Getting Back to School Safely: Lessons in Disinfection

While everyone has been affected by COVID-19 in one way or another, it could be argued schools were one of the hardest hit with wide-reaching impact. In many cases, they were first to close and often last to open, so education has turned to a mix of virtual teaching, parent-led activities, a hybrid of both, or virtually none at all. Not an ideal situation for all involved. 

All the more reason that helping children—and their teachers—get back to school is a priority. However, re-opening certainly leaves school administrators with a very difficult balancing act—providing the benefits of in-person learning versus the very real risk to both students and staff. 

The reopening success rate in fall 2020 has been spotty at best as educators and administrators struggle to provide a strategic and feasible path forward while keeping everyone healthy and safe. As school leaders look to strengthen their infection prevention programs, this article will highlight considerations that need to be addressed in your plan and  how you can strengthen disinfection to create the safest environment possible.  

Schools face unique challenges to re-opening

The first challenge is the heterogeneous population of schools, with the risk of exposure and the severity of symptoms so disparate. While children have a lower risk of contracting severe symptoms from COVID-19, transmission between asymptomatic infected children and adults remains of great concern. 

Teachers and staff face far greater risks with more severe outcomes. A recent Gallup poll shows that the responses of 75% of K-12 teachers ranged from very to moderately concerned about exposure to COVID-19 at work.1 Concerns and real threats become further complicated by pregnancies and adults with underlying medical conditions. The relative asymptomatic nature of younger children with COVID-19 compounds the trouble in detecting infections. 

Compounding the issue is the fact that many schools are unable to hire additional janitorial or maintenance staff. Leaving teachers tasked with the deep cleaning and disinfection of their classrooms, often using cleaning supplies they’ve purchased themselves.2 Logistically, time between class periods may not be sufficient to adequately clean high touch surfaces. 

This, along with the growing list of prevention protocols is often too much much for one teacher to handle. When janitorial staff is on hand, they face greater risk of exposure if not provided adequate PPE or other safety measures.3 

Shawna Carugan, member of the Healthy Green Schools & Colleges Steering Committee, a group of facility managers from schools and universities across the U.S, agreed that keeping up custodial staff levels is a major concern.  She said,“What happens when we get exposure at school? My concern is when 50% of teachers or custodians are sick, either with COVID-19 or something else.”

Plus, the simple cost and availability of cleaning and disinfection materials is expected to present a continual challenge as various industries return to normal operations. 

Transmission considerations

We now know a lot more about the way in which COVID-19 particles can live under certain conditions. This differs greatly in air, on various surfaces, and in water. What we do know is that very small particles can live in an aerosolized condition (floating in the air) for an hour under certain still conditions in closed environments, such as classrooms, or longer. Viral particles have been detected on certain surfaces, such as glass, stainless steel, and plastic for up to 6 days.4

Research conducted by the Australian agency CSIRO found the virus was extremely robust, surviving for 28 days on smooth surfaces such as glass found on mobile phone screens and both plastic and paper banknotes when kept at 20C (68F), which is about room temperature, and in the dark. These findings make it extremely clear how important a thorough disinfection regimen really is. 

Old School manual disinfection

We know manual disinfection is one way to help control pathogens, but it’s almost impossible to measure results. Furthermore, disinfectants can contain ingredients that leave behind toxic residues, while studies show that up to 50% of surfaces are missed by manual disinfection alone.5 They can also contribute to poor indoor air quality and may contain chemicals that cause cancer, reproductive disorders, and respiratory ailments like asthma.6

K-12 disinfection protocols

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends routine cleaning of surfaces, followed by disinfecting as a best practice for the prevention of COVID-19 and other viruses. It’s important to note the difference between cleaning and disinfecting. Cleaning reduces germs, dirt, and impurities from surfaces using soap and water and is a necessary first step in the disinfection process because the debris, dirt, and dust provide a shield for the bacteria and viruses, ultimately reducing the efficacy of the disinfectant. Disinfecting uses a chemical, physical, or thermal agent to destroy germs (bacteria and viruses) not visible to the naked eye rather than simply reducing them and renders them incapable of reproducing. The CDC recommends using EPA-approved disinfectants against COVID-19.   

