What does the research say about COVID-19 safety protocols in schools?
| June 14, 2021
I noticed the other day as I walked the halls of my high school that no one follows all the one-way floor stickers we placed all over the building last summer — no one. The funny thing is, no one has been following them at the Demoulas Market Basket grocery store I shop at either. Maybe that’s why the grocery store got rid of them last week. I just told my head custodian to do the same this summer when they do their annual deep clean and waxing of our school floors.
The floor stickers may be one example of a safety protocol that we won’t need this fall, but we know that COVID won’t be gone. The question is, what protocols will we need?
In a recent article, Education Week’s Sarah Sparks reports on “Masks, Tracking, Desk Shields: How Much Do School Measures Reduce Families’ COVID-19 Risk?”
She writes, “The number and kind of protections schools put in place now can make a big difference in the risk that those students will bring the illness home to family members, according to a study published last month in the journal Science. Even as more adults and older students become vaccinated, the study suggests no one safety measure will be a silver bullet when it comes to preventing COVID-19.”
The study, published in April, analyzed data from a large online survey in the United States that found increased risk for COVID for individuals who live with a child who attends school in-person. The study went on to note, “School-based mitigation measures are associated with significant reductions in risk, particularly daily symptoms screens, teacher masking, and closure of extra-curricular activities.”
Furthermore, the authors of the study concluded this: “While in-person schooling is associated with household COVID-19 risk, this risk can likely be controlled with properly implemented school-based mitigation measures.”
So, what exactly are the best school-based mitigation measures for COVID? Here are some suggestions that were pointed out in the study which included data from more than 600,000 families attending 130,000 schools. These strategies were associated with the biggest reductions in the risk of family members developing COVID-like symptoms or testing positive for COVID-19.
Daily symptom screenings: Schools should have a process to perform these daily screenings, and also have procedures to make sure that students with symptoms stay home without penalty.
Teacher masking: One reason that I have found as a principal that teacher masking is effective is one you may not think of — the masks serve as a physical reminder to students to take extra precautions to maintain their personal space and practice good hygiene.
Elimination of extra-curricular activities: It can be an unpopular decision or a school to make, but the research showed lower risk of COVID-19 transmission in schools that put the brakes on extra-curricular activities as they are often much more difficult to monitor and enforce health and safety protocols.
Interestingly, the study found almost no benefit to closing playgrounds or using desk shields. The desk shield topic is of particular interest to me as a principal, especially since I spent a fairly hefty price on plexiglass this past summer so that we could manufacture our own desk shields for classroom and lab spaces at my school.
Teachers in the study reported that the shields actually made them have to get closer to students to hear them. They also restrict air flow, which could make the virus stay around longer in the classroom than if the shield wasn’t there in the first place.
There is no doubt that as we enter the summer months and look to the fall, as school leaders we will still be faced with the reality of needing to implement some COVID-mitigating strategies in schools. We aren’t out of the woods yet, but there is light at the end of the tunnel.
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