Ventilation and hygiene: Advice and tips for secondary schools

Written by: Dr Neil Bacon | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

One year on and good ventilation, good hygiene and mask-wearing remain at the heart of keeping school sites and classrooms Covid-safe. It is worth reminding ourselves of the safest approaches. Dr Neil Bacon offers some advice and tips for secondary schools


As schools re-opened, teachers, students and even parents experienced mixed emotions. There was excitement at reunions with friends, alongside relief that teachers would once again be able to hold lessons in person.

However, in the midst of this, there remains uncertainty and concern. Faced with a pandemic that has fundamentally impacted society, and with Covid-19 transmission between teachers and students a significant risk, important questions remain.

How best to adapt teaching to ensure best practice with regard to hygiene and social distancing? How can we reduce the risk of Covid-19 transmission within the school? How to create an educational experience that maintains sanitisation but delivers on students’ learning needs?

There are simple steps that schools can take to keep the educational environment as hygienic as possible.


Encourage sensible sanitisation to keep hands clean

By now, we are all well aware of the importance of washing and sanitising hands to reduce transmission after touching a potentially contaminated surface.

When it is not possible to wash your hands with soapy water for as long as it takes to sing “happy birthday” (20 seconds), sanitisers are a crucial weapon.

For example, students should use sanitisers after touching shared equipment such as computers, desks or textbooks, and before eating. So too should teachers ensure that their hands are clean before handing out materials.

In other words, to achieve the optimal efficacy of using hand sanitisers, we should be sanitising our hands frequently. However, an emphasis on frequency of use also has its downsides. Although the popular alcohol-based sanitisers are highly effective at killing the Sars-Cov-2 virus, they can have negative effects for our hand health when applied so consistently, drying out skin and exacerbating dermatological conditions such as eczema and psoriasis. This may prevent both staff and students from applying the hand gel as regularly as would be optimal.

An alternative option is alcohol-free sanitisers. If choosing an alcohol-free sanitiser, schools should make sure to choose one that has been tested against SARS-Cov-2, the pathogen that causes Covid-19.


Ensure surfaces are kept clean using protective disinfectants

As well as people, surfaces are easily contaminated and can be a dangerous vector for transmission if not kept hygienic. This is particularly the case in schools, where surfaces such as desks, worktops, lockers and chairs are shared between pupils.

The easiest way to avoid this is through applying surface disinfectants. However, there are various key factors to take into account when choosing the best option for you, such as the length of time for which it remains effective after application.

While the vast majority of disinfectants will kill pathogens present on a surface at the time of cleaning, fewer will continue to kill pathogens that come into contact with it after the disinfectant is applied. When used in a secondary school environment, such a disinfectant would have to be applied every time someone new came into contact with the surface – highly impractical.

To avoid this issue, schools should consider using protective disinfectants, which kill pathogens that come into contact with the surface for a prolonged period of time after the product is applied.

Protective disinfectants that last for longer are also more cost-effective, beneficial given the financial pressure of implementing Covid-19 measures.

Effective use of protective sanitiser will also free-up teachers and students to focus on education, rather than constant hygiene checks.


Ventilate spaces wherever possible

Schools must recognise the importance of ventilating spaces in order to reduce the risk of transmission. One of the main modes of Covid-19 transmission is respiratory droplets, which are released into the air through coughs, sneezes, and even simply exhaling.

By ensuring that air is flowing in and out of a space, you can ensure that old air containing these droplets can exit, being replaced by fresh air instead. This can reduce the risk of transmission via airborne particles by up to 70 per cent (DHSC, 2020).

To ensure ventilation, you do not need a state-of-the-art air purifying device. You should simply open any doors within a confined space and install electric fans where possible to move air around classrooms and corridors. Of course, opening windows is one of the most effective methods of ventilation, becoming far more manageable with the warmer spring weather.


Mask-wearing

To reduce the risk of airborne transmission, teaching staff and students should also wear masks when possible.

The government guidance (DfE, 2021) recommends for secondary schools that face coverings should be worn by staff, pupils and students when “moving around the premises such as in corridors and communal areas where social distancing cannot easily be maintained”.

More recently the guidance has been updated to also recommend “face coverings should be worn in classrooms, in other learning environments such as workshops, and during activities unless social distancing can be maintained”.

That said, it would be näive not to recognise the difficulty of consistent mask-wearing at every point of the school day. Not only will students not be wearing masks while eating next to one another in the dining hall, but it is also accepted that they take their masks off when chatting unsupervised at break times or on the school bus.

Of course mask-wearing should be enforced where possible, so long as the student or teacher has no exemption. However, the multiple barriers to consistent mask-wearing at school further demonstrates the importance of surface and hand sanitisation, and of ventilation.


Mental health

In order to create a positive learning environment going back to school during the pandemic, school leadership not only needs to protect the physical health of students and staff, but provide support related to any mental health struggles they might be having.

As part of this, leadership should be conscious of creating a school environment that respects, rather than questions, exemptions from mask-wearing due to mental health conditions (Mind, 2021).

Now more than ever, it is important that schools ensure they have the necessary frameworks in place to provide mental health support for those who are struggling during what will be another stressful or overwhelming time for many staff and pupils.


Conclusion

The daily attendance and thoroughfare of pupils and staff will demand a consistent hygiene regime which will not always be easy to implement alongside high standards of teaching. In this challenging context, easing the burden wherever possible with simple solutions will be crucial to delivering a positive education experience that maximises the benefits to every patient of the return to school.

  • Dr Neil Bacon is medical director and CEO of JVS Health, which has developed GermErase, a multi-surface protector. Visit www.germerase.com


Further information & resources

  • DfE: Collection: Guidance for schools: coronavirus (Covid-19), last updated March 5, 2021: http://bit.ly/3lhPcfT
  • Department of Health & Social Care: New film shows importance of ventilation to reduce spread of Covid-19, November 2020: http://bit.ly/3lgExSI
  • Mind: Mask anxiety, face coverings and mental health, accessed March 2021: http://bit.ly/3tjOYYp


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