By Kenneth Roy
Posted on 2020-07-28
With the advance of the COVID-19 pandemic during the latter part of the 2019-2020 academic year, virtual learning became the viable alternative in many school districts nationwide. In this venue, some science/STEM teachers considered and adopted hands-on activities to be completed remotely at home by students. This coming fall, for the 2020-2021 school year, there probably will be a continued need for such home-based, hands-on activities. This actually is not new. Teachers have assigned home activities for years, such as science fair projects, extra-credit work, general classroom homework assignments, and more. The bottom line is this: Whether hands-on activities are done in a formal academic school laboratory or out in the field or at home, all modes are a springboard for developing scientific concepts and methodology.
This is, however, a double-edged sword. Whether in the formal academic school laboratory or off-site, these activities promote science education. However, they also introduce legal issues under “duty or standard of care.” Basically “duty or standard of care” is defined as an obligation, recognized by law, requiring conformance to a certain standard of conduct to protect others against unreasonable risk. Check out the NSTA’s Legal Implications of Duty of Care for Science Instruction for additional information and guidance on this topic. Be aware that school staff and school district leaders have a duty of care in this situation that extends outside the classroom or laboratory to family members who supervise the students during these assignments at home or in the field.
Activities assigned must not only be aligned with the curriculum, but also support legal safety standards and better professional safety practices. Whether the teacher is on-site or not, any hands-on activity assigned introduces teacher liability, should someone get injured. Teachers have the professional responsibility to provide safety protocols and training as part of the assignment, and they need to be properly documented in the teacher’s lesson plans. A safety quiz should also be given and passed before the student is allowed to conduct the experiment. Students and parents also need to review and sign a safety acknowledgement form before any activities are done in or outside of the science/STEM laboratory. Examples of such documents can be found on the NSTA Safety Portal site as follows:
Teachers can use these as models and fine-tune them as appropriate, depending on hazards, risks, and needs safety actions for hands-on activities. Please note that these documents must be approved by your administration, and in some cases, the Board of Education, on an annual basis. If modifications are made, they must also be approved by the administration and possibly the Board of Education. Safety acknowledgement forms that are used without appropriate approval can potentially also lead to teacher liability.
The following are examples of safety pre-planning suggestions and recommended safety protocol that students and parents need to be aware of and should follow for safer hands-on activities in the home:
1. Before beginning any hands-on work, an “AAA” activity for safety needs to be effected. This includes doing a hazard analysis, a risk assessment, and safety actions to be taken based on legal safety standards and better professional safety practices. Note there are three types of hazards to be considered: biological (bacteria, virus, etc.), chemicals (toxins, flammables, corrosives, etc.) and physical (sharps, impalement, spring/coils, etc.). Safety Data Sheets (SDSs) can be a helpful resource for determining many of the hazards associated with chemicals.
2. Chemicals required outside the formal lab should only involve common, but safer household products. These should have a relatively low safety classification on the Safety Data Sheet (SDS). For example, vinegar commonly used on salads has a safety label of 2. If used, appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) such as indirectly vented chemical splash goggles must be used. Under duty of care, teachers need to provide SDSs as part of the assignment.
Keep in mind that not all households will have the needed common household goods to conduct a lab. What may be common to the instructor may not be common to the students and their families. Families may not have access to the stores where they can purchase the materials. Some families may not be able to afford buying materials to use in the laboratory.
Safety Data Sheets should be reviewed before indicating the use of any household substances in an activity. Safety hazard information can be found here. Additional information on acceptable chemical use can be found on Rehab-the-Lab chemical list.
Do not allow students or their families to use substitute materials, especially chemicals, without the teacher’s approval. Substituting materials can lead to dangerous situations. This can also occur if the student switches brands, as different brands have different ingredients. If the student cannot get the materials that are required to conduct the experiment, provide an alternative learning assignment.
Correct cleanup and disposal procedures should be enforced to maintain the safety of the areas being used in the laboratory activity. These procedures should be documented as part of the learning activity.
3. Safety Data Sheets are required to be provided to the purchaser at the school district. They are often provided online by commercial companies where the chemicals are purchased. If unavailable, try searching the internet for “SDS <chemical name>." Flinn Scientific is also a good reference for SDS.
4. Sanitized personal protective equipment (PPE) is to be provided by the schools or parent prior to the beginning of any lab assignment with safety considerations. This of course includes hands-on activities outside of the formal science/STEM lab. Eye protection, such as indirectly vented chemical splash goggles (meeting the ANSI/ISEA Z87.1 D3 standard) are to be used when working with liquid hazards (chemicals or biologicals), or protective safety glasses with side shields when using solid physical hazards (springs, sharp objects, projectiles, etc.) Vinyl or nitrile gloves and non-latex aprons should be used when dealing with biological or chemical hazards. If proper PPE is not available, the laboratory exercise or activity must not be conducted.
