Schools across the nation are working hard to take appropriate measures to protect students, teachers and staff from Covid-19. However, with so much information out there, school administrators may be left wondering what exact steps they should be taking. This article highlights the benefits of in-person education and outlines seven strategies that schools can take to help reduce the spread of Covid-19, with detailed recommendations on how to implement these strategies, based on the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines and scientific data available.
Why Are Covid-19 Mitigation Efforts Important?
As research continues to evolve, there is little doubt that SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes Covid-19) can linger in indoor air for prolonged periods of time and travel far beyond the recommended six feet of distance. Public spaces, such as schools, are in the process of reopening. This prompted 39 scientists from 14 countries to publish an article urging governments to recognize that respiratory infections, such as Covid-19, can be prevented by improving indoor ventilation systems and to establish standards for indoor air quality (IAQ).
The benefits of improving IAQ extend beyond Covid-19. In fact, the researchers also highlighted that minimizing risk of other respiratory infections (e.g., the flu) and associated productivity losses through improved air quality measures would offset the cost of upgrading ventilation and filtration in buildings.
“Clean water in 1842, food safety in 1906, a ban on lead-based paint in 1971. These sweeping public health reforms transformed not just our environment but expectations for what governments can do. Now it’s time to do the same for indoor air quality…”
– Excerpt from the New York Times article Experts Urge Strict Workplace Air Quality Standards, in Wake of Pandemic
Many schools have transitioned from traditional in-person education to online learning; a necessary prevention tool during certain phases of the pandemic. However, research has shown that transmission in schools can be limited with adherence to strict and layered mitigation efforts. Despite the fact that no national IAQ standard currently exists to protect against respiratory infections indoors, as more schools transition back to in-person instruction or hybrid learning, it is crucial that they employ layered prevention strategies to help keep students, teachers and staff safe.
The Benefits of In-Person Education
In-person learning is critical to children’s psychosocial and educational development, and remote learning can impact student life and well-being in a variety of ways. In addition to academic instruction, schools also offer a platform for social interaction where children learn to manage their emotions, establish and maintain positive relationships, make responsible decisions, develop crucial communication skills, and improve self-esteem and feelings of self worth and belonging.
In-person interactions at school also help students establish and maintain good relationships with their teachers and peers. These interactions are very difficult to replicate through distance learning, and this can affect general emotional well-being and lead to less externalizing behaviors, depression and anxiety.
Students Are Gradually Returning to School
Recognizing the importance of in-person instruction, many schools have already returned to either traditional or hybrid learning. According to a comprehensive and ongoing survey conducted by the data service burbio.com, as of May 17, 2021, 68.6% of students will be attending schools offering traditional, in-person learning every day (as compared to 31.6% October 12, 2020), 28.8% of students will be attending schools that offer a hybrid schedule with 2-3 in-person learning days per week (as compared to 22.1% October 12, 2020), and 2.6% of students will be attending schools that only offer virtual learning (as compared to 45.6% October 12, 2020). While schools are continuing to gradually re-open, on either a traditional or hybrid basis, the CDC currently recommends that both students and staff who are at an increased risk of severe illness or who live with people at an increased risk be given the option of virtual instruction, regardless of the mode of learning offered in their school.
For those returning to school for in-person instruction, there are various environmental and behavioral strategies that can help reduce risk which we dive into a little more detail below.
7 Strategies to Mitigate the Risk of Covid-19
Many factors can make it difficult for schools to control the potential spread of respiratory illnesses such as Covid-19. Schools are often crowded; facilities and resources such as bathrooms, books, and desk spaces are shared by large groups of people; and young children are more likely to engage in behaviors that are associated with a higher risk of viral transmission, such as lack of (or improper) handwashing and tendency to play in close proximity to others. Additionally, the CDC recently updated their Covid-19 guidelines to emphasize concerns surrounding Covid-19 transmission among teachers and staff, citing evidence suggesting that staff-to-staff transmission in schools is more common than transmission from students to staff, staff to student, and student to student. It is important for schools to employ comprehensive prevention strategies that address Covid-19 transmission among teachers and staff, as well as students.
Below are seven strategies that schools can use to help reduce the spread of Covid-19 and create a healthier school environment.
