Delaware’s Laurel School District closed its campuses Thursday and Friday to “deep clean” its schools after it was learned that a staff member had recently had contact with a traveler from a country with a viral outbreak. Neither the staff member nor the traveler had symptoms, and the Delaware Division of Public Health advised the district that closing schools was an “unnecessary precaution.”

Laurel is just one of a growing number of districts across the country in which schools are deep cleaning their buildings in the fight against the spread of the novel coronavirus, which causes the pandemic illness covid-19 — though some experts on infectious diseases say it could well be a waste of time.

Deep cleaning involves floor-to-ceiling cleaning and disinfecting in a school building that sets the stage for regular, less comprehensive cleaning of heavily traveled areas and surfaces. Some schools are closing down briefly for deep cleaning and hiring third-party companies to do the job, while others are doing it on the weekend and with their own custodial staff.

Marcus Plescia is the chief medical officer of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, which represents state public health departments. He said deep cleaning may be a waste of time and money.

“There is this ongoing debate about how long the coronavirus can live on hard surfaces, and most of us think not very long,” he said. “It thrives on people’s bodies, not out in the open on a hard service. It’s not clear, so the uncertainty may be what is moving to have schools deep clean.

“It makes people feel better that there is this thorough cleaning done, but how effective it is, we don’t know,” he said.

He said that deep cleaning may be an attempt for some schools to find a balance between keeping schools open and closing them, when it is not clear closing them will help stem the virus, either.

“Schools are struggling a bit to know what to do,” he said. “One of the big questions is whether schools should close for a long period of time. That is what the cleaning is an attempt to do: strike middle ground.”

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there has been no documentation that covid-19 has been transmitted to people “from surfaces contaminated with the virus."

In some of its advice for schools, the CDC does not directly recommend deep cleaning but instead gives this advice about how to clean buildings to keep students and adults safe:

Perform routine environmental cleaning. Routinely clean frequently touched surfaces (e.g., doorknobs, light switches, countertops) with cleaners that you typically use. Use all cleaning products according to the directions on the label. Provide disposable wipes so that commonly used surfaces (e.g., keyboards, desks, remote controls) can be wiped down by students and staff before each use.

Michael T. Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, said that there is no evidence that people who are contracting the coronavirus are doing it by touching contaminated surfaces.

“We don’t see anything like this,” he said. “All this activity you see on TV with people in Asia spraying down streets and cars is all for show and making people feel like they are doing something. I can’t even say closing down schools to clean them will make a difference. The data isn’t there.”

Plescia said some school leaders do not contact their local and/or state public health departments before making decisions on cleaning and closing — and some ignore the advice they do get

Laurel Superintendent Shawn Larrimore said in a message to the school community that schools were closing to be “abundantly overcautious” — even though the Delaware Division of Public Health has “advised us that closing our schools was an unnecessary precaution due to the unlikelihood” that a staff member who had contact with a traveler to a country with a viral outbreak would get the disease.

Here’s Larrimore’s full message:

Information Regarding School Closings
Hello Laurel Families, this is Dr. Larrimore with a highly important message.
Today we learned that a staff member has recently had contact with a traveler from a Level-3 Country.
Both the staff member and the traveler are healthy, have not been diagnosed with COVID-19, nor have either shown any symptoms associated with the virus. Additionally, the Delaware Division of Public Health has advised us that closing our schools was an unnecessary precaution due to the unlikelihood that our staff member was exposed to—or contracted—the virus.
However, to be abundantly cautious, The Laurel School District will be closing schools and cancelling all extra-curricular activities, starting tomorrow, Thursday, March 12, and will remained closed for the remainder of the week, so that there is an appropriate amount of time devoted to performing deep cleanings of each of our schools. We have contracted-out these services to a third-party company which specializes in thorough, industrial-level cleaning. We make this choice to be transparent, proactive, and fully protective of our students, staff, and community, and we hope to have your support in this decision. Schools will tentatively reopen on Monday, March 16.
As the outbreak of the Coronavirus continues to evolve, The Laurel School District has devised a Pandemic Preparedness Plan to assist us in decision-making in the weeks ahead. It is included in this correspondence and can be found on our district website. We will move through the phases of this plan based on the collective guidance from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the Delaware Division of Public Health (DPH), and our own internal team to ensure that we make the best possible decision for Laurel and its stakeholders.
Shawn C. Larrimore
Superintendent, The Laurel School District