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Safety Lessons Learned From the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Ken Roy

Posted on 2022-09-02

Safety Lessons Learned From the COVID-19 Pandemic

Legal safety standards and better professional safety practices require science and science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) teachers, as employees, to develop a specialty in safety, the commitment to provide ongoing student safety training, the diligence to enforce the norms for behavior and technique, and the motivation to continually learn about safety in the laboratory and classroom. With the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, science/STEM teachers and supervisors/administrators have discovered important lessons about science/STEM safety that all science/STEM teachers have had to embrace during the most challenging of times! The bottom-line is there is teachers can always do more to make their teaching/learning areas safer for all stakeholders: students, teachers, and administrators/supervisors.

The following is a list of the recommended top 10 items learned about science/STEM safety during the COVID-19 pandemic.

1. Plumbing

Plumbing fixtures (faucets, etc.) used by students and staff must be kept in proper working order [ (Read 7/2/22)]. This is best done by running the water regularly. When schools are closed for an extended time period, potential biological, chemical, and physical hazard contaminants like bacteria, mold, lead and copper ions, and others build up in the pipes. This is especially a health concern if the water in those pipes is used for drinking, cleaning, or emergency response: i.e., safety shower. For example, the buildup of bacteria in stagnant water can lead to afflictions such as Legionnaires Disease ['%20disease%20is%20a%20severe,bacteria%20from%20water%20or%20soil. (Read 7/2/22)]. 

Safety protocols must be in place in school buildings having water flushed weekly, especially when school is not in session. Water needs to be tested for a spectrum of potential health contaminants by a licensed laboratory. Having water tested periodically will ensure the plumbing system is clean and safer to transport potable water to all building occupants. 

2. Plexiglass barriers are not the solution.

Plexiglass is not an appropriate solution in the laboratory. Some may consider it a barrier to prevent the spread of viruses, but it is dangerous to use in the lab. Plexiglass reacts with numerous chemicals that are found in a common school laboratory [ (read 7/2/22)]. The plexiglass barriers most commonly found in schools are flimsy and can topple over easily. This would be extremely dangerous if a flame or a heating source is being used in the laboratory.

During the pandemic, research was conducted to determine the efficacy of using plexiglass shields to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Recently, research has shown that plexiglass barriers may not prevent the spread of the coronavirus, as they change air patterns and may hinder air circulation [ (Read 7/2/22)].

3. Clean first, disinfect second.

Disinfecting equipment is more effective when the equipment is cleaned first. Disinfection cannot be relied on alone to keep everyone safer from bacteria, mold, and viruses. The protocols are clear: Wash with soapy water, rinse, then use a disinfectant if needed. Make sure an appropriate disinfectant is selected and used. The approved list of disinfectants can be found on the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) website under List-N (see [read 7/2/22]). Make sure the manufacturer’s instructions are followed. 

4. Wash first/hand sanitize second.

Washing hands can help prevent the spread of viruses, molds, and bacteria. We have become creatures of convenience and use hand sanitizer in place of soap and water. This is a mistake. When washing hands, soap and water are preferred over hand sanitzers [ (Read 7/2/22)].

Hand sanitizers, by themselves, are not as effective [,like%20pesticides%20and%20heavy%20metals  (Read 7/2/22)]. They only kill certain microbes. Washing hands first, for at least 20 seconds, and then using a hand sanitizer is much more effective at preventing the spread of bacteria, molds, and viruses.

One additional note—During a pandemic, the FDA website should be checked to see if specific hand sanitizer has been recalled. The FDA recalled more than 200 different hand sanitizers during the first wave of the 2020–2021 pandemic because they were made with methanol (also known as methyl alcohol or wood alcohol). Methanol is a nasty chemical that can lead to several ailments, such as nausea, to death.

5. Face shields do not take the place of goggles.

Face shields, by themselves, are not an effective deterrent from viruses, projectiles, and chemical splashes, as well as other dangers in the laboratory. Face shields are an additional layer of safety, but never are they the primary layer of safety. Always start with the correct indirectly vented chemical splash goggles for the job to be done, then consider whether a face shield is needed for additional protection.