All students and parents involved in the laboratory activity should be properly trained on how to use, wear, and dispose of PPE. The teacher is responsible for making sure that everyone involved in the laboratory experiment is properly trained.
5. For hands-on science/STEM activities involving students in grades K-5 or elementary level, duty of care must be provided directly by a responsible adult.
6. In the case of middle and high school lab activities, teachers should consider using simulations when school-based laboratory investigations are not an option.
7. In some instances, a hybrid model of instruction or blend of both traditional classroom instruction and online learning activities can be used. Actual hands-on laboratory experiments and collaborative activities should involve focus of face-to-face instruction. This is particularly important when these laboratory exercises and activities require the use of personal protective equipment. Online portions of instruction should then focus on laboratory experiences and independent in-class activities.
8. In other instances, it may be safer to use teacher demonstrations, either in a face-to-face session or through a virtual platform. It is critical to communicate that these demonstrations should not be conducted outside of a formal laboratory setting following specific safety protocols like use of appropriate personal protective equipment
9. Although by following safety protocols, an activity can be made safer, it possibly may not be totally safe. Accidents can still happen. This is especially true when teaching remotely. In this case, as in all others, absolute caution must be exercised by a reasonable and responsible adult who is supervising such activities outside of school. In school, this is directly the teacher’s responsibility. Remember, the teacher’s responsibility for safety still applies when students conduct hands-on activities at home or out in the field.
In addition to the safety protocols provided in the NSTA Safety Acknowledgement forms, there are a number of additional resources on the internet noting basic safety guidelines for home lab safety. A prime example are the guidelines for home lab safety developed by The Centre for Science at Athabasca University, Athabasca, AB T9S 3A3 Canada, found here. These are applicable and a great resource for students and home supervisors to follow for a safer home science activity experience.
The site first states the importance of thoroughly reading the lab activity instructions before beginning the lab. This is for not only better understanding the purpose of the activity, but also to be aware of the potential safety hazards.
Below are some specific examples of home lab safety guidelines that can be found on their website relative to Personal Safety and Equipment.
Personal Safety and Equipment
• Keep the Home Lab Kit and the supplementary materials safely away from children.
• Wear approved eye protection at all times when doing your lab activities.
• Confine long hair when doing your lab activities.
• Perform no unauthorized experiments.
• Select a safe site for lab activities in your home that is well ventilated and protected from spills, children, and pets. Use a work area, such as your kitchen, where there is a flat and stable working surface, and access to water and various supplies.
• Have no food or drink in the lab area.
• Never place any instrument or materials in your mouth.
• Wash your hands before taking a break for a snack or meal.
• Wear appropriate foot coverings in case of spills; i.e., no open-toed sandals, no bare feet, etc.
• Keep all chemicals and equipment out of the reach of children and pets.
• If possible, keep all unauthorized people out of your selected site when chemicals are in use in order to avoid any unforeseen accidents. If anyone is allowed to observe you or participate in experiments, follow all of the proper safety rules.
• Never wear contact lenses when working with chemicals.
• Work with the (small) quantities indicated. Follow the instructions to prevent fires, burns, and cuts.
• Do not smoke or eat when you are using flammable or poisonous materials.
• Label all materials clearly, and make accurate observations and measurements so that you do not make mistakes or need to repeat experiments.
• Ensure that the area you are working in is well-ventilated.
Spills and Cleanup
• In case of a chemical spill, clean up thoroughly with paper towels and dispose of chemicals out of the reach of children and pets.
• If chemical spills occur on people or clothing, rinse thoroughly with lots of running water, and seek medical attention if necessary.
• Be sure to thoroughly clean up the lab site and all utensils used after working on labs.
• Have the following emergency equipment handy in your working area: a fire extinguisher, water, a first aid kit, and a telephone.
Again, remember that safety guidelines needed depend on the types of hazards and resulting risks associated with the activity. Although the samples provided at The Centre for Science at Athabasca University, Athabasca, are very good, they may not be complete for all types of at-home activities.
This information should be helpful for teachers, students, and parents/guardians in planning for safer home science/STEM activity assignments. Please note the content of this commentary is based on prudent professional safety practices (e.g., NSTA, ACS, etc.) and on OSHA, NFPA, and other legal safety regulations, but do not purport to specify all legal standards. They are intended to provide basic guidelines in the areas of employee and student health and safety. Therefore, it cannot be assumed that all necessary warning and precautionary measures are contained in this information. Users of this information should also consult pertinent school board safety policy; local, state, and federal laws; and legal counsel for additional safety prevention program components during these challenging times of the COVID-19 pandemic.
National Science Teaching Association. 2020. Legal Implications of Duty of Care for Science Instruction.
Recommendations for the “At Home Safety Protocols” section have been adapted from resources provided by Dr. Anne Peterson, Science Coordinator, Virginia Department of Education.
Submit questions regarding safety to Ken Roy at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave him a comment below. 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, Ed. D., Morris Hills Regional High School District, Rockaway, New Jersey (email@example.com) for his professional review of this commentary.
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