Safe school reopening is not within reach

A typical classroom setup prior to COVID-19.

As an educator who holds also a medical degree, I would like to share my perspective on school reopening, and the challenges schools face due to their way of operating, the physical condition and age of school buildings, and the lack of readily available affordable COVID testing. I am a National Board Certified Teacher, a published chemistry education researcher, and I have taught in public schools for the past 12 years. I understand how schools function, and I also have an academic background in human physiology, disease, and epidemiology.

When teachers are speaking out and asking schools to ensure that certain safety measures have been met prior to returning to buildings, we are doing so for legitimate reasons. We are concerned not only for our own safety, but also for the safety of our students, their families, and our communities. Creating an environment in a school that can limit the spread of illness to the extent that can take place in other settings is a daunting, if not impossible, task. Retail settings mostly involve brief encounters in large well ventilated indoor spaces. Schools are also not like clinical settings, which are inherently set up for separation of individuals, and already have existing systems for infectious disease control in place. Rather, schools involve groups of people having relatively long duration encounters, and intersecting and mixing throughout the day. Schools are designed for intensive social interaction. In order to deliver the variety of specialized instruction that is typical at the secondary level, students generally take classes with at least five different teachers and groups of students.

Many of our school buildings are old, with antiquated HVAC systems that do not meet modern standards. In my school building, our ventilation system requires manual interventions on a regular basis to work. Last winter my classroom temperature ranged from 60 to 88 (sometimes within one school day) as various aspects were turned on and off to try to get the heat working properly. Even with the diligent effort and responsiveness of our custodians, we are limited by the capabilities of our older HVAC system. Due to the age of the system, we were told that it is not capable of handling the recommended MERV 13 level of filtration, so MERV 11 will be used instead, which is inadequate to trap aerosolized particles that could contain coronavirus. In addition, we were told that the HVAC systems would start off with all the dampers open to continuously bring in fresh outside air, but that as temperatures drop, they will need to be closed down to adequately heat the buildings. If we are counting on the HVAC system to bring in fresh air, but in the winter it is instead cycling through the same air while filtering it at an inadequate level, it seems quite possible that infectious airborne particles could build up in the air. This has implications for what policies are and are not safe, especially in regards to the safety of mask removal in the building for either mask breaks or when individuals are alone in work spaces that may be shared at other times during the day.

Schools are also struggling with the statewide and federal level failures to prioritize the development and accessibility of low cost, rapid COVID testing. Universities are reopening with plans to regularly test students, in many cases more than once per week. Boston College, was recently criticized for not testing all students weekly, even though they have a plan in place to test a large portion of students regularly. But, in most public schools, there is no plan for regular testing of any of the individuals in the community. In fact, the recent DESE guidance that makes essentially no one within a six-foot spaced classroom a close contact, raises concerns that there will be no plan for follow up testing or even notification of others who have been sitting in the same classrooms as the positive case, potentially for hours.

Beyond HVAC and lack of testing, there are other safety concerns. At the secondary level, over 700 people in my school building (half of our usual population), including many teachers who depend on our two elevators to move carts of materials, will need to change locations between classes. How will all of these individuals be able to maintain adequate distance during these transitions? What cleaning protocols need to happen between classes, and who will do that cleaning, and when? How will masking and other safety protocols be enforced? Will schools be able to adequately maintain sinks and provide supplies of soap and paper towels with the increased use this year? We also struggle to reconcile the recent MA DESE expectation that teachers instruct remote students from school with sound public health principles; in contrast, data from a recent poll of 106 companies in MA showing that the vast majority of their employees will still be working from home through at least January 2021. We worry about our colleagues with high risk medical conditions who are being denied remote positions, and how the school will be impacted when people take leaves of absence or resign as a result. And, we worry about those who are unable to take a leave, and report to work in spite of their health concerns.

We all want to be back, in person, learning together as we did before March 13th. Yet, the pressure to reopen ignores the realities of the challenges faced by schools, many of which are not the fault or even responsibility of the administrators and teachers who are currently working hard to prepare for the year. Schools cannot completely renovate their buildings or replace their HVAC systems. They cannot quickly attain and pay for additional classroom space and staff, and they cannot make rapid testing options for COVID more widely available. These are problems that depend on funding and support from our state and federal governments, and are not problems schools can solve easily on their own. With pressure, but lack of support, from above, schools find themselves in a tough spot, pushing forward to reopen when safely doing so is not within reach.

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Rebecca Lewis has been high school science teacher for 12 years in MA. She is a National Board Certified Teacher and published chemistry education researcher.

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Rebecca Lewis, MD

Rebecca Lewis, MD

Rebecca Lewis has been high school science teacher for 12 years in MA. She is a National Board Certified Teacher and published chemistry education researcher.

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