What does a safe classroom look like?

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Classrooms around the country are closing once again as a national coronavirus surge continues to grow.

But Dr. Paula Olsiewski, contributing scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security argues that if basic precautions are taken, going to school can be a relatively low risk activity.

“There are simple tools available to make the built environment in the schools safer against the threat of the coronavirus,” she told KCBS Radio’s “Ask An Expert” program Monday.

Dr. Olsiewski says few instances of virus transmission have been traced back to classrooms, although in many cases the origin is unclear.

“The first step to reduce risk of contracting the coronavirus is universal mask wearing, indoors and out, by all of the people. That cuts the risk way down,” she said. “Then you add ventilation, filtration from air cleaners, you reduce your risk a lot.”

HEPA air cleaners are relatively inexpensive and can be very effective at filtering the air.

“A HEPA air cleaner, if it’s appropriately sized, can give five air changes per hour… that’s every 12 minutes, a whole new batch of fresh air,” she explained.

Still, purchasing new equipment can be cost prohibitive for cash-strapped districts. Thankfully, Dr. Olsiewski says there are many ways to increase ventilation that cost nothing at all.

Opening windows, inspecting existing systems and updating controls to give local maintenance crews more ability to alter central air systems often cost nothing at all.

“Just being able to ventilate classrooms with outdoor air, it’s really beneficial,” she said.

Other key prevention measures include reducing class sizes, distancing within the classroom, staggering breaks and start times and switching to a hybrid model where not every student attends school in person each day can also be very effective at reducing transmission and controlling potential outbreaks as well.

While no measures are 100% effective, Dr. Olsiewski says layering several of these strategies can significantly reduce transmission and the impact on the community and allow students to return to an in-person environment.