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Plexiglass in schools: A placebo or protector? Experts sound the alarm.

  • Updated

MYRTLE BEACH — As thousands in Horry County and across South Carolina reconsider their format of school instruction before the second semester, medical experts are casting a wide net in questioning the effectiveness of plexiglass used as dividers in classrooms, calling the measure a “placebo” and pointing to the lack of data to determine the true impact.

In mid-November, the Horry County Schools Board of Education unanimously voted to use nearly $5 million in state funds to install plexiglass throughout the district to try and combat the spread of COVID-19 in classrooms, something already complete in many other South Carolina school districts.

Construction work began with HCS elementary schools in late November and will finish by Dec. 23, while high schools will go last and finish at an undetermined date — despite the latter representing 39.5 percent of the district's historic COVID-19 cases within schools.

School Board Chairman Ken Richardson hasn’t been shy about the intended goal of installing the plexiglass in the county — a return to full-time, in-person schooling.

"We aren’t spending $5 million to leave the children sitting at home,” he said before the meeting that the school board made its decision to invest in the plexiglass structures. “I would think we would be going back (full-time) after Christmas break.”

The board qualified its decision by pointing to the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control indicating that more students could be moved back into the classroom simultaneously if plexiglass was installed — including ignoring the recommended 6 feet of social distancing.

Aynor-Elementary-Plexiglass-1.jpg

Kindergarten classes in Aynor Elementary School only have tables in the classroom, so the plexiglass quarters the table to keep students separate. Tyler Fleming/Staff

DHEC offered the following in mid-August, directly responding to the idea that students could be moved closer than the CDC-recommended 6 feet:

“The students would not be considered close contacts when:

  • Appropriate plexiglass is utilized, and
  • Distance between students is at least 3 feet apart, and
  • The students are wearing cloth face coverings or face masks that cover the nose and mouth (the plexiglass does not serve as a substitute to mask-wearing).”

Board of Education members often do not follow these rules at their own meetings, with several members removing their masks throughout the hourslong sessions, using only plexiglass as a barrier, not all of which are taller than the foot above each person’s head endorsed by DHEC.

The push for full-time instruction comes amid Horry County's worst month of new daily cases since July — when school was not in session. Over the past seven days, the county is averaging 128 new cases per day, the worst since July 13-19. The county's incidence rate is at 464.6 per 100,000 population, more than double what DHEC considers to be "high spread." The school district has more than doubled the confirmed cases since Dec. 1, sitting at 126 as of Friday at 3:15 p.m., with an additional 224 staffers in quarantine. The district has chosen not to report students in quarantine.

The district is trying to combat this with the installation of plexiglass, with structures already in place at Aynor Elementary School, one of six schools already featuring complete installation as of Friday morning. The three-sided design has been described by teachers as “prison-like,” with most builds towering over the children that use them.

And, according to Wafaa El-Sadr, a professor of epidemiology and medicine at Columbia University, the tactic used by the district is misguided.

“You don’t just install it once and let it be a panacea, people think it takes care of the risk,” said El-Sadr, who also dismisses the effectiveness of face shields on their own, stating that masks and distancing still must accompany the personal protection device.

“Unfortunately, then they omit the things that need to be done. The most important ways we can combat the virus is masking at No. 1 and distancing is No. 2. Those are the ones that should be prioritized by any school district. Plexiglass is not one of them. We need to focus on what we know matters.”

Pratim Biswas, an aerosol scientist at Washington University in St. Louis, concurs and said items such as plexiglass can give a false sense of security.

“It absolutely is a placebo, there is no evidence that plexiglass works as well as masking and distancing,” Biswas said. “The virus can spread airborne, and the only way to protect yourself is to stay away from one another.”

Both El-Sadr and Biswas pointed to the inability to keep plexiglass properly clean as an added concern, something a district high school teacher said was a problem before the plexiglass ever arrived.

“I do know we are short staffed as far as custodial support. Our school is not getting a deep cleaning. It's of no fault of the custodian, though. There aren’t enough people to do everything to make it the perfect environment during a pandemic,” the teacher said, asking for anonymity due to the fear of retribution by the district office.