1. De-densify school buildings
- Consider limiting any nonessential visitors, volunteers, and activities involving external groups or organizations — particularly with people who are not from the local area (e.g., people from other communities, cities, towns, counties)
- If possible, the CDC recommends schools place students and staff in cohorted groups to limit potential exposure to Covid-19.
- Alternate schedules with fixed cohorts of students and staff to decrease class size and promote physical distancing
- Stagger student arrival, drop-off and pick-up times or locations by cohorts
2. Increase ventilation
- Bring in more fresh outdoor air, using caution in highly polluted areas
- If possible, consider holding classes and other activities outside
- Consider running the HVAC systems at maximum outside airflow for 2 hours before and after the school is occupied
- Disable demand-controlled ventilation (DCV) controls that reduce air supply based on occupancy or temperature
- If the weather permits, further open minimum outdoor air dampers to help reduce or eliminate HVAC air recirculation
3. Filter indoor air using advanced technologies
- The virus causing Covid-19 (SARS-CoV-2) ranges in size from 0.06 to 0.14 microns, which is significantly smaller than particles that are captured by conventional filters in most mechanical systems. These particles can, however, be captured by air purifiers with advanced filtration efficiency, such as electrostatic or HEPA filtration.
- The CDC suggests using portable high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) fan/filtration systems in high risk areas such as the nurse’s office and isolation rooms.
- It is important to note that while HEPA filters can theoretically remove at least 99.97% of particles 0.3 microns in diameter and larger, other advanced technologies have been shown to be even more effective, and should also be carefully researched and considered. For example, independent third-party analysis showed that at the HEPA testing standard of 0.3 micron, the entire Delos Compact unit (and not just the filter) delivers 99.997% efficiency, which is more efficient than required by HEPA at that standard.
4. Ensure proper maintenance of filtration and ventilation systems
- Conduct assessments or audits of existing filtration and ventilation systems in all buildings (both temporary and portable). The CDC recommends:
- Inspecting and maintaining local exhaust ventilation in areas such as restrooms and cooking areas
- Ensuring restroom exhaust fans are functional and operating at full capacity
- Assessing filter housing and racks to ensure appropriate filter fit and sealing the edges of the filter to minimize filter bypass
- Ensuring that filters are appropriately installed and are within their service life, regularly changing filters when necessary
5. Consider other advanced strategies for improving IAQ
- Experts recommend maintaining indoor humidity levels between 40% and 60% in order to help curb the survival and spread of SARS-CoV-2.
- As a supplemental strategy, the CDC suggests to consider using ultraviolet germicidal irradiation (UVGI), especially if options for increasing room ventilation are limited. It is important to note that UVGI technologies should only be used when the room or space is unoccupied, due to production of ozone as well as potential to cause skin harm.
- Consider other technologies that do not pose the same harm and are just as, if not more, effective, such as disinfecting filtration technology (DFS).
6. Install no-contact infrastructure
- Install touchless technologies for dispensers of hand soap, hand sanitizer, and paper towels
7. Focus on bathroom hygiene
- Keep bathroom doors and windows closed and run exhaust fans at all times
- Install lids on all toilet seats and keep the lids closed, particularly during flushing
Continue to Follow Public Health Recommendations in Schools
Of course, while it is important to ensure that the school buildings are taking appropriate measures, it is also essential to continue to follow public health recommendations, such as:
- Wear face coverings consistently and correctly
- Wash hands frequently
- Encourage respiratory hygiene/cough etiquette
- Maximize physical distancing and group distancing
- Disinfect high-touch surfaces and objects
- Prioritize staying home when sick
- Develop plans for when there is a case identified at school
- Promote viral testing and antibody testing
Going Beyond Traditional School Environments
While this article focuses on mitigating the spread of Covid-19 in school environments, it is important to note that learning environments are not limited to physical school buildings. Many students have been attending some or all of their classes remotely, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic, turning homes across the country into micro learning environments for millions of students. And while homes are not schools, the associations between physical environments and health and performance apply universally, regardless of whether students are following remote, hybrid, or in-person learning models. For example, a student studying in a poorly ventilated bedroom at home is likely to experience similar levels of poor concentration and cognitive performance as a student in a poorly ventilated classroom.
To learn more about the indoor environmental factors that affect student health, well-being and performance, and the steps schools can take to address these factors, make sure to check out our white paper, Healthy Learning Environments.
Edited by: Radhika Singh