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Safety Recommendations for Opening the New School Year

By Dr. Ken Roy

Posted on 2020-06-18

As more and more states contemplate the new school year following the Coronavirus Lockdown, educators and administrators have to determine strategies to safely open their schools. This second article in our series intends to provide guidance on how to open schools in a safer manner. It is hoped that the advice will help guide stakeholders in their decision-making process.

This article was written with the full awareness that governmental guidelines vary from state to state and can change between the publication of this article and the opening of your school. Please follow all local, state, and federal guidelines as they become available.

There are two areas that we want to focus on:

  1. What are the safest strategies for opening up schools, including but not limited to health, safety and security, curriculum and instruction, and facilities?

  2. What specific educational strategies can be used to foster effective teaching/learning activities in Science, STEM, Art, and technology education/engineering?

It is our intention to gather credible information and provide examples of how this information can be used. This is not a be-all-end-all guide. It is based on the best available information that addresses the challenges of this unprecedented situation.

Schools, working together with their communities, have an important role in slowing the spread of diseases and protecting vulnerable students and staff. Schools must use their resources to help ensure students have a safer and healthy learning environment. (See this reference, dated May 9, 2020.)

Therefore, it is incumbent upon schools to use the best protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19.


 

Opening the Schools

In some cases, school buildings will have been closed to students and teachers for over five months before teachers and students are allowed to re-enter the buildings. School leaders have to consider the health of the building, as well as the students and staff. 

Though most schools are closed for 10 weeks in the summer, there is usually plenty of activity going on in the school building to keep the infrastructure working.  This has not been the case in many states. Here are a series of steps that schools should include in their reopening strategies:

●    Clean the water pipes that students and staff will use. (See this reference, dated June 1, 2020.)
○    Most of the water systems in the buildings have not run in a few months. This leads to the buildup of bacteria in the stagnant water. This can lead to afflictions such as Legionnaires Disease. (See this reference, dated June 2, 2020.) 
○    Follow standard practices for flushing the stagnant water from your pipes. (See this reference, dated June 2, 2020.)
○    It is also suggested that school districts encourage students and staff to bring their own water to drink.
●    Make sure all safety devices are in working order, including but not limited to the following engineering controls:

○    Emergency Eye Wash Stations
○    Emergency Showers
○    Goggle Cabinet Sanitizers
○    Gas line shut-off systems
○    Fume Hoods
○    Fire Extinguishers
○    Ventilation systems

 

When School Is Open

One of the major principles that guide our instructional planning is to do everything in our powers to make sure our students and staff return home as safe, if not safer then when they arrived at school. This is a difficult task to complete in normal times. During this pandemic, it has gotten even more difficult. The following are some ideas that can help you develop guidelines for your school that will keep your students and staff safe.

Health Issues

The first idea to keep in mind when developing your fall school schedule is the level of risk that your students and staff will encounter. The following three risk levels for school personnel according to the CDC’s website. (See this reference, dated May 31, 2020.)

●    Lowest Risk: Students and teachers engage in virtual-only classes, activities, and events.
●    More Risk: Small, in-person classes, activities, and events. Groups of students stay together and with the same teacher throughout/across school days and groups do not mix. Students remain at least 6 feet apart and do not share objects (e.g., hybrid virtual and in-person class structures, or staggered/rotated scheduling to accommodate smaller class sizes).
●    Highest Risk: Full sized, in-person classes, activities, and events. Students are not spaced apart, share classroom materials or supplies, and mix between classes and activities.

Administrators and stakeholders also need to consider those people who are at greater risk from the virus. The health services department in your schools can provide support and assistance. Students and staff who are at increased risk include those who suffer from the following, as per “Implementation of Mitigation Strategies for Communities with Local COVID-19 Transmission” (see this reference dated May 31, 2020):

●    Blood disorders (e.g., sickle cell disease or on blood thinners)
●    Chronic kidney disease as defined by your doctor. The patient has been told to avoid or reduce the dose of medications because kidney disease or is under treatment for kidney disease, including receiving dialysis
●    Chronic liver disease as defined by your doctor. (e.g., cirrhosis, chronic hepatitis) The patient has been told to avoid or reduce the dose of medications because of liver disease or is under treatment for liver disease.
●    Compromised immune system (immunosuppression) (e.g., seeing a doctor for cancer and treatment such as chemotherapy or radiation, received an organ or bone marrow transplant, taking high doses of corticosteroids or other immunosuppressant medications, HIV or AIDS)
●    Current or recent pregnancy in the last two weeks
●    Endocrine disorders (e.g., diabetes mellitus)
●    Metabolic disorders (such as inherited metabolic disorders and mitochondrial disorders)
●    Heart disease (such as congenital heart disease, congestive heart failure, and coronary artery disease)
●    Lung disease including asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (chronic bronchitis or emphysema) or other chronic conditions associated with impaired lung function or that require home oxygen
●    Neurological and neurologic and neurodevelopment conditions [including disorders of the brain, spinal cord, peripheral nerve, and muscle such as cerebral palsy, epilepsy (seizure disorder), stroke, intellectual disability, moderate to severe developmental delay, muscular dystrophy, or spinal cord injury]