“People don’t want to do the job that puts them in close contact with the potential virus spread. That’s completely understandable. I don’t feel like any of the cleaning has changed much and for that, I can’t imagine going five days face-to-face with full class sizes. That is what scares me the most — pieces of plexiglass will do nothing.”

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Kindergarten classes in Aynor Elementary School only have tables in the classroom, so the plexiglass quarters the table to keep students separate. Tyler Fleming/Staff

Other states have avoided the plexiglass commitment due to similar concerns, with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in Massachusetts saying in August, prior to returning to school, that “we do not recommend setting up plexiglass barriers in regular classrooms, since they represent an additional high-risk surface to clean and disinfect.”

According to a study by the University of Washington on the effectiveness of plexiglass, researchers found that the “barriers do not provide a zero-risk solution.” The study went on to say that plexiglass barriers “do not address all possible modes of transmission, such as aerosol transmission, or fully protect anyone from COVID-19.”

By its own admission, DHEC told The Post and Courier Myrtle Beach that it had not measured the impact of plexiglass installation throughout the state, offering no comparative numbers between schools that employed the method with those that have not taken this measure.

“No single preventive measure is 100 percent effective on its own,” DHEC said. “Everyone should remain dedicated to following all current public health precautions for limiting spread of the virus.”

A compounding issue

El-Sadr was very direct in where she would invest time and money — outside of providing masks and education on social distancing — and that would be in the district’s HVAC and air-circulation systems, a critical cog in keeping students and teachers healthy.

She explained that cross-ventilation in the classrooms is critical, with open windows aiding the efforts to keep the virus out of the classroom. At some schools within the district, this is not an option, such as at St. James Elementary School, where the windows are permanently shut.

Sources at the school said they've been told to "grab a chair and break the windows if there is ever an emergency." During fire drills, students are escorted out through the single door of the classroom and then out hallway double doors.

The district indicated that "no such data has been collected" when asked about schematics that would confirm every classroom in HCS has the ability to have windows open. The district also said it does not provide fans for classrooms in order to circulate air.

For many teachers, they don't understand why issues surrounding health aren't taken seriously, and why they are penalized for speaking out about it.

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"Even from our first teacher case, we were told not to say a word. I just don’t understand the lies and deceit," a teacher at St. James Elementary said.

In New York City and elsewhere, El-Sadr indicated that special filters have been installed that use a unique mesh that can capture and trap the very small particles that come with COVID-19.

HCS uses MERV-8 filters in classes, according to a district spokesperson, who also indicated that most districts utilize this type.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “filters with MERV-13 or higher ratings can trap smaller particles, including viruses. Many home HVAC systems will have a MERV-8 filter installed as the default. Upgrading to a MERV-13 rated filter, or the highest-rated filter that your HVAC system fan and filter slot can accommodate, could improve the system’s efficacy in removing viruses from circulated air.”

Teachers throughout the district have noticed the "thinness" of the filters being used, with many indicating that they are sickly during school months, but perfectly healthy over the summer. They've advocated that air quality is at the heart of the issue.

"Air quality in our schools is a joke. Have you ever seen the air filters they use?" a teacher rhetorically asked.

"The air quality has always been what scared me the most about coming back during COVID. Everyone knows it is spread through the air. But no one at the district level seems to be taking that into consideration. There's only so much the plexiglass can prevent when you're in a classroom full of students with closed doors and horrible ventilation."

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Kindergarten classes in Aynor Elementary School only have tables in the classroom, so the plexiglass quarters the table to keep students separate. Tyler Fleming/Staff

On Monday, the HCS facilities committee discussed updates to HVAC systems — now that rooftop HVAC units at North Myrtle Beach High School and Myrtle Beach High School have been replaced — with HVAC upgrades and replacements to the bulk of the units at Aynor High School in 2020. Both projects had combined budgets of more than $3.1 million, according to the district.

An HCS spokesperson added that “plans are underway for partial HVAC replacements at Lakewood Elementary, MAU replacements at Forestbrook Middle, St. James High, and North Myrtle Beach Middle, cooling tower replacement at Green Sea Floyds High, and chiller replacement at Socastee High all to be completed Summer 2021 or earlier.”

