We are likely to make Covid-related classroom safety mistakes.
It’s human nature, says Dr. Marney White, a psychologist and epidemiology professor at the Yale School of Public Health.
“We are very bad at evaluating personal risk and evaluating the risk that our various behaviors have on our health and our lifespan,” she says. “If people were able to accurately appraise risk, nobody would smoke, nobody would speed, everyone would wear a seat belt.”
With more teachers back in physical classrooms, here’s a reminder of some common but potentially risky behaviors to avoid.
1. Relaxing During Meal Times
“Meal times are a particular risk because students are unmasked and also because meals are often a chance to catch up and chat with others for students and adults,” says Dr. Sara B. Johnson, an associate professor of pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and co-director of the Rales Center for the Integration of Health and Education and the Johns Hopkins Consortium for School-Based Health Solutions. “Teachers should not eat close together, particularly indoors or in confined spaces. If weather and facilitates permit, eating outside is great. Teachers and staff can also help reduce their interactions with younger unmasked children during lunchtime, for example, by encouraging parents to send food items that children can open themselves.”
Whenever possible, mealtimes should also be short. “Some schools are encouraging ‘quiet’ lunch followed by outdoor time when students can have a chance, masked, to play and run around together,” Johnson says.
Dr. Joseph G. Allen, director of the Healthy Buildings Program at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health and chair of The Lancet’s Covid-19 Commission Task Force on Safe Work, Safe Schools, and Safe Travel, says that he’s seen educators engage in effective strategies to limit risk when masks are off during meal times. These strategies include opening windows more, even if it's cold, and putting on a video of some type during meal time. “The teachers save that type of learning for lunch,” he says. “I’ve seen this in class and kids are quiet when they’re eating. And when they’re not talking the emission rate is much, much lower.”
2. Gathering With Colleagues
CDC research suggests that educators may often play a significant role when the virus does spread in schools.
Johnson says before work each morning educators should mentally walk through the day and flag potential risk. “In the morning, are people gathering around the copy maker? Are they waiting outside of the front door for Covid-19 symptom screening? Are they stopping to chat with colleagues in the hallways on their way to the parking lot after school?”
She adds, “I think there is broad awareness of what increases transmission risk, but we all need reminders to map out potential risk points and proactively avoid them. It can be hard not to fall into old habits without realizing it.”
3. Thinking Schools are Safer Than They Are
Because spread of the virus at schools has been relatively limited, White says that some have gotten the impression they are somehow unique spaces.
“It almost seems as if some people have interpreted it to mean there's some kind of magical force field around schools and that is not the case,” she says. “Schools are an indoor environment. They are currently considered relatively safe because they have been so careful about enforcing the mitigation strategies of masking and social distancing.”
4. Forgetting About Proper Ventilation Protocols
“There’s a tendency to be lax in our controls,” Allen says. “I’ve toured some schools where the policy was to keep windows open, even a couple of inches, and the windows are closed. Or in a school that has a portable air cleaner with a HEPA filter, which is a terrific strategy, they're running them on half-speed, or they tuck them away in the corner.”
A half-speed filter is going to be half as effective, and positioning it in a corner will limit its capabilities as well, Allen says. “If you're gonna have a portable air cleaner in the room, try to move it out from the corner. It doesn't have to be the exact center of the room but should be running at full speed. More windows open is better, even if cracked a few inches.”
5. Being Less Careful Outside of the Classroom
Schools resuming in-person class can be taken as a message to society to get back to normal, but that may not be the case yet.
“It’s unfortunate because when children are back in school and things look normal, then people continue to let their guard down in other areas. They might be likely to allow playdates and sleepovers,” White says.
Educators should fight this impulse in their own lives outside of school. “The slippery slope effect carries with it enormous risk,” she says. “Everyone should continue to try to avoid contracting the virus and resisting the impulse to allow indoor playdates or sleepovers. Teachers should be advised not to socialize indoors with other adults. We're almost to the finish line here. If we continue to remain very careful, we'll reach the finish line even faster.”