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Safety Recommendations for Closing Out the School Year

By Dr. Ken Roy

Posted on 2020-06-01

Introduction

During the month of June, many K-12 schools across the nation will be concluding the academic year. The irony of the situation is that most of these schools have had their doors closed since mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some schools canceled instruction for the year, while others have been using a home instruction protocol.

This commentary is meant to provide guidance for school administrators and teachers to close out the school year in a safer way. The following guidelines emphasize the collection of instructional materials (science textbooks, tablets/laptop computers, borrowed labware, etc.) for use during the next school year and the means of addressing shutdown procedures for laboratory engineering controls (eyewash, fume hood, etc.).  

We do not know how long this pandemic will last. Still, schools must organize their priorities for closing out this school year and transitioning to a new school year.

It is important to gather credible information and provide examples of how this information can be used. This guide is not the final word on the subject. It is based on the best information available at this time that addresses the challenges of this unprecedented situation.

Schools, working with their communities, have an important role in slowing the spread of diseases and protecting vulnerable students and staff. Therefore, it is incumbent upon schools to use the best protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and ensure students and staff have a safe and healthy teaching/learning environment. (See this reference dated May 9, 2020.)

Closing the School Year

Based on individual states' guidelines, schools must determine which events can still take place and eliminate non-essential events and those prohibited due to public health concerns. One such event that can occur is the collection of school materials, especially from those students who will not return in September. Additional considerations as the 2019-2020 school year concludes involve engineering controls and other components relative to science labs and STEM labs.

Collecting Materials and Closing Down Laboratories

Schools' first priority is collecting materials from those students who will not return, including students who are moving to different districts and those who are promoted to a new school or promoted outside of the district (i.e. high school seniors). In most schools, students cannot receive their diploma, and their transcript information will not be shared with their future schools, unless students return all of the school materials lent to them. In the current health crisis, collecting these academic materials is a challenging task. Keep in mind that these students may also have materials in their lockers. These spaces need to be cleaned out as well.

The second priority is to collect supplies from students who are returning for the 2020-2021 school year. It has been suggested that school materials be collected from the students in stages to reduce the danger to essential staff and facilities.

The third priority is to address preventative maintenance issues relative to potential biological, chemical, and physical hazards. This would include engineering controls and other items critical to the safer closing down of science and STEM labs. 

Guiding Questions

When collecting students’ materials, consider these three questions:

1.    Does the person handling the students’ supplies have COVID-19? 
2.    Are COVID-19 germs present on the materials, and have preventative maintenance issues relative to biological, chemical, and physical hazards been addressed?
3.    Are occupants entering the building being appropriately vetted for COVID-19 exposure?

None of these questions can be answered with certainty until states can supply schools with an adequate number of testing kits. This is not yet a reality. The following guidelines and sample collection methods can help a school develop a policy that overcomes this challenge and helps protect students, staff, and families:

1.    Does the person handling the students’ supplies have COVID-19?
    
It is important to note that carriers of COVID-19 can be asymptotic and still spread the disease. We do not yet have the required testing to determine if those returning school supplies have COVID-19. We will not have this technology in time to collect student supplies for the next school year. Protocols need to be established to ensure that everyone is as protected as possible.

The following suggested set of protocols can be used to collect materials from students in a manner that will minimize transmission of the coronavirus:

●    Develop a schedule noting the dates and times that allow each student, or a member of their family, to drop off their school supplies. 
○    If a student arrives early, they must wait outside the school. Areas should be marked off to keep people separated from one another in accordance with social distancing protocol. Sample protocol is as follows:

■    Have students drive up to the dropoff area. Clearly mark off the areas indicating where the student is able to walk to the dropoff area.
■    Have the students place their materials on a table. Then each student will step behind a line located six feet from the table. A staff member will then record the students’ names and the materials returned. 
■    The materials will then be disinfected according to proper protocolssee this reference dated May 9, 2020. For example, textbooks and library books should be disinfected via this CDC protocol. This includes a quarantine area for a noted amount of time. 

