Feb. 12, 2021 -- Back in December, Joe Biden pledged to reopen most of the country’s schools within his first 100 days as president, assuming certain conditions were met. With the CDC’s newly revised
guidelines and Biden’s proposal to send $130 billion to schools, many school systems are looking to do just that. New research suggests that if districts mandate mask-wearing, hand-washing, social distancing, and other measures, the spread inside schools could be lower than in the larger community.
But many teachers have struggled with district policies that ignored previous CDC guidelines. Federal and state occupational safety and health administrations have logged hundreds of COVID-related complaints covering thousands of public and private K-12 schools. And that represents only half the country, since 24 states prohibit public school employees from lodging complaints.
“A pandemic is not an individual health problem. It’s a public health problem,” says Theresa Chapple-McGruder, PhD, a perinatal and pediatric epidemiologist in the Washington, DC, area who has been consulting with school districts on COVID safety issues. “We’ve been taking individual risk mitigation approaches: Wear a mask, wash your hands. We’re talking about things people can do, and we’re not talking as much about things public health systems should be doing. In a pandemic, the answer isn’t ‘Get exercise and eat three healthy meals a day.’”
Even before federal funding reaches school districts to pay for more ways to ease the COVID-19 risk, many teachers will be expected to return to the classroom. If you’re among them, the tips that follow can help keep you safe.
Whatever your school’s policies, you still have ways to protect yourself:
- Step one, says Sara Johnson, PhD, an associate professor of pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine: Get to know your district’s or school’s standard operating procedures. The more you know about the policies, the more you can do to advocate for yourself.
- As far as what steps you can take, “The fundamentals still apply” says Lawrence Kleinman, MD, vice chair of the Department of Pediatrics at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. That means the three W’s for both teachers and students:
- Wash your hands for 20 seconds with warm water, regularly throughout the day. Be sure to wash after touching commonly shared things like doorknobs. If your classroom doesn’t have a sink, set up hand sanitizing stations in several spots. Any sanitizer you use should contain at least 60% alcohol.
- Wear a mask. “New data shows that two masks are better than one,” says Kleinman. “Wear a surgical mask close to your face, and another one on the outside.” The second mask helps to close any gaps the first one might leave open. If your school doesn’t have a mask mandate, encourage your students to wear at least one anyway.
- Watch the distance between people. “Six feet should be viewed as a minimum, not a safety barrier,” says Kleinman. If kids are singing or eating, try for even more space.
- Take care of your masks. Wash cloth masks regularly in hot water, and wear a different one each day. Dispose of surgical masks daily. “The general rule is, if it’s damaged or soiled at any point, throw away disposable masks -- so you should bring extra,” says Johnson. If you’ve opted for a more protective KN95 mask, they can typically be reused. Johnson recommends labeling five paper or cloth bags (something breathable, not airtight) with the days of the week. When you get home, store that day’s mask in its bag. By the time its day rolls around again, it will have dried out enough to be safe. Once a KN95 mask starts to show signs of wear, though, throw it away.
- Communicate with parents. Encourage them to keep their children home if they’re not feeling well, no matter the cause.
- Teachers who must work closely with students, like special education teachers or paraprofessionals, might want to add a disposable smock or a face shield on top of their masks. “If you're a one-on-one aide, or you work in small groups with kids who have high developmental needs, you might want to be wearing more PPE [personal protective equipment], just because they have a harder time managing their own secretions,” says Johnson. “If you’re doing speech therapy or you’re helping English language learners, for example, your mouth can be a really important part of the instructional process. Being behind a plexiglass barrier would be more important.”
- When you get home, most days there’s no need to do a full decontamination routine, says Johnson. “We now realize the virus clinging to clothes and such isn’t a very viable pathway for transmission.” If you’re at all concerned about being exposed on a particular day, Kleinman recommends taking a shower as soon as you get home.
- Don’t forget to protect your mental health, too. “At baseline, most teachers have developed skills for coping with competing demands, but this is another level,” says Johnson. Be proactive with students and families about the expectations in your classroom -- you want to feel as in-control as possible. And look to your fellow teachers for solidarity, as long as you’re maintaining social distancing. “That informal peer support is really important,” Johnson says.
The physical setup of your classroom can go a long way toward keeping you and your students safe:
- Space out the desks, at least 6 feet apart if possible, with assigned seats. Try to have all desks facing the same direction. If that’s not doable, seat students on only one side of tables, spaced out. Mark unused spaces with an “X” in colored tape, to provide a visual reminder. The idea is to never have kids sitting across from each other. If your room can’t accommodate that kind of spacing, set up small clusters with physical barriers between the students. “But recognizing that resources are scarce, I’d vote for really great mask policies over plexi barriers,” says Johnson.
- Use colored tape to mark one-way walking paths around the room. Make sure those paths comply with emergency exit procedures and are accessible for people with disabilities.
- Set up a “teacher zone” to provide yourself with 6 feet of distance from your students. If there’s not enough room, see if your school will install a clear barrier.
- Ventilation is key to keeping virus droplets from hanging in the air. If your school doesn’t have ventilation systems installed, open windows as much as is safely possible -- you may need to instruct parents to send their children with layers for warmth. A window fan positioned away from the students will help keep air flowing.
- Wipe down surfaces regularly, with an EPA-approved cleaner.
- Avoid sharing textbooks or other items, if you can. “No items should be shared in the same day,” says Kleinman, “and they should be cleaned between use.”
- When students are eating -- snack time for little kids, and lunchtime for everyone -- it raises the risk of exposure. But Johnson says there are things you can do:
- Open the windows when students are eating.
- Instruct parents to send food from home that kids can open themselves, which requires less interaction with others.
- Also ask parents to send a paper bag or container where kids can stow their masks while eating, then put them right back on.
- Depending on the age of your students, explain that you’ll be having low-volume or silent lunch periods, since talking or shouting will put more droplets into the air. “Set expectations that eating time is brief, calm, and quiet,” Johnson says. “Play relaxing or calming music.”
- The best option of all, if local climate permits: Eat outside.
- Don’t eat your own lunch in the break room, which is typically too small for social distancing. “At downtimes, teachers like to chat with each other, and we know that can be a major source of transmission,” Johnson says. “It’s incredibly challenging, navigating this uncertainty.”
These steps can all help you protect yourself, but at the end of the day, the responsibility should lie with your school district. “Yes, do the three W’s, but know that it’s not a force field,” says Chapple-McGruder. “Policy needs to do the rest.”