Masks to desk dividers: Which COVID-19 safety measures should parents look for in schools?

Dr. Allison Agwu, a John Hopkins professor, says ideally all students would be sitting 6 feet apart and wearing masks.
Yana Kunichoff
Arizona Republic

As Arizona students have returned to school amidst rising COVID-19 cases, families have had to navigate a raft of varying health safety precautions. Those can change from district to district and sometimes, as new information comes in or mandates are removed or added, policies shift from week to week.

Many parents ping-pong between Google searches, text chains and frantic calls to principals to understand what safety measures they should be looking for to decrease their child's chances of catching the coronavirus.

With that in mind, The Arizona Republic spoke to three health experts about best practices around school safety. Two common threads emerged from each: the importance of masking and strong air ventilation for indoor learning.

For families, particularly ones in Arizona schools where masks are optional, the experts suggest parents should look for schools that are using multiple mitigation strategies for students.

Dr. Christina Bergin, a practicing internal medicine physician in Phoenix, calls it the Swiss cheese approach.

“No one measure is going to work 100%,” she said. “If you line up multiple pieces, some virus that maybe would get through the holes will be blocked by something else.”

Also, they say, the devil is in the details. Masking is important, but if students remove their masks to drink water throughout the day in the classroom or to eat together in a crowded cafeteria, there is still a chance for infection.

“If you have a mask and then you remove a mask in a crowded cafeteria, you’ve defeated the whole point of having a mask requirement,” said Dr. Farshad Marvasti, who goes by Dr. Shad.

He advocates both masking and broad air filtration supports as best practices.

Most importantly, the experts say they want all families to remember that what they do doesn’t only affect the safety of their own children, but everyone in the classroom.

“While personal choice is important, someone’s personal choice has the potential to cause real, true, long-lasting harm to other families in their community,” Bergin said. “Even if it’s not the students themselves, it may be a high-risk family member at home. We need to approach public health as a community and look out for one another.”

Here are a few of the most — and less — important public health measures that parents should look out for at their children’s school:

Social distancing

Dr. Allison Agwu, a John Hopkins professor, says ideally all students would be sitting 6 feet apart and wearing masks. Guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends schools maintain at least 3 feet of physical distance between students within classrooms, in addition to universal masking, regardless of vaccination status.  

With many schools back in person, neither may always be possible. That’s a particular challenge for young students, who are learning about personal space in their first years in school.

“That is one of the reasons why head lice kind of disappears in middle school and high school — young kids don’t have a good sense of personal space,” Shad said.

The answer? All of the other mitigation measures noted below which, even if students don’t maintain distance all the time, will help minimize spread.

“When you have other mitigation measures in place, with ventilation, with portable HEPA filters — either of those plus masks — 3 feet is probably enough,” he said. “It’s going to be more of a challenge with those younger kids.”

Face masks

All the public health experts we interviewed agree: Masking is critical, both for controlling spread in sick students and protecting students from themselves getting sick.

“We don’t argue about putting on safety belts or car seats for our kids to keep them safe in cars,” Agwu said. “Please do the same for masks and COVID.”

When deciding on masks, the best are KN95 masks in child-size versions, Shad said. But it’s also key that any mask is worn over the nose, mouth and chin — and to increase the longevity of those high-quality masks, they can be worn under a cloth mask.

Next level are surgical masks, which are not as effective as KN95s, but do more to block the virus than cloth masks. They also note that you can double-mask to increase protection.

Air ventilation

To minimize the likelihood of spreading disease in classrooms, the CDC suggests first and foremost that, if possible, schools bring in as much outside air as possible by opening windows and doors and using fans to increase air flow through open windows.

Schools should also make sure their heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems bring in as much outside air as possible and make sure air flow is constant throughout the day.

Bergin drills down into that further: She says there are three different types of air filtration that families can ask about for their schools. One is how much fresh air comes into a room, the second is what kind of filtration schools use in their existing air-conditioning systems, and the third layer is what kind of additional high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters they can have.

