May 26, 2021

Late-Breaking Session Asks: How Can IHs Help Schools?

By Ed Rutkowski

May 26, 2021—As school districts across the United States plan to resume large-scale face-to-face learning this autumn, a special panel joined Virtual AIHce EXP 2021 on Monday, May 24, for a live discussion of the roles industrial hygienists can play in reopening schools and the barriers that could prevent success. The panel included Tracy Washington Enger, a program manager with EPA’s Indoor Environments Division who has extensive experience working with school administrators; Devin Jopp, CEO of the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology; and Alex LeBeau, a toxicologist and industrial hygienist who owns a consultancy in Orlando, Florida, and a contributor to AIHA’s Back to Work Safely documents.

Enger began the discussion by acknowledging that many schools struggled to maintain healthy facilities even before the COVID-19 pandemic. Efforts to reopen safely must confront a legacy of deferred maintenance, Enger said. She views the COVID-19 crisis as an opportunity to convince school administrators of the connection between properly maintained buildings and academic performance. “There is an abundance of evidence-based science to demonstrate the fact that environmental conditions have an impact on” test scores and teachers’ ability to reach students, Enger said.

For Jopp, the key to a safe reopening is to form school-based infection control teams. “We know how to do this—and have been doing it for decades—in healthcare,” Jopp said.

Applying lessons from healthcare to schools will require all stakeholders to be trained in infection prevention. Workers in schools need to understand respiratory protection, best practices in cleaning and disinfection, and how the logistics of moving children around schools creates opportunities for disease transmission. “The expertise of industrial hygienists in trying to help coach our schools” will be crucial for success, Jopp said.

“Schools in general need to understand we do exposure science,” LeBeau added. “We understand how exposures impact people in occupied space.”

Enger said the constant changes to COVID-related guidance over the course of the pandemic have been especially burdensome for schools, where the effort to keep up is like “laying track in front of a moving train.” Overwhelmed by the changes, school personnel may not even be aware of much of the information available to them, such as AIHA’s guidelines for reopening K-12 schools, which are available in English (PDF) and Spanish (PDF).

More than in other workplaces, politics in schools can be particularly complex, with potentially fraught clashes between and among administrators, teachers, and parents. Jopp pointed to the politicization of face coverings during the early stage of the pandemic as an example of personal beliefs interfering with safety recommendations.

Some of that complexity stems from a lack of trust, Enger suggested. This is another area where industrial hygienists can help: as independent third parties, representing neither parents nor school administrators but the science of health and safety, IHs have the neutrality necessary to earn trust from all sides. “That’s a huge piece of value that you bring to this conversation,” Enger told attendees.

LeBeau recommended that IHs reach out to school boards, introduce themselves, and explain their work. Ultimately, schools need to understand that IHs can help not only with COVID-19 but with other problems in the built environment. “Chances are, the next issue is not going to be a virus at all,” he said, adding that AIHA’s Indoor Environmental Quality Committee has been warning workplaces about the potential for Legionella outbreaks as employees return to work in reopened buildings with water systems that have lain stagnant for months. A separate Back to Work Safely document, “Recovering from COVID-19 Building Closures,” addresses these concerns and is also available in English (PDF) and Spanish (PDF).

As an advisor to the COVID Collaborative, a national coalition that develops recommendations for addressing the pandemic, Jopp has been discussing ways to make schools safe not only during this pandemic but future outbreaks. “Unfortunately, on other pandemics, we have short memories,” Jopp said, pointing to the 2014 Ebola epidemic as an example. “This needs to be different, and it needs to stay in our collective consciousness.

“We need to make sure [schools] have access to the experts on an ongoing basis.”

Ed Rutkowski is editor in chief of The Synergist.