MIDDLETOWN – The opening of school can be a challenge every year.
But with the threat of COVID-19 hanging over everything these days, Middletown school officials acknowledged this week the 2020-2021 offers more hurdles than normal.
On September 9, 2020,
educators from across the East Bay – including Middletown – participated in an online video chat with an international expert in the field, Dr. Erin Bromage of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.
Bromage said there were three simple, straight-forward keys to help keep students, teachers and staff safe – high-quality masks for everyone, proper distancing and venting classrooms at least four times every hour.
“This is a really scary and uncertain time…” Bromage told the group. “I really have no agenda when it comes to this, other than people’s safety.”
By trade, Bromage is an associate professor of biology at the Massachusetts university. Known for his work in immunology and infectious disease, Bromage gained notoriety almost by mistake after his work on COVID-19 earlier this year in his classroom went viral.
Today, Bromage said he’s not only advising several local schools and the state of Rhode Island about a quarter of the courts across the country as well as movie sets and TV shows to help try to avoid the spread of the virus.
Wednesday’s briefing was for kindergarten through fifth grade teachers. On Thursday, Bromage will speak to grade six through twelve teachers. Portsmouth schools hosted the conversation, which was taped and posted at https://www,youtube.com/PortsmouthRILivestream.
Bromage also directed people to his website at erinbromage.com for more information.
Opening the presentation, Bromage took the group through the basic science of the transmission of COVID-19.
Based on the best available research, he said face-to-face conversations where large COVID-19 infected droplets strike the eyes, nose and mouth were a huge way to spread the virus. The simple solution to dramatically reduce those risks was a face mask covering the mouth and nose, he said.
Another, he said, was when the virus becomes aerosolized, forming small COVID-19 enfected droplets people can’t see other than when they breathe outdoors on a cold day. To combat the spread in this instance, Bromage said an even better mask was necessary with a form-fitting wire on the top around the nose that uses multiple layers of material to filter the air.
About 5 percent of the time, Bromage said the virus can also be spread through contaminated surfaces, particularly in “high-touch areas” like hand railings and bathroom doors and faucets. With that in mind, Bromage suggested those “high-touch areas” be cleaned aggressively, but not an entire school daily.
“We shouldn’t be spending 50 percent of our COVID budget on surfaces…” Bromage said. “The thought of having a custodial person do a deep cleaning every day of the entire school, it’s really pandemic theater.”
Instead, Bromage said schools should take that funding and spend it on high-quality masks for everyone in the building. He also suggested a large box fan be placed in at least one window of every classroom to vent air outside.
The goal, he said, was to completely turn that air over at least four times every 60 minutes, but more whenever possible. For example, he said the air would recirculate six times in a 10,000-square-foot classroom with a box fan in the window and a door open to the hallway.
In his classroom at UMass Dartmouth, Bromage said he runs two box fans off a 50-foot extension cord and creates a “wind-tunnel” effect through his space.
“Any way to get the air out (of a classroom) and the fresh air in, you do,” Bromage said.
Bromage also recommended districts get relatively low-cost carbon dioxide monitors for classrooms. That way, if the carbon dioxide level creeps to 800 parts per million or higher, there likely was an issue with air circulation, he said.
Importantly, Bromage suggested educators rethink how they handle their work, especially those at the elementary grades. Rather than getting on the students’ level, he suggested proper spacing and limiting personal contact. Although that and other measures might seem standoffish, Bromage said they could help keep everyone safer.
Newport school Superintendent Colleen Jermain – who acted as moderator for the chat -- and others applauded Bromage and all his work.
“We’re trying to help and support all of you as teachers and instructors…” Jermain said. “We know there are a lot of questions. What’s safe? What’s not safe? What’s going to happen in my classroom?”
“There are questions and what’s great about Dr. Bromage is he really puts things in perspective,” Middletown school Superintendent Rosemarie Kraeger said. “He’s very clear and reassuring with what he says and helps spread an important message that we can do this, open our schools safely and effectively. It’s critical that people hear this and know this.”