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Safety Blog

Revisiting Coronavirus Laboratory Activity Protocols

By Ken Roy

Posted on 2022-01-03

Happy New Year!

Many school districts are currently being challenged by the resurgence of the coronavirus Omicron variant. Some schools have advised parents and employees before the late December holiday break about the possible return of distance learning in January or February, given the expediential increase in cases of the variant nationwide.

Despite the challenges caused by the current Omicron surge, teachers need to design and implement meaningful science/STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) teaching/learning experiences to help their students learn and grow. It is critical that teachers make sincere efforts to overcome complacency and burnout to provide for a safer teaching/learning environment, now more than ever. Over the past two years and our given experience in dealing with the coronavirus variants, medical science has helped provide the tools needed to address the pandemic. Based on these findings, a number of safety protocols have been developed for use in schools and communities in general.  

If efforts to help teachers provide their students with science/STEM education continue, the following safety protocol reminders from earlier NSTA Safety Blog posts can be shared. These protocols hopefully can be useful to teachers to help them better navigate their efforts during these most challenging times in education.

Hands-On Laboratory Activities

Current social distancing protocols recommend that students keep a minimum distance of 3 feet apart from one another during hands-on activities in the lab. These protocols help prevent the spread of the variants, but do not necessarily alleviate educators’ issues when designing group labs. However, several options found to be successful in helping teachers develop hands-on, inquiry-based laboratory experiences include the following:

  • Virtual/remote laboratories. These types of experiences can be effective during the pandemic. However, the downside is that students are losing the ability to develop their hands-on lab skills. This learning loss needs to be addressed when regular-sized group labs are safer to conduct.
  • Teacher-led demonstrations. The teacher performs the experiment and the students make observations and collect and process data.
  • Student-led demonstrations. One student performs the hands-on experiment, and the remainder of the class make observations, collect/process data, and share results. As many students as possible should be given a chance for this activity to help them continue to develop their lab skills.
  • Lab roles. Assign a role to each member of the lab group. Using a traditional lab table, two students can work on the laboratory procedure while one member makes observations and another student collects and processes the data. Results are then shared with the group, then with the class.
  • Split class. Half the class works on the lab activity at lab stations, while the other half works at their seats on an alternate assignment. Have the students switch places when the first group finishes the lab activity and after the equipment is cleaned, sanitized, and/or disinfected.

Safety Protocols When School Is Open

  • Encourage students and staff to wash their hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds at a time.
  • Only use hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available.
  • Limit the sharing of equipment and materials in the laboratory.
  • All lab equipment must be cleaned first, then disinfected if needed before the equipment can be shared. Ensure that all personal protective equipment (PPE) is cleaned, then sanitized before and after each use. 
  • Encourage students and staff to stay home if they are sick or have symptoms that they may be sick.

Protocols When School Is Closed

  • Be aware of the challenges and supervision issues that will take place if a student is instructed to do a lab activity at home.
  • Ensure that the proper safety protocols are being followed, or forego the activity.
  • Make sure that the parents/guardians are aware of both the activities and the safety protocols needed to conduct a safer lab at home.
  • Consider using virtual labs to reduce the liability for accidents that may occur.

Protocols If School Is Reopening After a Closure

  • Make sure that all systems are working properly. These systems include the engineering controls (i.e., fume hood, gas shutoff switch, safety shower, the eyewash station, etc.), the ventilation system, electrical systems, and the water systems. 
  • Flush the pipes before conducting a student activity if your school or lab space has been closed for an extended period.

Cleaning vs. Sanitizing vs. Disinfecting

It is important for teachers to understand the difference between cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting as part of the safety protocol processes.

  • Cleaning. Removes soil and organisms from surfaces, but does not kill any organisms (e.g., soap and water). 
  • Sanitizing. Reduces the amount of bacteria from surfaces significantly (e.g., common types of chemical sanitizers are chlorine, iodine, and quaternary ammonium compounds, or quats).
  • Disinfecting. Destroys or irrevocably inactivates bacteria and viruses (e.g., alcohol, bleach, and hydrogen peroxide).

Final Thoughts

The coronavirus has presented teachers, supervisors, and administrators with new challenges over the last 24+ months. The ability to stay current with safety protocols in the science/STEM classroom will help keep students and staff safer. It is vital to be proactive in the noted safety protocols while maintaining an engaging science/STEM educational teaching/learning environment.


Refer to these previous NSTA Safety Blog posts for more detailed information.

•    Safety Recommendations for Opening the New School Year, published 6/18/20.  
•    Safety for Hands-On Science Home Instruction, published 7/28/2020.
•    Cleaning/Sanitizing/Disinfecting PPE for a Safer Lab Experience, published 11/2/2020.  
•    Updated COVID Pandemic Student/Teacher Safety Protocols, published 5/3/2021.

Submit questions regarding safety to Ken Roy at Follow Ken Roy on Twitter: @drroysafersci.

Safety Blog Acknowledgement 

NSTA Chief Safety Blogger Dr. Ken Roy wishes to sincerely thank nationally recognized District Supervisor of Science Kevin S. Doyle, EdD, Morris Hills Regional District, Rockaway, New Jersey ( for his professional contributions to and review of this commentary.

General Science Safety Middle School Elementary High School

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