With an understanding of infection prevention essentials, the next step includes developing your plan – determining what areas need to be disinfected and consider the resources and equipment needed.  

Here’s a brief overview of effective cleaning and disinfecting guidelines for the highest risk locations in a school setting.   

  • Classrooms- must clean and disinfect any surface or item after student use (i.e. door handles, desks and chairs, shared learning materials and electronics, cabinets). Check out the CDC’s recommended classroom checklist for more information.
  • Health Centers – must clean and disinfect any item after student use, including treatment tables, coverings, or cots. 

  • Cafeterias –  If feasible, have children eat meals outdoors or in classrooms, while maintaining social distance (at least 6 feet apart) as much as possible, instead of in a communal dining hall or cafeteria. If communal dining halls or cafeterias will be used, ensure that children remain at least 6 feet apart in food service lines and at tables while eating. Clean and disinfect tables and chairs between each use. Avoid self-serve food or drink stations, limit touching communal objects, and use disposable food service items.

  • Gymnasiums – locker rooms and athletic rooms should be cleaned and disinfected regularly. 

You can also use the CDC’s cleaning and disinfection decision tool to help develop your plan.  

The new school of disinfection: UV-C

Arc: A UV-C device by R-Zero

Arc, is the first hospital-grade UV-C disinfection system designed for dynamic education environments. It’s the most powerful, human-centric and adaptable UV-C device on the market. 

With Arc, school leaders can:

  • Destroy 99.99% of Viruses in Minutes
    The R-Zero Arc was designed to be easy to use by any operator, in every space on campus (i.e. K-12 classrooms, teacher lounges, staff offices), destroying over 99.99% of pathogens in a 1,000 ft room in just 7 minutes.

  • Save on Labor Costs Associated with Disinfecting
    With less than two minutes of touch time required per cycle, custodial staff can be productive in one classroom while Arc is running in the other. No additional FTEs required. 

  • Deliver Powerful Disinfection that is Non-toxic and Eco-friendly
    UV-C is a chemical-free disinfection solution. Arc is safe to use around food, plants, furniture and electronics and humans can immediately re-enter a treated room.

Arc is also an eligible “disinfection equipment and services” expense under the CARES Act. 

Safety for today and tomorrow

While you want to provide the brightest future for your staff and students, we want to do the same—with fewer sick people, fewer missed school days and a high degree of trust to help keep our kids learning. So while today’s focus may be COVID-19, R-Zero has you covered for what comes tomorrow (norovirus, seasonal flu, E. coli, common cold, and every other virus, bacteria, fungi and mold that threatens the human immune system). To learn more, you can also read how organizations are harnessing the power of UV-C for infection prevention and how to evaluate the efficacy of UV-C.


  1. Brenan, M. (2020, September 08). K-12 Teachers Worried About COVID-19 on the Job. Retrieved September 14, 2020, from
  2. Kate-Thayer, J. (2020, March 03). How Chicago-area schools are – or aren’t – dealing with the coronavirus.
  3. Long, C. (2020, May 28). School Custodians Are Essential Frontline Workers For Our Students. Retrieved September 14, 2020, from
  4. Chin, A., Chu, J., Perera, M., Hui, K., Yen, H., Chan, M., . . . Poon, L. (2020). Stability of SARS-CoV-2 in different environmental conditions. The Lancet Microbe, 1(1), 10th ser. doi:10.1101/2020.03.15.20036673
  5. Source: NCBI, Jan. 2008,
  6. Source: No Harm: Cleaners and Disinfectants
  7. United States, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020). Guidance for cleaning and disinfecting public spaces, workplaces, businesses, schools, and homes. CDC.

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