Keep in mind that due to a person’s HIPAA rights, an administrator may not know if a member of their staff suffers from the above. The Human Resources Department should reach out to staff and let them know about the increased risk they may have due to the Coronavirus if they suffer from any of the above. The Health Services Department should do the same for students and their parents.

 

Sick Day Guidelines

We have many teachers who will do anything for their students. Some of them are so dedicated that they come to school when they are sick because they feel that a sick teacher lesson is better than a substitute teacher lesson. This cannot happen during the pandemic. Students and staff need to stay home when they are sick. This also includes any parents, guardians or other visitors wanting to enter the facility.  Be aware that visitors should be strictly limited or prohibited.  Administration must make this very clear and enforce protocols to keep them out of the building and away from the school community. The health of the community depends on sick people staying home.

    If you are sick, stay home. Even if the illness is mild, you may have COVID-19. In addition to safety and cleaning protocols, individuals should stay hydrated, sleep well (see this reference, dated June 7, 2020), eat a balanced diet, and, in consultation with their doctor, make sure that they are getting the right nutrients and vitamins.

    If you think that you might be sick, contact your doctor right away. Explain the symptoms and follow the doctor’s advice. Do not venture out of your apartment or house until your doctor thinks that it is safe.

    The symptoms (see this reference, dated June 7, 2020) that you should be looking for include the following:

●    Fever or chills
●    Cough
●    Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
●    Fatigue
●    Muscle or body aches
●    Headache
●    New loss of taste or smell
●    Sore throat
●    Congestion or runny nose
●    Nausea or vomiting
●    Diarrhea

    Again, if you have any of these symptoms, do not go to school, isolate yourself and call your doctor right away

    If you have any of the following symptoms (see the previous reference above), contact 911 right away and get yourself to the emergency room:

●    Trouble breathing
●    Persistent pain or pressure in the chest
●    New confusion
●    Inability to wake or stay awake
●    Bluish lips or face
 

Masks

Require, when appropriate (see this reference, dated May 31, 2020), all stakeholders to wear masks in the buildings. This includes all school employees, students and visitors. The Coronavirus can be spread by many methods. The most viable method is through airborne particles. These particles can be shared by speaking, singing, coughing, sneezing, etc. (See this reference, dated)  Masks and social distancing are the first defenses against the spread of airborne particles. Keep in mind that the masks are meant to protect those around you. You may be a carrier of the Coronavirus and not even know it. (See this reference, dated June 9, 2020.)

Please remember that asymptomatic people can also spread the Coronavirus through airborne particles. Pre-symptomatic carriers of the virus are sharing the coronavirus as early as 5 days before showing symptoms (see the previous reference above). One can easily spread the virus without even knowing that they have the virus. The best way to prevent this is by wearing masks in common places and around others.

Several colleges, universities, and K-12 schools are requiring their students to wear their masks while they are on the school campus, in common areas, in the classroom, and in the laboratory. 
 

Air Recycling

COVID-19 is mostly spread by respiratory droplets released when people talk, cough, or sneeze. Any meeting or class room with poor air circulation is a cause for concern (see this reference, dated June 2, 2020). Exposure to the virus, or the someone who is providing airborne particles in an enclosed space, i.e., classroom, over a long period of time, i.e. class, choir practice, ceremony, etc., increases the danger of infection. The more people a student or staff member interacts with, and the longer that interaction, the higher the risk of COVID-19 spread. (See this reference, dated May 31, 2020.) In a classroom, it is vital that there is strong air circulation as social distancing only works when you are in the vicinity of a coronavirus carrier for short periods of time. Science, STEM, and tech ed/engineering labs are at an advantage relative to the air recycling issue, given NFPA 45 (Standard on Fire Protection for Laboratories Using Chemicals) fire code requires ventilation systems in these instructional spaces to be designed to ensure vapors, gases, etc. originating from the lab are not to be recirculated. This NFPA 45 standard currently supports ongoing fresh air being supplied in the laboratory space with no recirculation.

The need for strong air circulation has to be balanced with the needs of those students and staff who study from seasonal allergies. Opening windows during the fall semester can place those with allergies at higher risks of being affected by the environment. Also, asthma can be triggered in students and staff when doors are left open. (See this reference, dated June 3, 2020.)

