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Keeping safe at school during Level 2

by Dr Julie Bennett, Senior Research Fellow, Department of Public Health, University of Otago, Wellington
The virus that causes Covid-19 can spread via airborne transmission, with virus-laden aerosols able to remain suspended in the air for long periods before being inhaled into the airways, triggering new infections. Indoor spaces with low levels of ventilation are high-risk settings for transmission. Aotearoa New Zealand has already experienced several large outbreaks in school communities, most notably that Marist College outbreak, which generated 96 cases.

Ventilation rates in New Zealand schools have been shown to be inadequate, with a typical Wellington primary school classroom only meeting the building code ventilation standard 38% of the school day.

In 2017, the Ministry of Education published a guideline for minimum performance requirements for indoor air quality and thermal comfort in schools. However, these guidelines only apply to new buildings and upgrades. While some ventilation improvements will require structural alterations to school buildings, there are strategies that schools can implement, especially with the arrival of spring.

These strategies are:

  • Increase natural ventilation – bring as much outdoor air in as possible by opening windows to get across room air-flow.
  • Use child-safe fans to increase effectiveness of open windows by safely securing fans to blow potentially contaminated air out and pull in outdoor air.
  • Consider having activities, classes, breaks outdoors when circumstances allow.
  • Use CO2 monitors in classrooms to indicate when to take action e.g., opening windows, moving outside.
  • Use potable air cleaners – high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filtration units for settings were natural ventilation isn’t feasible and in high-risk areas such as sick bays.

Things to be mindful of are ensuring that classrooms remain warm enough to be healthy for children and staff – additional funding to enable schools to run heating may be required. Practical guidance for staff that minimises their already high burden of responsibility for multiple facets of children’s wellbeing is needed.

Ventilation strategies should work together with other outbreak control measures such as mask-wearing, cohorting, staying home when unwell, and vaccinating staff and students. Optimising ventilation in schools has multiple co-benefits aside from Covid-19 prevention, including prevention of other respiratory infections that circulate in schools and improving children’s learning and concentration. Optimising ventilation in schools should be a critical component of the New Zealand Covid-19 response to keep children safe and schools open, as schools do far more than provide formal education.

by Dr Dougal Sutherland, Clinical Psychologist, Victoria University of Wellington and Umbrella Wellbeing
Whilst Alert Level 2 may bring a sense of freedom for some, for others it may bring a sense of worry and anxiety. This worry may be especially so for parents and whānau as children return to school. Parents and teachers will be well aware of the difficulties of enforcing physical distancing between children, whether they be five or 15 years old, and this may raise the concern of COVID-19 spreading, especially given the apparent speed of the Delta variant.

Anxiety may be compounded for some families if parents remain working from the relative safety off home whilst children are out and about. The ambiguity of rules for children over the age of 12 could also cause confusion and worry for both whānau and teachers alike. Children over 12 are now able to be vaccinated, yet they are not required to wear masks at school nor on school buses, which often resemble sardine cans.

In such times of uncertainty, focusing and acting on factors within an individual’s control (e.g., wearing a mask, washing hands, and getting vaccinated) can alleviate some of this worry.

Content Sourced from scoop.co.nz
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