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Should San Diego area schools use desk barriers to prevent COVID spread?

Plastic shields around student desks have become a common feature in classrooms across San Diego County, but whether they improve COVID safety is still being debated, some say.

The desk barriers are one safety measure that experts and some school officials have backed away from in recent months, as experts have learned more about the virus and how it is most likely to transmit in schools.

Plexiglass barriers will not prevent the coronavirus from spreading because coronavirus travels mainly on aerosols in the air, which can travel around barriers, some authorities said.

One UC San Diego expert noted in a February advisory report to San Diego Unified that desk barriers are useful when students are less than six feet apart to prevent droplets from coughs or sneezes from traveling to other people. That does not matter much when students wear masks, which would stop droplets.

Last month the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention removed its recommendation for desk barriers in schools.
But for workplaces, the CDC still recommends barriers to separate employees and visitors, particularly when distancing is not possible.

Dr. Kim Prather, a UCSD expert on aerosols who has been consulting on school safety measures, said that desk barriers actually increase the risk of coronavirus transmission when not set up properly — which is common.

That’s because the barriers can potentially trap air that contains infectious aerosols in the breathing zone, Prather said this week.

To set them up properly, she said, schools need to do high-level fluid dynamics modeling to place barriers in the correct positions and at the correct height, relative to the room’s air flow, she said.

“Pretty much impossible,” Prather said in an email. “Safest to just not put them in.”

She said it is much better if schools just open doors and windows and use HEPA filtration to clean the air, along with students and staff maintaining social distancing while constantly wearing masks indoors.

Rather than barriers, the key safety measures that the CDC recommends for schools are wearing face masks, physical distancing, ventilation, handwashing, covering coughs and sneezes, frequent cleaning and doing contact tracing, which is tracking down people who have been exposed to a COVID-positive person.

Many schools still use the desk barriers, even with air filtration systems, open doors and windows and classroom distancing.

Schools in the San Diego, Cajon Valley, Alpine, Chula Vista and other districts use desk barriers. Several districts leave it up to teachers.

For some educators, the barriers add a psychological reassurance that they are being protected.

Alpine Union School District, which has had no outbreaks in a school, started using desk barriers when it first reopened for in-person learning in September and has continued using them, in addition to other safety measures like updated air filtration systems and universal masking.

“It has made our staff feel safer, and we have all become accustomed to them,” Superintendent Rich Newman said in an email.

San Diego Unified does not require schools to use desk barriers. The choice is left to schools or individual teachers.

“The barriers purchased by the district do not hamper the effects of an otherwise well-ventilated room,” district spokeswoman Maureen Magee said.

Cajon Valley, which has been open since September, lets staff choose whether to use them and uses barriers in cases where state distancing guidelines can’t be met, Superintendent David Miyashiro said.

Carlsbad Unified did not buy any barriers for student desks, based on advice the district got from UCSD experts, Superintendent Ben Churchill said. Carlsbad was told barriers are not necessary as long as classrooms have MERV-13 air filters, HEPA air filtration devices and open doors and windows.

However, the district gives large plexiglass barriers to teachers if they want one for their workstation in the classroom, Churchill said. The district also uses barriers when speech-language pathologists are working one-on-one with students, because they need to see each others’ mouths and can’t wear masks.

Chula Vista Elementary is using desk barriers in all of its classrooms, because the CDC was recommending them as the district was planning for reopening months ago.

“Our district takes federal, state and local safety recommendations seriously, but it is no surprise that guidance from the Centers for Disease Control would change yet again,” spokesman Anthony Millican said in an email. “We have learned throughout the pandemic the importance of being flexible and adaptable.”