Air Conditioners

When school starts at the end of the summer (August or September), the temperature inside the school building may necessitate the use of air conditioners. As common practice should dictate, the air filters should be cleaned or replaced according to a regular schedule based on the number of people who occupy the room or building. 

Air filtration, by itself, is not a suitable method for controlling the spread of COVID-19. Social distancing, frequently washing hands, wearing masks, cleaning, disinfecting, and staying home when someone sick are the best methods to control the spread of COVID-19.

A word of caution. When students and staff are suspected of having COVID-19 on campus, they should be placed in a quarantined room. It is important to ensure that air is not recirculated from the quarantined room with sick individuals to other areas in the building. Like science labs, fresh air should be continuously supplied to the quarantined room. In this way, the HVAC system from the quarantined room should follow professional standards. (See this reference, dated June 7, 2020.) Relative to personal protective equipment, health care workers (e.g., school nurse) should be wearing N95 masks, gloves and protective clothing. Patients also should be wearing masks. Once patient transportation is determined and the patient leaves the school site, the room needs to be sanitized by trained custodial personnel. 
 

Cleaning and Disinfecting

Cleaning and disinfecting are important defenses against the spread of the Coronavirus, but only if it is done properly. If the Coronavirus gets on a surface, it can last from a few hours to a few days (see this reference, dated May 31, 2020) unless properly cleaned and or disinfected. When a person touches these surfaces, the Coronavirus spreads to their hands. This in itself is not an issue, especially if the person is following protocols and frequently washes their hands with soap and water. However, when the person has Coronavirus on their hands, and they then place their hands in their nose or their mouth, the Coronavirus will enter the body and possibly potentially infect the person. (See this reference, dated June 5, 2020.) 

As part of your cleaning and disinfecting protocols, students and staff should be instructed to frequently wash their hands and keep them out of their mouth and nose. In addition, surfaces that are used frequently should be properly cleaned and disinfected. The following should serve as a guide post to setting up your cleaning and disinfecting of surfaces protocols:

●    When washing hands, soap and water are preferred over hand sanitizers. (See this reference, dated June 5, 2020.) 
●    Clean frequently touched surfaces between uses.
○    Here is a list of frequently touched surfaces (see this reference, dated May 30, 2020) to be cleaned after use: 
■    Tables
■    Doorknobs
■    Light switches
■    Countertops
■    Handles
■    Desks, laboratory tables
■    Phones
■    Keyboards
■    Toilets,
●    Do not forget to continually clean your bathrooms to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus
■    Faucets and sinks
■    Lab equipment and materials 
■    Engineering controls (fire extinguisher, fume hood, eyewash, shower, etc.)
■    Touch screens
■    Erasers, markers, pens, pencils
○    Discourage sharing of these common materials.
○    Clean all common areas at the beginning and at the end of each period where students change rooms.
■    Though staying in one room may be a possibility in elementary and even middle schools, it is impossible in most high school scenarios without limiting student course offerings. 
■    In science and STEM labs, do not schedule multiple groups to use the same lab station in shifts unless the entire lab station, and equipment can be cleaned and disinfected between shifts.
○    This is not a definitive list. There are items unique to each school and each individual classroom.

According to the CDC, materials and surfaces should first be cleaned with soap and water. Afterwards they can be disinfected. The people who are cleaning the surfaces should wear gloves to protect their hands. They should also wash their hands when they are done cleaning and disinfecting materials and surfaces. Also, make sure the room is well ventilated for those in the room while it is being cleaned and disinfected. Please follow the EPA (List-N lists the disinfectants by alpha order and details which virus they can be used; see this reference, dated May 9, 2020) and CDC (see this reference, dated May 9, 2020) guidelines for cleaning and disinfecting. Make sure that you follow directions and wear proper PPE.

If you have run out of EPA-approved disinfectants, it is easy to make substitutes. Once such substitute is made by mixing 1 gallon of water with ⅓ cup of bleach. This solution will be an effective disinfectant for about 24 hours. (See this reference, dated June 9, 2020.) Make your batches accordingly. Do not mix chemicals and follow all instructions to the letter. Mixing chemicals can be harmful to your health. Follow approved guidelines and recipes. 

For electronic devices like desktop and laptop computers, tablets, power tools/equipment, etc., follow the instructions as per the user manual. If there is no guidance from the manufacturer, use alcohol wipes that are at least 70% alcohol. When possible, use a cover to protect the “touched” surfaces of electronic devices that can be cleaned and disinfected. (See this reference, dated June 9, 2020.)

Laboratory Safety

It is going to be very difficult to conduct laboratory experiments, or any group project in which multiple students will be interacting with the materials and equipment. There are many obstacles that have to be overcome for the laboratory activity to be safer for the students.

