Putting Students Behind Plexiglass Isn’t Making Them Any Safer

Is this necessary? Photo: Jarrod Valliere/San Diego Union-Tribune/Shutterstock

Bank tellers, pawn brokers, movie ticket clerks: for the past few generations, these were the people associated with spending their days behind Plexiglass. Since the fall, there’s been an unlikely and unfortunate addition to this list: children.

The debacle over the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s continued recommendation of six feet of distancing in schools took a new turn today, when the agency finally updated its guidance, saying students can sit three feet apart. (The guidance carves out exceptions, though, so the debate will surely continue.) But for many New York students, a change to three feet — which typically would allow for something like normal classroom density — still may not get them any closer to full-time school.

A little-known stipulation from the New York State Department of Health requires the use of barriers if students are closer than six feet apart. (The barriers are in schools in other states as well.) Not only do barriers dramatically degrade the experience for students, making an already hindered connection with their mask-obscured peers and teachers worse, but for many districts the barriers requirement may be as great of a hurdle to getting kids back to school as the six-foot rule has been. Any district that can’t afford barriers, or that chooses not to purchase them, will have to operate, at best, on a hybrid model with half-full classrooms.

It is, of course, obvious that sitting with your head penned inside a three-sided box all day is not conducive to learning or communicating. The desktop partitions (often referred to as “sneeze guards”) that are the primary form of barrier used in schools come in a variety of shapes, materials, and sizes. The best, and most expensive, are made of hard clear plastic and have no metal or colored-plastic seams or borders that obstruct views. The worst are made of cardboard and flimsy plastic, somewhat akin to thick cellophane, with opaque borders running across the top and vertically between the front and side panels. With these barriers, it’s as if every student were stuck in an obstructed-view seat at a Broadway show; often, they have to crane their necks just to see the board or teacher. Students also report that with the partitions around their heads, they at many times can’t hear their teachers or each other, so they end up speaking louder (which emits more particles from their lungs) or lean outside the barriers to hear or be heard — which, of course, defeats their purpose.

Of the half dozen experts I interviewed for this article, not one could name a study or datum that suggests desktop shields in schools offer any substantial safety advantage, and all said that any benefits would be especially unlikely to be felt when other mitigation measures are already in place.

Kevin Van Den Wymelenberg, an expert on indoor-air microbiology, and the director of the Institute for Health in the Built Environment at the University of Oregon, said that the barriers could help stop large droplets “if students are close and coughing.” But if people are wearing masks, he said, “there is little effect from the barrier.”

“My interpretation of the worldwide body of evidence is that barriers are not necessary,” said Westyn Branch-Elliman, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and an infectiousness specialist at the VA. Branch-Elliman is a co-author of the recent schools study that found six feet of distance didn’t provide a greater safety benefit than three feet, though, she noted, the study did not specifically address barriers.

One study currently in preprint, however, has found that desktop shields are in fact associated with an increased risk of infection, likely because of “saturation effects,” as they are typically employed with other measures.

Graphic: medRxiv

Intriguingly, a laboratory study by the Mayo Clinic now under review for publication found that when all parties are masked — the scenario in most schools — there was no difference in COVID exposure at one, three, or six feet. The findings are relevant because masks, after all, are a form of barrier. When I asked Matthew Callstrom, one of the study’s authors, about the effect of desktop barriers, he said that though his study didn’t characterize the value of (non mask) barriers, “we came to the conclusion they didn’t add value to masking and distancing.” He added, “In most scenarios, the use of barriers was a hopeful substitute for masking in break rooms, etc.”

Graphic: Mayo Clinic

Though they are not required to do so with students six or more feet apart, a number of districts in New York and elsewhere in the country, including my children’s district in the lower Hudson Valley, have been using barriers all school year. The results are not good. “We’re doing fractions now,” my fourth-grade son told me, “and I can never see the denominator because the top of the barrier on the kid’s desk in front of mine always blocks my view.” Some students have opted to stay home because the barriers are so claustrophobic; others have fallen in stairwells while trying to carry the barriers from class to class.

Low-end classroom barriers. Photo: Hastings on Hudson UFSD

Unusually, the barriers in my children’s district have entirely opaque sides, the classroom equivalent of horse blinders. It seems reasonable to expect that blocking students’ peripheral vision all day need not be a component of schools’ COVID-mitigation strategies.

Sure enough, in the face of swift pushback, early in the fall, at the principal’s direction, the barriers in the elementary school were hacked, with translucent panels replacing the opaque sides. But the original barriers have remained in place in the middle school all year. The administration has said that after spring break — some seven months into the academic year — the middle-school barriers will finally have their sides replaced as well. Incoherently, the high school has not required barriers, even though older adolescents are at a greater (albeit still extremely low) risk of illness and transmission relative to younger children.

Aside from making for an unnecessarily miserable experience for students in the schools that use them, the insistence on barriers widens inequities. Districts that can’t afford them, or choose not to purchase them, can’t operate at full capacity since students aren’t allowed to be closer than six feet without them. With this in mind, Ryan McMahon, the executive for Onondaga county, a region of upstate New York that includes Syracuse, said that his county would pay for dividers “for any district that wants them.” (The cost of the desktop partitions runs anywhere from around $10 to close to $100 each, depending on the quality of the materials, clarity of the plastic, etc. Multiplying by the thousands for each school or district, these numbers add up quickly.)

Not all counties are likely to be so lucky. Parents of New York City public schoolchildren, take note: Unless the city DOE as a whole is prepared to buy more than one million barriers — or unless individual schools have it in their budgets to do so — your kids aren’t going to be in school full time under the current state guidelines.

Amy Paulin, a New York State assemblymember, said, “I’m concerned about the current need for physical barriers as a requirement for children to return to in-person school” because it creates “a disparity among school districts that can afford to purchase the physical barriers and those that can’t.” Paulin also questioned whether there was science underlying the policy. “Has it been shown that the barriers lessen the spread of the virus? I’d like to see more data on this before we impose the expense and difficulty of a barrier requirement.”

When I asked the New York State Department of Health directly what data or studies the barriers requirement is based on, and whether masks would be considered barriers in this context, I was given a statement that said, in part, that the “pandemic is not over” and that “we must follow the science.” No data or studies were provided.

Oddly, the statement concluded that “this is a local decision.” Yet, as I noted in my piece for New York on schools that opened full time in the fall, most superintendents are not inclined to do anything that has the appearance of increasing risk (even if in reality it doesn’t). Indeed, my district has been using barriers all school year, despite the fact that in the hybrid model, the classes are, at most, at half density. One would need enormous will and capital to flout the guidelines, if that’s what the DOH was suggesting was an option. (Though it appears some districts may be doing just that.)

By way of an explanation for the disparity between the high school and other schools in my district, I was told that it’s up to teachers to decide whether to compel students to use barriers or not. They have a right to “feel” safe — never mind whether a particular measure in actuality makes them or anyone else safer. Up the chain, it seems the state, too, despite the costs, favors the appearance of safety over the real thing.

Putting Students Behind Plexiglass Isn’t Making Them Safer