February 17, 2022 / Ed Rutkowski

Schools and the Pandemic

Perhaps in no other environment have the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic caused more complexity than in schools. At the recent online seminar “Protecting Our Most Vulnerable Workers: Challenges, Solutions and Invisible Barriers,” a panel discussion devoted to education brought to light the intricacies of pandemic response in school environments, which vary greatly across the United States. The participants on the panel suggested that the greatest commonality for school principals and administrators trying to protect staff and students from the worst pandemic in a century is the need for each to adapt health and safety guidance to their particular circumstances.

“Every school district is unique, but every school building within a district is [also] unique,” said Amy Bahruth, an associate director with the American Federation of Teachers.

The discrepancies across schools have important ramifications for pandemic guidance. For example, the capacities of school heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems vary widely, as do the numbers of students, the sizes of classrooms, the feasibility of online learning, and the local jurisdiction’s tolerance for mitigations such as face coverings. In some schools, the only ventilation available might be through open windows. And then there are schools like Collins Hill High School in Suwanee, Georgia, where the windows don’t open.

During the panel discussion, Collins High Principal Karensa Wing shared her experiences working during the pandemic. She was considered an essential worker, so even after her school shut down in March 2020, she continued to come to work every day along with other key staff. By summer, the school had implemented guidelines to allow sports activities to resume. When teachers returned to school in the autumn, they could choose whether to conduct classes online or in person. Many ended up teaching both concurrently. Health and safety precautions included routine disinfection of classrooms and a mandate for face coverings.

Throughout the pandemic, Wing and her team have struggled to communicate about pandemic-related requirements with the many audiences they need to reach. “We’re trying to get students to do what we’re asking, the staff to do what we’re asking, and the parents to support those requests,” Wing said.

Panelist Joel Solomon, who oversees the health and safety program at the National Education Association, also spoke about the difficulties of communicating rapidly changing health and safety guidance to school administrators across the country. “In our experience, folks are less likely to say, ‘Okay, here are five mitigation measures, [and] we’re going to pick number 4,’” Solomon said. “Either they understand the goal and the complexity, or they’re going to say, ‘We can’t do it.’”

From the beginning of the pandemic, Solomon recognized that the usefulness of the guidance available from government and public health authorities varied greatly. The emphasis on temperature checks, for example, ignored ample evidence that asymptomatic spread was driving infections. “Developing a substantive understanding of what was really effective and what was hygiene theater—what was designed to make people feel good and what was going to work—was a challenge,” he said. It didn’t help that the authors of the guidance didn’t understand the complexities facing schools, whose workforce includes a range of staff with varying responsibilities and potential exposures. School nurses, for example, may need different guidance than teachers, custodians, and bus drivers.

Like Wing and Solomon, Claire Barnett, the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Healthy Schools Network, recognized communication to be one of the main challenges associated with the pandemic response in schools. During the panel discussion, Barnett observed that confusion over CDC guidance led schools to focus on different mitigations at different times.

In April 2020, one month into the lockdowns that ended in-person classroom activities for the spring semester, the Healthy Schools Network launched an effort to encourage schools to use the closures as opportunities to enhance ventilation in school buildings and adopt new disinfection protocols. The purpose of the initiative was to help schools get ahead of the issues before students and staff returned in the autumn. “One of the things we’re still concerned about is that schools tend to—for lots of different reasons—respond after the fact,” Barnett explained. “Right now, the preparation in terms of COVID is very patchwork.”

As the pandemic stretches into its third year, schools are likely to remain a focal point for health and safety issues related to infectious disease. For other perspectives on these issues, watch The Synergist’s “Healthy Schools Townhall Webinar.”

Editor’s note: “Protecting Our Most Vulnerable Workers: Challenges, Solutions and Invisible Barriers” was cosponsored by AIHA and the Integrated Bioscience and Built Environment Consortium and funded by a grant from CDC/NIOSH.

Ed Rutkowski

Ed Rutkowski is editor-in-chief of The Synergist.


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