6. Remain flexible in learning, as new information presents itself regularly. 

One thing learned during the pandemic is that everything is not known, nor are all the answers readily available. It takes time to develop experiments, set up lab trials, analyze data, and make evidence-based decisions. During the pandemic, especially in the early stages, time was not readily available and decisions had to be made based on the very little existing data. The decisions made at the beginning are not the same as the decisions being made now. As knowledge increases and more is learned, changes must be made to help keep students and staff safer in science/STEM laboratories and classrooms.

7. If sick, stay home!

This is not the time to be a hero to students. A bad day with the teacher is not better than a good day with a substitute teacher. However, if the teacher comes to school sick, there is a good chance the “sickness” can be spread to the students. Students do not get a substitute to take classes for them when they are sick. Teachers should stop the spread of whatever they have and stay home. A healthy teacher is the best teacher. If sick, stay home and get healthy.

8. Even in the teacher’s absence, engineering controls must be checked.

Make sure all engineering controls are in working order. These include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Emergency eyewash stations
  • Emergency showers
  • Goggle cabinet sanitizers
  • Gas line shutoff systems
  • Fume hoods
  • Fire extinguishers
  • Electrical ground fault circuit interrupters 
  • Laboratory ventilation systems

These controls must be checked on an ongoing basis. Just because students and teachers are home for the summer does not mean these devices are not needed by others. Those who remain at the school site—i.e., contractors, administrators, maintenance and custodial staff, summer school students, summer camp attendees, and others—may need access to the engineering controls should an emergency occur. Safety protocols need to note that the engineering controls are checked on a scheduled basis and that the checks are logged for others to see.

9. There are alternative ways to have inquiry-based activities.

First of all, never plan to conduct a hands-on or demo science/STEM activity in a room that is not designed for the activity. All safety protocols must be followed and the appropriate engineering controls must be in place to conduct the activity. It is prudent and necessary to first conduct a potential safety hazard analysis and resulting risk assessment, followed by the appropriate safety actions in the planned location.

Teachers can choose from several options when designing hands-on, inquiry-based experiences while following pandemic protocols. These include the following:

  • Virtual laboratories. These can be an effective alternative, but students will not have  the ability to develop their lab skills. The learning loss associated with using virtual labs must be addressed at a later date.
  • Teacher-led demonstrations. The teacher performs the experiment and the students make observations and collect data. Not ideal as students have to watch and learn, as opposed to the more effective “Do-and-Learn.”
  • Student-led demonstrations. A student performs the experiment while the other students make observations and collect data. Make sure you rotate the students who perform the experiment so that as many students as possible get a chance 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 be working on the laboratory procedure while one member is making observations and another student is collecting data and making calculations.
  • Split class. Half the class works on the lab activity while the other half works at their desks on an alternate assignment. Have the students switch places when the first group finishes the lab activity and after the equipment is cleaned, disinfected, and sanitized.

In all of the above situations, it is vital to remember that a teacher is still legally responsible for monitoring/supervising all of the students in the laboratory, not just those who are doing the hands-on activity.

10. Duty or Standard of Care extends to the home.

Just because the teacher assigns an activity to be conducted at home does not mean there is no liability if a student is hurt when doing the activity. This extends to any family member, including pets, who get injured doing or because of the activity (see the August 2020 NSTA Safety Blog Commentary—Safety for Hands-On Science Home Instruction).

Here are a few guidelines to follow.

  • Anyone involved in the activity must have the proper Personal Protective Equipment. If they don’t, the activity should not be conducted.
  • Everyone involved must be trained on the safety protocols before conducting the activity.
  • Safety Data Sheets must be shared with everyone involved in the activity.
  • All activities must be monitored by a trained adult.
  • All materials must be stored safely and securely so no one gets injured by them when they’re not in use.
  • Any chemicals that are used should be limited to common household chemicals. No matter how “cool” an activity is, it is not worth the risk to transport chemicals to one’s house, especially to a house that lacks the appropriate engineering controls. 

In the End

Teachers and administrators/supervisors need to review and adjust plans for hands-on activities and/or demonstrations, making sure the potential safety hazards and resulting risks are addressed in any situation. The 10 items addressed in this commentary are a good place to start.

Submit questions regarding safety to Ken Roy at, 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 District, Rockaway, New Jersey ( for his professional review of and contributions to this commentary.

General Science Safety Middle School High School Postsecondary

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