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A multifaceted approach

April 4, 2022
Education institutions can help provide safe and healthful environments to help ward off the next pandemic.

In fall 2021, a glimmer of optimism emerged that most people had not felt in 18 months. Large-scale vaccination programs had reduced the risks associated with contracting Covid-19, and for the first time in a year and a half, people were returning to their pre-pandemic lives. This was keenly felt by millions of parents around the United States, who were hopeful that their children would be able to have a normal school year after so many disruptions. Teachers and administrators also felt a major sense of relief.

And then the omicron variant began to spread, and many of the gains of the previous six months evaporated.

Systems reveal cracks and weaknesses under stress, and the stresses of the pandemic revealed the lack of protections that most schools had in place for the health and wellness of those inside them. Covid exposed the dangers of crowded classrooms, poor air circulation and filtration, and a host of other concerns. And the emergence of the delta and omicron variants showed that the protections against the virus may be needed for quite some time. 

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, many of the strategies for mitigating omicron and future variants look a lot like the strategies used to help control earlier Covid strains. Those include social distancing, both through rethinking physical environments and by embracing technology that enables remote learning. But it also means things like touch-free towel dispensers in bathrooms, providing personal protective equipment, and upgrading HVAC systems with supplemental filtration. And it may even mean that masks will become a permanent accessory for some, particularly when flu season rolls around. These preventative measures work toward one simple goal: making it harder to spread disease.  

Active and passive protections

Protective measures fall into two broad categories: active and passive. Active measures are those that require an individual to act — wear a mask, wash hands frequently, maintain social distance, get a vaccination. The onus is on individuals to make smart decisions for their own well-being (and the well-being of the population at large). Active measures are important and have proven to be effective, but they can easily be undone by people who don’t follow the guidelines. 

Passive precautions in a school environment take the onus off an individual decision-maker and put it into the hands of school boards and administrators. These include measures like touchless utilities and improved air filtration. Passive precautions provide an added layer of protection because they change the environmental conditions rather than relying on people to take action. People can forget their masks, ignore social distancing requirements, or choose not to wash their hands, but they can’t opt out of breathing the (highly filtered) air around them.  

This is especially important in education facilities. Many of these institutions are operating in crowded buildings that are at or over intended capacities. And they’re working with children, who may not have the knowledge or temperament to stick to the steps they have been asked to take to protect themselves. Combining passive and active precautions in a layered approach is thought to be the most effective way to slow the spread of an illness.

Anyone working in a classroom during the pandemic is sure to agree that maintaining and enforcing wellness protocols was no small feat. Having the added safety of high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter systems and other passive protections can create a sort of safety net for when the active precautions aren’t followed. 

One if by land, two if by air 

HEPA filters remove airborne particles including dust, pollen, volatile organic chemicals (VOCs), mold, allergens, viruses, odors (like formaldehyde and smoke), bio-aerosols, nitrous oxide, and many other pollutants that contaminate the inside air of workplaces. Adding ultraviolet germicidal irradiation (UVGI) makes the treatment more effective against viruses and other pathogens; it uses UV-C light to neutralize organisms small enough to otherwise slip past the filter. UV-C light is capable of irradiating and destroying the nucleic acids in these microorganisms.

Improved air filtration helps thwart the spread of airborne illnesses; touchless appliances prevent germs from spreading across surfaces. In a classroom, the fewer areas there are for students to touch, the easier it is to stop germs from spreading. Of course, not everything can be made touchless, so schools can use other approaches to help limit the amount of shared contact.  

When passing out books, papers, or other materials, teachers should hand them out one at a time or have them positioned in such a way that students can take their own copies without touching others’. In other words, avoid the “take one, pass them down” approach. Sterilize any item that is going to be used by multiple students as much as possible, including cleaning desks and chairs between class sessions. Instructors may want to put students in charge of cleaning their own items before handing them back; this also may help them to build good habits. Beginning or ending each class or activity with 30 seconds of sanitizing shared workspaces can go a long way in keeping a classroom environment safe and healthful. 

An ongoing battle

Vaccines have restored a sense of normalcy for many people, but the omicron variant has reminded society that the dangers of Covid are far from over. The good news is that using a layered approach to wellness precautions is effective against these threats. As many people noticed, Covid precautions — like masks, social distancing, and frequent handwashing — helped make the 2020-21 flu season a mild one. The reason should be clear: good hygiene and sanitation habits help limit the spread of all germs, not just one specific virus. Because of this, it’s reasonable to expect that many of the precautions adopted during the pandemic will continue for the foreseeable future.  

Even if some combination of herd immunity and ongoing science manage to eliminate the threat of Covid entirely, continuing some of the safety protocols will make schools safer. The pandemic was a wake-up call that society needs to treat communicable diseases as serious threats and provided a lesson in the steps needed to do exactly that. The next challenge will be continuing to take precautions when the ongoing threat isn’t as obvious or well-publicized. 

Filters, touchless devices, and other tools used to help navigate the threat of Covid will continue to be important going forward, and the level of ongoing protection they provide may just be enough to make the next Covid variant a little easier to manage.

Marshal Sterio is the CEO of Surgically Clean Air Inc., a Toronto-based manufacturer of portable systems that purify air by supplementing existing HVAC systems. 


An added layer of protection

The Atlanta school system has acquired 5,000 portable air purifiers and installed them in all of its classrooms to improve air quality and deter the spread of Covid-19.

Superintendent Lisa Herring says the district has allocated $3.5 million in Covid relief funds to purchase the equipment.

“This adds an additional layer of protection for staff and for students,” Herring says, “and it adds to our comprehensive mitigation strategy, which has been successful in keeping our schools open for in-person instruction for the vast majority of this school year.”

The purifiers operate quietly and do not interfere with classroom learning, Herring says. The equipment will remain in classrooms even after the pandemic has ended “and be part of our overall protocol for providing our students and teachers with clean, healthy learning and working environments,” the superintendent says.

About the Author

Marshal Sterio

Marshal Sterio is the CEO of Surgically Clean Air Inc., a Toronto-based manufacturer of portable systems that purify air by supplementing existing HVAC systems. The company’s products are market leaders in dental practices currently being used in over 45,000 dental offices, and are used by Fortune 500 companies, Major League Baseball clubs, the NBA, the NHL and thousands of other organizations.

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