The HCS sustainment and building modification list confirms the plans for more work to come, while HCS also announced last week at a school board meeting that it would enter into a nearly $1 million venture to have its schools inspected in the coming year, a measure that is taken once a decade.

Funding will not be voted on until April, meaning the inspections cannot happen until at least midway through 2021.

The following schools are in need of work on their HVAC systems, according to the district:

  • Aynor High: Phase 3 HVAC
  • St. James High: Make-up Air Unit (MAU)
  • Forestbrook Middle: MAU
  • Palmetto Bays Elementary: MAU
  • Riverside Elementary: MAU
  • Carolina Forest High: MAU
  • Green Sea Floyds High: Cooling tower
  • Loris High: Cooling tower
  • Conway Middle: Cooling tower
  • Myrtle Beach High: Cooling tower
  • Socastee High: Cooling tower
  • Waccamaw Elementary: Cooling tower
  • Ocean Drive Elementary: Cooling tower
  • Forestbrook Elementary: Cooling tower
  • St. James Middle: Cooling tower
  • Waterway Elementary: Cooling tower

In total, these 16 schools represent 37.7 percent of the district’s historic COVID-19 cases to date, with 97 cases at high schools, which also won’t receive plexiglass until last.

The Post and Courier Myrtle Beach has requested all maintenance records from HCS via the Freedom of Information Act after the district did not make them available upon initial request.

“HCS is currently in the process of updating the HVAC Control Management software for our building automation systems across the district. This process was begun in late 2019 and will complete in 2024,” a district spokesperson said.

The district has received complaints over the past several years from hundreds of parents over mold and HVAC issues at several schools, while also being sued earlier this month due to a year-old incident involving a student allegedly falling ill due to the toxin after attending St. James Elementary.

The lawsuit alleges that the elementary school had mold issues due to water damage that went "unfixed for years." The afflicted child would eventually be forced to pay nearly $5,000 to transfer from the school, according to the lawsuit, which also states that it took two attempts by a third party to fix the mold issue.

The HVAC system has reportedly been replaced, although multiple sources close to the situation at the elementary school say that many issues remain, including current water bubbles on classroom walls and a lack of air circulation.

Sources at St. James Elementary have indicated that notes have been sent to Richardson, advocating that plexiglass doesn't fix the "real" issues at hand.

"It's been horrible. I sent a note to Ken Richardson, with no response," one source said. "It wasn't even hateful, it was just asking him to think about the teachers. If he has to justify spending $5 million, that's his deal. That's not our fault. Not our problem. If we don't get COVID, we can get sick because of the mold and the air we are breathing in. That's scary."

St. James Elementary is far from alone when it comes to air quality being an issue, with a 2019 change.org petition with more than 500 signatures targeting a “mold issue and deteriorating HVAC units within Carolina Forest High School.”

According to the district's to-do list, Carolina Forest is still in need of repairs, and has 11 active cases of COVID-19, representing 57.9 percent of its historic cases to date.

"Everyone knows that it is there. But I think it has just become an accepted fact," a teacher said.

What can be done?

El-Sadr outright rejects the idea of full classrooms, pointing to the physical limitations of each area in maintaining six feet of social distance — something she says cannot be compromised if schools are to remain open.

She believes that school districts should invest in classroom monitors that remind students of the health protocols in place, while also allowing teachers to educate instead of babysit.

And, in doing this, El-Sadr believes tremendous innovation can occur, as she believes the southern United States has a distinct advantage over those that are bracing for the cold winter months ahead — classes and activities can occur outside due to the more moderate temperatures.

She pointed to tents being able to be set up or open-air classrooms that would allow for students and teachers to remain socially distant, but not be subjected to plexiglass enclosures that don’t enhance the social learning that is critical for students of all ages.

“Places like South Carolina, that’s where lots of creativity can happen,” El-Sadr said. “Schools can be safe, we just have to think about our approach carefully.”

Reach Nick Masuda at 843-607-0912. Follow him on Twitter at @nickmasudaphoto. 

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