How the CARES Act Can Help Make Your School a Healthier Place
With schools closing unexpectedly due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, the past few months have truly showcased the innovation and inventiveness of our nation’s school teachers. Many parents, having to step up to support schooling more than normal, have a refreshed appreciation for what happens in the classroom. Despite circumstances bringing out the best in teachers and parents alike, both can be forgiven for looking forward to a return to something resembling normal. Unfortunately, there is still much uncertainty for what the future will hold looking into a new school year. Summer break is arriving with advantageous timing, allowing time for districts, teachers, and parents to plan for the future. The question remains, how will we safely get back to school?
Calculating the True Cost of Absences Due to Illness
As any parent or teacher knows, even the normal flu season can pose challenges for keeping kids healthy so they can remain in school and keep learning. When students fall ill, it can take a toll on the health of teachers and other staff as well. The costs of both student and teacher absenteeism have been well studied. Absences due to illness not only interrupt learning and development in the classroom, but in some cases can cost a school thousands in federal assistance funding when attendance drops. In addition, these costs are often compounded when parents need to leave work to care for their children.
Each year, the Department of Education calculates a “revenue limit,” which is the amount of money a district should receive in general funding for each student in a traditional, non-charter public school. Then, depending upon the state’s financial situation, that figure might be “deficited.” Last year, revenue limit funds were cut by almost 20 percent. https://www.kpbs.org/news/2011/jun/27/chronically-absent-students-cost-county-schools-mi/
On the parents’ side, 2 out of 5 American workers do not get paid sick leave in the private sector, meaning that more parents are sending their children to school sick since they are unable to take time off to care for them. https://www.gwsavage.com/the-true-cost-of-student-and-teacher-sick-days/
While the financial costs are more evident, there is also ample data showing the effect these absences can have on a student’s educational progress. Not only are unhealthy kids not learning while home sick, but data shows absence from the classroom can inhibit their future educational growth. “…freshman year absences were nearly as predictive of graduation rates as grade point average and course failures.” https://blog.planbook.com/student-absenteeism/
Decreasing Absences by Creating Healthier Spaces
So what can be done to decrease the likelihood of absence due to illness in the first place by making your school a cleaner, healthier space?
There are many components to addressing this question. One of the top considerations should be focusing on maintaining a safe and clean environment for learning as studies show this may have a greater effect on the overall performance of a school than you might think.
In Healthy Schools are Clean, Dry, and Productive, Dr. Michael Berry states that:
a school’s interior climate, appearance, and cleanliness send either a positive or negative message to students, teachers, and staff. Emerging evidence suggests that environmental conditions that create a sense of ‘well-being’ and send a ‘caring message’ contribute directly to positive attitudes and elevated performance as measured by fewer health complaints, improved student attendance, teacher retention, and higher test scores. http://www.osstf.on.ca/en-CA/publications/research-studies/school-environment
In our previous blog highlighting steps for facilities reopening, we discussed the differences between cleaning and disinfection and the importance of knowing what product is being used to create a clean and safe space for occupancy. This becomes even more important in a school environment where a poor choice could negatively affect student’s health in both direct and indirect ways. It is important for a school to know what they are using, how to use it, and that the people doing this work are properly trained.
Choose Your Products Wisely
When comparing advertised products, it is important to think critically. Several solutions currently being marketed promise ‘lasting protection’ for the surfaces on which they are used. This may initially sound like added value, until you realize this means a residue is left behind which is likely to end up on little hands, and thus faces and mouths (and big ones as well!). Chemical products which contain ammonium and phenols can also leave a sticky chemical residue behind, creating a prime breeding ground for germs. Chemicals themselves should always be used with care, as misuse can cause exposure problems.
Data from 55 poison control centers across the country showed they received more than 45,000 exposure calls related to cleaners and disinfectants from January through March 2020, compared to 37,800 calls in the same time frame in 2019. https://news.okstate.edu/articles/agricultural-sciences-natural resources/2020/gedon_chemical_exposure.html
As we can see, it is important to take care that the admirable work of creating a germ-free space doesn’t lead to other health concerns. Additionally, while our current focus is on SARS-CoV-2, the products you choose should be able to target pathogens, such as Norovirus, MRSA, Hand Foot and Mouth, etc., which also plague our educational facilities. Fortunately, some of the best technologies available leave no harmful residue behind while achieving a high-level elimination of target pathogens, making them ideal for a school setting.
A schoolroom can be a breeding ground for childhood illnesses. The classrooms are clean and orderly, but placing twenty children in a room increases the opportunity for sickness to spread. All it takes is one child arriving to school with symptoms of illness, and before you know it, your child who left home healthy steps off the school bus with a fever.
Use Your Products Correctly
Once chosen, products must be applied according to their label specifications in order to achieve the clean or disinfection they claim. Even disinfectant wipes, a favorite for their ease of use, require the user to keep a surface wet for several minutes to be as effective as the label states. A product is also only as effective as the areas it reaches. For anyone who has ever encountered gum stuck under a school desk, it is easy to see that some areas may be overlooked. Products which decontaminate a whole space solve both of these challenges, as they can succeed in treating spaces which cannot, or have not, otherwise been reached and are designed to maintain the necessary contact time.
Educate Your Staff
It is likely the arsenal of cleaning and disinfection supplies used at your school will involve several steps of implementation to truly be effective. This requires some training so that staff will know what to use, as well as how and when to use it.
Making Use of the CARES Act
Not only does choosing the right methods, effective products, and developing a protocol for infection control take time, there are also financial considerations. Fortunately, the Federal Government has made funding available to help schools face these new and evolving challenges. The Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act provides states with funding for schools which can be used to improve the health of a facility in the three relevant ways we discussed above:
1) Purchasing supplies
to sanitize and clean the facilities of a local educational agency, including buildings operated by such agency.
2) Training and professional development
for staff of the local educational agency on sanitation and minimizing the spread of infectious diseases.
3) Developing and implementing procedures and systems
to improve the preparedness and response efforts of local educational agencies. https://www.future-ed.org/what-congressional-covid-funding-means-for-k-12-schools/
A smart and thrifty district could find one solution to address all three of these categories by looking to benefit from the expertise of a decontamination company offering education and training along with devices and solutions. Advice from industry professionals can help your school craft a plan to deal with possible future outbreaks and design a response procedure for what to do when a confirmed case has occurred.
Prevention strategies should also focus on healthy children regardless of their age because of their role in disease transmission. Burden of influenza in healthy children and their households https://adc.bmj.com/content/archdischild/89/11/1002.full.pdf
With funding available, it is important that the right choices be made so that this money is well spent. Rather than buying single-use supplies which will eventually run out, consider investing in a product or system which can continue to be used even after this emergency has passed. The available CARES Act funding brings enhanced decontamination technologies into reach. Decontamination systems which are versatile can give you the best bang for your buck, giving a district the ability to treat not just an entire facility building, but also school buses and other vehicles. A versatile solution can help improve the health and safety of students and staff in each space you are managing.
Going back to classroom learning while still dealing with the pandemic can seem like a daunting task. Important choices must be made towards helping protect the health of the school community. If you are uncertain what the best choices for your facility should be, reach out to the experts for guidance. If you feel your facility could benefit from additional infection control and prevention education, remember the CARES Act provides funding which can be used for programs or speakers who can assist you. With a little education and the proper care of application, schools have the opportunity to come through this pandemic with healthier practices than ever before.