IPM Experience is Helping Schools Plan for Reopening Amid COVID Concerns
Students are already back in class in some states, and more schools will open this month. Some students will attend class virtually, some will be on alternatin- day schedules, and some will be in normal classrooms on normal schedules with their desks spaced further apart.
And no matter what’s being taught, coronavirus will be very much on people’s minds.
At a recent (virtual) meeting of the National School IPM Network, questions came up on how prepared schools were and if they were being pressured to invest in expensive new technology to clean, sanitize or disinfect their classrooms.
The answer – at least according to school IPM specialists in several Western states – is that districts that have integrated pest management programs aren’t panicking. Instead, they’ve incorporated coronavirus into their IPM planning and protocols and are taking steps to protect students and minimize risk.
“I’ve been in touch with all the schools we work with and they all seem to know very clearly what they’re doing,” said Shaku Nair, a community IPM extension associate with the University of Arizona. “They have protocols and very sound plans in place.”
Nair said the districts she works with – including large public school districts in Phoenix and Maricopa County – have provided extra training for employees and made physical changes to help control the potential spread of the virus. Those include new Plexiglas barriers and unidirectional pedestrian traffic through offices and some walkways.
Schools that didn’t have IPM programs in place are calling and asking about materials and equipment, Nair said.
In Oregon, School IPM Coordinator Tim Stock at Oregon State University reported much the same.
“What I’m hearing is that most school districts are networked pretty well through organizations such as the Oregon School Safety Officers Association and the Oregon School Facilities Management Association, and have a pretty good handle on what works,” he said. “I think their main problems are finding the products they know work, cost less and are lower-risk.”
And “lower-risk” is a concern. Chemical disinfectants are registered pesticides and even common ones like disinfectant wipes have a “Keep Out of Reach of Children” warning label.
The California Department of Pesticide Regulation administers the state’s school IPM program, called the Healthy Schools Act, is providing outreach to make sure schools don’t misuse disinfectants.
“DPR offers free, online courses for school staff, including Integrated Germ Management, which specifically focuses on the proper use of antimicrobial pesticides to ensure effective use and to reduce risks to staff and students,” the department told the Western IPM Center. “Schools should ensure that everyone using disinfecting products on site is up to date on their Healthy Schools Act training, uses only EPA-registered disinfectants, and follows all label directions.”
The list of EPA-registered disinfectants effective against the coronavirus can be found at https://www.epa.gov/pesticide-registration/list-n-disinfectants-use-against-sars-cov-2-covid-19
Even used correctly, students and teachers attending class in person may still face higher exposure to disinfectants than they would in previous years.
“It is likely that there will be an increased use of chemical disinfectants in schools,” the department wrote. “The (state’s) school guidance documents recommend that schools disinfect more frequently. Anytime that disinfectants are used improperly, there is a risk of exposure to students and staff. Given the potential for increased use of chemical disinfectants, the DPR School & Child Care IPM Program is prioritizing outreach on how to use disinfectant products properly at schools to reduce risk to staff and students.”
A number of DPR guides can be found here: https://www.cdpr.ca.gov/docs/schoolipm/
Do Surface Treatments Much Matter?
Adding to the challenges facing schools is the possibility that all the new cleaning and disinfecting they’ll be doing may not do much protect their staffs and students. As scientists come to better understand the novel coronavirus causing COVID-19, they now believe that transmission through contact with a contaminated surface is rare.
“Stop focusing on contact transmission,” advised Dean Blumberg, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at UC Davis Children’s Hospital. “That is not a primary route of infection. The primary route is respiratory. If people would focus more on masks and social distancing and less on sanitizing surfaces, we could get this surge of infections to die down quickly.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidance about how COVID spreads in May, clarifying that person-to-person transmission is the primary way the disease is contracted (https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/how-covid-spreads.html).
In July, an article in the medical journal The Lancet examined earlier (and widely publicized) studies that determined how long the coronavirus could survive on various surfaces and showed how those studies used very high concentrations of virus to achieve those results. It also noted one hospital study “in which the authors tried to mimic actual conditions in which a surface might be contaminated by a patient, no viable SARS-CoV was detected on surfaces.” (https://www.thelancet.com/pdfs/journals/laninf/PIIS1473-3099(20)30561-2.pdf)
Because every state is handling the coronavirus differently, schools will be following guidelines issued by their departments of health or education. And, if our recent experience with the coronavirus is any indication, it’s reasonable to expect those guidelines will change.