How to block COVID’s spread from schools to the community

Researchers ran simulations to measure the spread of COVID based on different approaches to reopening schools
By: | August 19, 2020
The number of potential COVID infections could be cut in half if school administrations create small cohorts of students.The number of potential COVID infections could be cut in half if school administrations create small cohorts of students.

Creating student cohorts of limited size is an effective way that school administrators can stem COVID-19 transmissions when classrooms reopen for in-person instruction, says one expert who has studied how the coronavirus could spread from schools to communities.

That means reducing a class of 20 that meets every day to 10 students who come to school twice a week, for example, while also ensuring strict social distancing and sanitization, says Pinar Keskinocak, a systems engineering professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology and director of the Center for Health and Humanitarian Systems.

This could cut the number of infections by more than half, Keskinocak says.

“Opening school with everybody coming back as usual is not a good idea and would have a big impact on the number of infections in the broader community,” Keskinocak says. “The longer students are in the same space with each other, the higher the chance of infection transmission, even if they’re wearing masks.”

More from DA: 8 tips to prevent communication challenges while wearing a mask in school

Keskinocak’s research team found that, in suppressing COVID infections, an alternating school day schedule performed almost as well as keeping schools fully closed.

Keskinocak’s team ran simulations comparing different approaches to reopening schools, such as only younger children going back to school or alternating school day schedules. For the state of Georgia, they predicted that the number of new infections on the peak day could range from 43,000 to 68,000.

School administrators can also combat COVID by communicating safety measures to students, families and the community, she says.

For instance, they should encourage entire families to quarantine if any member shows symptoms to reduce the chances of asymptomatic transmission, Keskinocak says.

Also, educators should encourage older students, who are more autonomous and independent, to maintain health and safety behaviors outside of school.

Cleaning schools safely

While no one is arguing that school administrators should abandon the rigorous sanitization of classrooms, some organizations are concerned about the potential toxicity of some cleaning materials.

More from DA: Here’s one way to get enough masks and PPE to reopen safely

Data shows that a person is far more likely to get COVID from another person than from a tainted surface, according to the environmental organization Green Seal. The organization has teamed up with the Healthy Schools Campaign to release a list of safer cleaning guidelines.

Many EPA-approved COVID-19 disinfectants include chemicals that can cause asthma and other respiratory diseases.

Traditional cleaning methods are effective at killing coronaviruses on surfaces,  the organization says.

“Blanketing a building in hazardous chemicals won’t necessarily prevent the spread of COVID-19, but it can create significant health risks for those inside,” said Green Seal CEO Doug Gatlin. “After physical distancing and mask-wearing, the best tool to combat COVID-19 is accurate information.”

DA’s coronavirus page offers complete coverage of the impacts on K-12.