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Daily News Blog

08
Aug

Tell Congress and Governors that Schools Must Reopen Only When Safe; Toxic Disinfectants Are Not a Shortcut to Safety

(Beyond Pesticides, August 10, 2020) Despite pressure to reopen schools, concerns persist about the threat to the health of children, teachers, school staff, and families. There are many complex social, scientific, and logistical issues involved in a decision to reopen schools for in-person teaching. 

>>Tell Congress and Governors that schools must reopen only when safe. Schools must have adequate resources to ensure safety.

Beyond Pesticides joins the National Education Association (NEA), American Federation of Teachers (AFT), National Parent and Teacher Association (PTA), and others in calling for a well-thought-out approach to reopening schools only when it is shown that:

  • The pandemic is under control in the community—as evidenced, for example, by an average daily community infection rate among those tested for COVID-19 below 5% and a transmission rate below 1%.
  • Protections have been put in place to keep the virus under control and protect students and staff. These include accommodations for students and staff at high risk; measures and building retrofits to protect against all forms of transmission; procedures for detecting disease, quarantining, and notification; involvement of families and educators in decisions; monitoring; and enforcement.
  • Plans are in place that ensure continuous learning equitably for all students, with training for educators, families, and students in the process of virtual instruction, and access to devices and high-speed internet for every student and teacher.

The risks of reopening schools come from both COVID-19, caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and the measures that schools may take to protect students, family members, teachers, and staff. The health risks from the virus to young children (elementary school age) appear to be smaller than the risks to adults, although transmission or spread of the virus to adults is of concern.

Avoid Dangerous Disinfectant Use
As schools closed earlier in the year, attention was focused on virus-contaminated surfaces. While EPA has certified a large number of disinfectants as effective against SARS-CoV-2 (List N), many of these chemicals are hazardous and actually weaken the respiratory, immune, and nervous systems. At the same time, there are many safer disinfectants on EPA’s list that are effective against the virus.

In terms of disinfecting surfaces, where half-lives (an indicator of the time of potential exposure) of the virus range up to 6.8 hours, school districts have been concerned with the costs involved in repeated disinfectant applications. In the interest of disinfecting many classrooms quickly, schools have been investigating, and sometimes investing in, devices that apply disinfectants as a fog or fine mist into the indoor ambient air. Such devices pose special risks, as a result of inhalation or absorption from resulting surface residues.

Fogging does not save labor time. There are several caveats to the use of electrostatic sprayers. First, charged particles may be deposited on the applicator, including in the nose, so personal protective equipment, said to be optional in advertising, should be used. Second, since CDC recommends cleaning first to ensure greater efficacy of disinfecting, it is not clear that spraying disinfectant saves very much time if it is necessary to first clean the surfaces. Paper and other absorbent materials must be removed from the space where the spraying is conducted. Finally, research shows that electrostatic application of disinfectant is not as effective as conventional cleaning and disinfection. In the future, it is possible that electrostatic sprayers may improve, and be subject to independent efficacy review by EPA. The issues of the need to pre-clean, remove papers, and provide PPE will remain. Thus, if the goal is to provide a quick application method that does not require hands-on treatment, then no area-wide spraying is adequate at this time.

Please see Beyond Pesticides’ fact sheet on reopening schools and web page on Disinfectants and Sanitizers for more information.

Airborne Transmission of COVID-19
We now know that the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus is mainly person-to-person through the air, although spread through contaminated surfaces does play a role. The virus can remain infective as aerosol for at least three hours. A recent study finds, ”replication of SARS-CoV-2 in older children leads to similar levels of viral nucleic acid as adults, but significantly greater amounts of viral nucleic acid are detected in children younger than 5 years.” With average class sizes ranging from 15 to 24 students across elementary and secondary schools, and an average class time of more than 6 hours per day, the potential for spread of the virus can be great in the absence of controls of airborne virus. None of the disinfectants—even those applied as fog—control airborne virus.