The first challenge is to overcome social distancing. Students are going to struggle to make observations when everyone is at least six feet away from everyone else. Second, every item that is touched in the laboratory area has to be cleaned and disinfected before anyone else can touch it. It is one thing for every student to have their own ruler, but do you have enough goggles for every student to have their own pair? You will need extras for those students that forget their goggles. If sharing goggles, they have to be cleaned and disinfected, then placed in the UV goggle cabinet to be sanitized before the next student can use them. This may seem like overkill, but there are conflicting reports as whether UV radiation is enough to kill the Coronavirus. (See this reference, dated June 11, 2020.) Third, every door handle that is touched has to be cleaned before the next student can touch the cabinet. It is unsafe to keep the cabinet doors open at all times. The same is true with all of the equipment that is being used. This not only includes the glassware, apparatus, microscopes, etc., but also the chemicals' containers. If there is any chemical residue on the container, the disinfectant can react in a negative manner, resulting in an unsafe environment for the staff and the students. 
 

Alternative Ideas

Large group laboratory experiments will be difficult to perform, given social distancing issues. Smaller individual lab activities can be done as a substitute. Smaller individual lab activities might involve students working in shifts where one half of the class is doing the hands-on activity while the other ones are working at their desks or other location on an alternating week schedule. Non-hands-on activities might involve assignments such as viewing simulations, data gathering/processing, virtual instruction, etc.   Remember the teacher’s duty of care is required for all students in the instructional spaces. In this way, make sure that the teacher is able to have monitoring/supervision provided for all of the students and not just on ones in the hands-on lab group. These alternations in lab scheduling may require more supplies to complete lab activities than usual. Plan on requesting additional funding for PPE, sanitizers, and more as soon as possible.

An alternative to group hands-on laboratory work is teacher-led demonstrations in the lab. The students can watch the teacher do the experiment, make observations, draw conclusions, and complete calculations. The students will not have the opportunity to work on their own lab skills, but this is a temporary alternative until it is safer to work in groups. A student can be substituted for the teacher and perform the experiment for the class.

Finally, depending on the severity of the situation, virtual instruction may need to be readopted as was used in many schools during the latter part of the previous school year. They are a number of computer programs for laboratory activities that can be used for virtual instruction.

Science Departments, working together with their schools, administrators, and parents, have to balance between the best educational scenario for their students while maintaining safe and social distanced classrooms. During a “Socially-Distanced” education scenario, traditional group laboratories may have to put aside for different learning methodologies.

Class Size

School buildings were not designed for social distancing. If social distancing rules and regulations are in effect at the beginning of the school year, Administrators need to determine the maximum number of students and staff that can fit into each room at a time.

Based on the concept that there should be at least 6 feet between each person in the room, each student and staff member will need 28.3 ft2 of space. This is calculated by drawing a circle around each person that has a 6 ft diameter. The area of a circle is 𝜫r2 (radius =3 ft). Since most rooms are rectangular in shape, it may be easier to just use a square box with 6-foot sides. The area needs for each student using this model is 36 ft2.

The same calculations should be done to determine how many students can work in the same lab area, can participate in Physical Education each class period, can eat lunch in the cafeteria at the same time, and can ride the bus.

Buses

The school bus is the first line of defense when trying to keep the Coronavirus from campus. The following set of guidelines can help districts to develop their own policies for students on buses:

●    All students and staff on the school bus are required to wear masks.
●    Buses should be marked so students know where they can sit while maintaining social distancing. At 6 feet between students and staff, each person on the bus needs 28.3ft2 of space. Use this number to determine how many people can fit on each bus and plan routes accordingly.
●    Staff and Students, including the bus driver, should be screened to make sure that they do not have a fever or exhibit any of the symptoms of the Coronavirus. Students and staff should also sanitize before they get on the bus. (See this reference, dated June 9, 2020.)
●    Buses should be cleaned and disinfected at the end of each run.
 

Conclusions

The most important impact we can have on our students and staff during the pandemic is on their health, safety, and well-being. Protocols and guidelines have to be put in to place to ensure that the district, school, staff, and students are doing everything in their power to protect themselves and each other from the effects of the Coronavirus. It is our intention that this article gave you the inspirations that you need to provide your students with the best educational experiences possible during this crisis.

Please note the content of this commentary is based on prudent professional safety practices (e.g., CDC recommendations) 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 employer safety, in addition to student/employee 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 local, state, and federal laws and legal counsel for additional safety prevention program components during these challenging times of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Safety Blog Acknowledgement: 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, Rockaway, New Jersey (kdoyle@mhrd.org), for his professional contributions and review relative to developing this commentary.

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

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