Always read the directions to make sure you’re using the products as recommended and to avoid damaging sensitive items such as mobile phones and other electronic devices. Consider using wipeable covers for electronics. 

■    A staff member will then take the materials to the appropriate holding areas.  
■    As each student leaves, wipe down all of the surfaces that were touched , including door handles, the table, etc. (Refer to this reference dated May 9, 2020.)
■    All staff members should wear the appropriate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), including, but not limited to, goggles, face masks, gloves. Make sure the staff members who are using PPE are trained on how to use and dispose of the equipment. (See this reference dated May 9, 2020.)
■    At this time, the student can retrieve any materials left in their locker. 


●    Since the materials in the students’ lockers have not been touched since the middle of March, it is safe to assume that any COVID-19 germs on these materials are no longer viable. (See this reference dated May 9, 2020.)


○    If the school decides to allow students to enter the building to empty their lockers, students need to wear masks, and if feasible, disposable gloves. Students should be supervised throughout their visit to ensure that they do not go anywhere besides to their lockers and to minimize contact with any surfaces. As mentioned earlier, students should be given specific dates and times to enter the building. A limited number of occupants must be established to allow for appropriate social distancing and monitoring.
○    As a reminder, masks should be worn by all personnel in the building, including those who are dropping off or collecting supplies. However, there are exceptions to this rule; see this reference dated May 26, 2020. The CDC recommends that children younger than the age of 2, and anyone who has trouble breathing (such as persons with asthma) or who cannot remove the mask on their own should not wear masks. In these cases, staff members can empty the lockers using the protocols that follow.

●    If the school does not allow the students to, or the students are unable to retrieve materials from their lockers, the following can serve as guidelines help the school develop their own protocol:
○    Have a staff member, with appropriate PPE, empty each locker and place the items in a plastic bag with the student’s name and locker number clearly labeled on it. Since the items have been left in the lockers for more than two months, disinfecting the items isn't necessary.
○    The students or their designees can pick up their bags when dropping off their supplies. The bags are easy for the students to disinfect when they get home. Students should be advised to leave the contents of the bags untouched for seven days (see below) to eliminate the spread of COVID-19 through surface contact.
○    To mitigate security concerns, have a member of the administrative team directly monitor the staff while removing materials from the students’ lockers. The plastic bags can be disinfected before returning them to the student. Remember that the students and their parents are not essential personnel and do not have to enter the building to retrieve their belongings.

2.    Are COVID-19 germs present on the materials, and have preventative maintenance issues relative to biological, chemical, and physical hazards been addressed?
        
Just as we do not know if students returning their school supplies have been infected with the virus, we also do not know if their supplies are contaminated with the coronavirus. The CDC has reported that the virus that causes COVID-19 has not been shown to survive on any surfaces for more than seven days (see this reference dated May 9, 2020). Therefore, the collected materials need to be stored in an area that can be locked down for a week. The gymnasium and the auditorium can be used to lock down materials for seven days while only essential staff are still in the building.

    Once the collected school supplies have been stored for seven days, additional steps can be taken to disinfect the collected materials. This includes cleaning with soap and water or using disinfectants. Follow the EPA and CDC guidelines for using these two types of cleaners. Regarding the EPA guidelines, List-N presents the disinfectants in alphabetical order and details which virus they can be used; see this reference dated May 9, 2020. Regarding the CDC guidelines, see this reference dated May 9, 2020.

    Once the supplies have been stored for seven days, the materials can be removed from the room and returned to the appropriate storage area. The room that was being used to store the materials can be cleaned and prepared for the next round of students to drop off their materials.

    Materials should not be transferred to the next class of students until sufficient time has elapsed for the coronavirus to dissipate.

Science and STEM Lab Preventative Maintenance

Additional considerations for science labs and STEM labs as the 2019-2020 school year concludes should focus on preventative maintenance of engineering controls and other essential and unique components associated with laboratory work. This in part is to prevent or reduce exposure to biological, chemical, and physical hazards inherent in laboratory work.