The safest way to minimize the chance of contracting COVID-19 through the air is to minimize time spent indoors and practice social distancing with masks both indoors and outdoors. Schools that do decide to reopen indoor classrooms for in-person instruction will need to take precautions to remove viruses from the air. If schools can be retrofitted with engineering controls for air exchange and filtration, virus removal may be maximized. Such removal will still require the use of social distancing and face coverings to minimize exposure from larger droplets that do not remain suspended in the air, as well as surface cleaning and disinfection and handwashing.

Engineering controls include increasing ventilation with outside air, improving natural ventilation, use of evaporative coolers in hot, dry climates, improving the HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) system, and use of a portable air cleaner or purifier. Ultraviolet (UV) light is also being investigated for its effectiveness in deactivating the virus. Critically, it is important to pay attention to patterns of air flow as well as rates of ventilation and purification. One early indicator of the importance of airborne transmission of the virus came from a restaurant in Guangzhou, China, where a presymptomatic person infected ten others who were downwind of the infected person in the air conditioning airflow. The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) offers advice to retrofit and improve HVAC systems.

Transportation. Transportation cannot be ignored because it an area of high transmittal with numerous touch points and shared air space, raising similar issues to building spaces. Increased use of private transportation to schools will increase air pollution (which aggravates the respiratory system) and place higher burdens on those who cannot afford it. ASHRAE offers guidance for safer travel and maintenance of systems on transit vehicles.

Reopening schools safely will not be cheap. A report issued by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) on June 4, 2020 finds, “About half (an estimated 54 percent) of public school districts need to update or replace multiple building systems or features in their schools, according to GAO’s national survey of school districts.” The upgrades or retrofits needed in an attempt to protect students and staff from the coronavirus are in addition to GAO-cited repairs, although in some cases—such as the 41% of upgrades needed for HVAC systems—COVID-19 protection could take the place of already-needed upgrades. Nevertheless, additional funding will be required to make facilities and transportation safer and pay for day-to-day maintenance and disinfection. 

>>We call upon Congress to appropriate emergency funding to schools to ensure that all students, teachers, and staff can be protected from the pandemic before returning to school.

Letter to the U.S. Congress and Governors

I am writing because I am very concerned that schools are being pressured to reopen before they can do so safely—and lack the resources to ensure the safety of in-person classes. I am concerned that some schools seem to view unsafe disinfection measures—such as fogging—as necessary shortcuts in view of staffing and funding shortfalls.

I join with the National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers, National Parent and Teacher Association, and others in asking you to do your part to ensure the safety of all in our schools—students, teachers, and other staff.

The safety of all in our schools will require:

* Delaying reopening until the pandemic is under control in the community—as evidenced, for example, by an average daily community infection rate among those tested for COVID-19 below 5% and a transmission rate below 1%.

* Protections to be put in place to keep the virus under control and protect students and staff. Since we now know that the virus is airborne, upgrades to heating, ventilation, and cooling (HVAC) systems will be essential. Transportation must be included.

* Plans—developed in cooperation with the school community—to be in place to ensure continuous learning equitably for all students.

*Federal funding to support upgrades to buildings, buses, and electronic devices and access.

Already funding falls short of that required for the upkeep and upgrade of school buildings. A report issued by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) on June 4, 2020 finds, “About half (an estimated 54 percent) of public school districts need to update or replace multiple building systems or features in their schools, according to GAO’s national survey of school districts.” The upgrades or retrofits needed to protect students and staff from the coronavirus are in addition to those repairs, although in some cases—such as the 41% of upgrades needed for HVAC systems—COVID-19 protection could take the place of already-needed upgrades. Nevertheless, additional funding will be required to make facilities and transportation safer and pay for day-to-day maintenance and disinfection.

Please see information at bp-dc.org/backtoschool.

Thank you for your help with this urgent issue.

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