What doesn't do much: Temperature checks, desk shields, online screeners

Last school year, before widespread knowledge about masking and ventilation, morning temperature checks and desk shields marked the frontier of COVID-19 school safety.

This year, many districts have left those measures behind.

And that’s OK, say the experts we interviewed.

Temperature checks can sometimes catch people who have a fever from COVID-19, but they miss asymptomatic cases. And in places like Arizona, where students returned to schools as temperatures soared upward of 100 degrees, feeling hot might be totally normal while waiting on sunny asphalt.

“It gives a false sense of security," Marvasti said. “You can have enough viral load, even without having any symptoms, to spread it to other people.”

Similarly, desk shields may stop the virus in larger droplet particles from reaching a person on the other side of it, but they can also sometimes trap airborne virus particles or keep air from circulating, both of which are important elements in air filtration safety.

“They are another surface that needs to be wiped down,” Shad said. “It’s a waste of money.”

And what about online health screeners?

“They are only as reliable as the parent filling it out,” Shad said.

Students with symptoms must quarantine — and get tested

What if a young person wakes up one day with a fever or chills, a cough, shortness of breath, and feeling very, very tired?

If they’re at school, districts should have an isolation area to separate students from staff, Agwu said.

If students are home, they must not come to school — and should get tested.

“It is incredibly important to be tested,” Bergin said. “Some of the classical symptoms like lack of taste or smell we are still seeing with the delta variant, but not as often.”

The timing of the test is also important, she said. If a test on the first day or two of symptoms is negative, a student should be tested again in a few days.

Isolation should last for at least 10 days after symptoms first appear and continue for at least 24 hours after fever specifically disappears without taking any medication and any other symptoms have improved.

But if a young person tests negative, they can return to school with that test, provided it is at least 24 hours after a fever has abated without medication and symptoms are gone or improved.

If a family chooses not to take a test or one isn’t easily available, Bergin suggests they treat symptomatic children as if they are contagious.

“If you choose not to test, then the assumption should be for any potential symptoms, you should assume it is COVID,” she said, “and you should isolate for 10 days.”

Close contacts also need to quarantine — and get tested 

The CDC defines a close contact as someone who was within 6 feet for a total of 15 minutes or more in 24 hours, within two days prior to illness onset in the infected individual, regardless of whether the contact was wearing a mask. 

However, the agency makes an exception for students in K-12 settings, excluding students who were within 3 to 6 feet of an infected student if both were correctly and consistently wearing masks.

Generally speaking, public health experts recommend that anyone who was a close contact of a positive case plan to quarantine for 10 to 14 days from the last contact with the individual and get tested no earlier than three days after exposure.

That shifts a little for people who are vaccinated or have had COVID in the last 90 days, Bergin said. The CDC also recommends that fully vaccinated individuals with a known exposure should be tested three to five days after exposure, regardless of whether they have symptoms. 

“You should monitor yourself for symptoms and be rigorous about wearing a mask for 14 days after last exposure,” she said.

For young students who are not yet vaccinated, public health experts recognize that it can be difficult for families to make the decision to disrupt daily life when it’s not clear whether a child has the virus — and to wait the prerequisite amount of time until an infection would be visible on a test.

“This one causes individuals and families the most angst,” Agwu said. “Even if test results are negative, recommendation is (to quarantine) 14 days from the last contact.”

About the experts we consulted

The experts interviewed are:

  • Dr. Christina Bergin, a practicing internal medicine physician in Phoenix who specializes in hospital medicine and who is one of the co-founders of Right 2 Safe Schools Arizona, a coalition organizing to advocate for enhanced COVID mitigation measures in schools.
  • Dr. Farshad Marvasti, director of the Public Health, Prevention and Health Promotion theme, an associate professor at the University of Arizona and an expert source on the delta variant of the coronavirus.
  • Dr. Allison Agwu, a pediatric infectious disease clinician at John Hopkins School of Medicine, a leading institution on the spread of COVID-19 and precautionary measures to prevent the coronavirus.

Reach the reporter at and follow her on Twitter @yanazure.