●    If no human has been in a room for at least seven days, disinfecting the room isn't necessary. However, the usual custodial/maintenance protocols for end-of-year cleaning need to be followed.

●    The water in the laboratories has not been dispensed in more than two months. Run each faucet for a few minutes to remove any stagnant water, rust, or dirt that is accumulating in the pipes.

●    Flush all safety eyewash stations and safety showers to remove stagnant water and debris. Ensure that they are consistently flushed out over the summer. OSHA by reference adopts the ANSI Z358.1-2014 Eyewash standard for the enforcement of safety laws. In this way, the OSHA compliance expectation recommendation is to flush eyewash and safety showers each week. This should also be part of the safety protocol in all school laboratories while students and staff are using the labs; see this reference dated May 15, 2020.

●    Check to ensure that all gas lines are completely shut off.

●    Ensure that all biological, chemical, and physical laboratory hazards were stored properly and secured.

●    Protocols for receiving and distributing supplies should be established to protect staff and students. This includes training for custodial support involved with transferring or moving shipments of hazardous chemicals to laboratories and storerooms.

●    Check goggle sanitizing cabinets to make sure that the ultraviolet lights are in working order. If not, this must be corrected before staff and students return to the laboratory or shop. Consult your owner’s manual for more information and maintenance of the apparatus.

○    Sanitize all goggles before students and staff return to school. This is a general safety standard, not a preventative step against the COVID-19 virus. Refer to the goggles’ owner’s manual for the proper cleaning solutions for your make and model.

●    Fume hoods and spray booths must be inspected for appropriate annual maintenance and operation as required by NFPA 45.

●    Ventilation in laboratories, preparation rooms, and chemical and other science storerooms should be scheduled on unoccupied mode. 

●    STEM lab hand and power tools need to be inspected and maintenance provided: e.g., guards, condition of cutting blades, electrical integrity, etc.

●    Inspect and verify that all laboratory facility systems are operating appropriately, including electric, ventilation, plumbing, physical structure (walls, ceiling, windows, doors), fire safety equipment, flammable/toxic gas, smoke monitors, waste, soap/sanitizer dispensers, first aid kit contents, refrigerators, etc.

3. Are occupants entering the building being appropriately vetted for COVID-19 exposure?

To protect employees and other visitors from exposure to COVID-19, the following recommended inquiry requirements should be followed before allowing students or other visitors entry:

•    Entrant is in good health/not feeling ill.
•    Body temperature is less than 100.4°F (38°C).
•    No other COVID-19 symptoms in past seven days (fever, headache, cough, shortness of breath, chills, diarrhea, muscle pain, sore throat, loss of smell or taste).
•    No contact with positive or suspect-positive COVID-19 victims in past 14 days.
•    Not ordered to quarantine or self-isolate by physician or government agent.
•    Not traveled on mass transportation in past 14 days.

In Conclusion

Watch for the July NSTA Safety Blog Commentary, which will review methods and strategies for opening the school building in the safest manner possible.

Please note the content of this commentary is based on prudent professional safety practices on the subject based on OSHA and other legal safety regulations, but do not purport to specify all legal standards. This commentary is intended to provide basic guidelines in the areas of employee and employer safety, in addition to student/employee health and safety. Therefore, it cannot be assumed that all necessary warning and precautionary measures are specified here. Users of this information should also consult pertinent local, state, and federal laws and legal counsel for additional safety prevention program components during these challenging times of the COVID-19 pandemic.

NSTA Chief Safety Blogger Dr. Ken Roy wishes to sincerely thank nationally recognized district curriculum and instruction coordinator Kevin S. Doyle, Ed.D., of the Morris Hills Regional High School District in Rockaway, New Jersey (kdoyle@mhrd.org) for his professional contributions to and review of this commentary.

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

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