Standard Operating Procedures–Legal safety standards and/or better professional safety practices required by the employer;
  • Personal Protective Equipment–gloves, eye protection, aprons, and so on.

One other requirement that must be considered is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) standards. These legal expectations must also be met. If the teacher will have laboratory work being done that normally can be hazardous, engineering controls like an eyewash, students' work desks, and so on must meet ADA requirements. No hands-on activities should be done if these ADA requirements are not addressed! Science teachers and administrators should not open themselves up to legal issues by teaching in a classroom unsuited for safer science activities.

One Viable Alternative

In the case of new construction or renovations, a viable alternative to be considered in earnest is use of science modular labs/classroom units. In this way, appropriate and required safety engineering controls, occupancy load issues, workstations, and other requirements are satisfied. Consideration for this alternative must be addressed in the initial planning phase before renovations or new construction work begins. The advantage of science lab modulars over an alternative standard classroom is that they have larger square footage to meet occupancy load requirements, have plumbing for sinks, satisfy eyewash and shower requirements, and more. For heat sources, hot plates and/or portable propane burners can be secured.

Final Words

Whether it is the adoption of the cohort model resulting from a viral or bacterial pandemic situation or scheduled renovations/new construction, advance planning is required and needs to directly involve science teachers, chemical hygiene officers, and science supervisors. Also remember that if all legal safety standards (e.g., OSHA Lab Standard, etc.) and better professional safety practices (e.g., NSTA's recommended lab safety requirements) are not addressed and can’t be met in total, no hands-on laboratory or demonstration work should be done; there are just too many potential hazards and resulting risks for injury and legal entanglement! 

Submit questions regarding safety to Ken Roy at or leave him a comment below. Follow Ken Roy on Twitter: @drroysafersci.

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