Following COVID outbreaks after schools reopened, many students continued to miss out on learning after being sent home to self-isolate. We take a look at the current guidance on infection control in schools and other childcare settings and how education leaders can deliver more effective measures to prevent repeated outbreaks.
Infection prevention and control in schools
Schools are following guidelines provided to the letter to ensure maximum safety for both staff and students, but they may not be enough to combat the spread of infection.
Regular hand washing and disinfecting at antibacterial stations are now commonplace in schools to prevent infection spread via surface contact of doors, tables and chairs. The method has been proven to be powerful in combating germs, not just covid.
However, between sanitising, unclean items such as hand drying facilities, stationery, books and phones are touched, impacting the effectiveness of the sanitisation procedure.
Twice-weekly testing is now available to households with primary and secondary school and college enrolled students to ensure asymptomatic cases are caught and contained. Lateral flow tests are provided via educational institutions and expected to be carried out at home, on an optional basis.
While in theory, this method can drastically reduce the number of cases in schools, it requires full participation from parents and students, and over a half of head teachers in a recent survey reported problems with obtaining consent from parents. It also requires tests to be performed properly.
A recent Government report states that the tests are 99.9% accurate. Other studies as reported in the British Medical Journal report much lower sensitivity – even lower when carried out by non-medical professionals.
Experts such as Dr Mike Gill, former Regional Director of Public Health South East England, also questioned the motivation behind opting in to the testing. Speaking to ABC News, he suggested that with positive outcomes resulting in more time off work for parents to self-isolate, many may decide to not carry out a test. He also suggested that students with negative test results may be less inclined to follow the social distancing rules in place as they have a false sense of security that they are safe from the virus.
Many schools have introduced bubbles to limit the contact between classes of students, but there are some aspects not taken into account.
As teachers are mainly subject specialists in secondary schools and sixth forms, it’s extremely likely that teaching staff are interacting with multiple bubbles each day for hours at a time within fairly close quarters. While bubbles are asked to self-isolate when a case is confirmed, teaching staff moving between bubbles are not tracked, meaning that not all bubbles potentially infected are sent home.
Another issue is public areas. With limited capacity, corridors and shared spaces, such as outdoor school grounds and eating areas, see a high level of student footfall. Many students will likely socialise within their friendship groups outside of class time, instead of their assigned bubbles. As schools cannot limit socialisation in students’ free time, mixing bubbles is inevitable.
Opening windows and air movement
As an airborne virus, ventilation is key when it comes to eradicating coronavirus as well as other dangerous germs from the air students and teachers breathe.
Schools are following an infection control policy which instructs educational leaders to ensure windows remain open, without taking into account the impact of outdoor air.
While opening a window supports new air circulating into the room, is it truly fresh and clean air? It’s unlikely that schools have conducted an audit of the air quality before implementing these infection control measures, meaning that outside pollutants could be impacting the health of students in the building.
Modern schools have various different air movement systems, which can reduce the need to open windows as it circulates fresh or recycled air through the building or classroom. However, there are no cleansing agents within these systems, meaning that microbes such as covid could be moving through the vents between bubbles and acting as a super spreader.
Creating an effective infection control policy for schools
To ensure maximum safety for students, education leaders must go beyond the guidelines provided to create a robust infection control policy.
Instead of relying on parent and student compliance, which has limited opportunities for schools to enforce, schools should focus on the controllable measures they can take, such as killing covid and other dangerous microbes in the building itself to prevent an outbreak.
Technologies such as ultraviolet germicidal irradiation make this possible.
What is ultraviolet germicidal irradiation?
Ultraviolet germicidal irradiation, or UVGI, is an effective disinfection method. It uses short wavelength ultraviolet (UV-C) light to kill dangerous microbes in the environment, making the air truly clean.
The systems are installed in a variety of ways, both within air movement systems and as standalone units, to cleanse buildings, and have been proven to kill over 99.9% of common microbes in just minutes, which includes COVID-19.
Auditing school air quality
As part of a risk assessment of the impact of the air quality on students, we work with schools to produce an air quality audit on both indoor and outdoor air. Following the monitoring of air quality, we produce recommendations on creating a safe environment for students and staff.
How can schools use UVGI to be safe?
As UVGI units are entirely safe when fitted by professionals, as well as silent, many work away in the background, pretty much unnoticed. Many schools and other institutions, such as universities and hospitals, have fitted them to clean the air while the building operates as normal.
Students and teaching staff will have the peace of mind that the air they are breathing in is safe so they can focus on learning, instead of worrying about their health.