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Labor and Industries guidelines for school workplace safety  

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October 15, 2020

The Washington State Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) has issued expanded workplace guidelines for in-person operations of schools.  The information below is provided to address common questions we’ve received. 

WEA hosted an online meeting to review the guidelines, where you can learn more. 

Please note: L&I requirements are the “floor,” of what can be implemented. Your local association may bargain beyond these requirements.  

General process to address safety concerns in your building 

Each building is required to have a safety committee and a COVID supervisor. If you are concerned about whether safety precautions, PPE and/or cleaning/sanitizing practices are being properly administered in your building, the first step is to talk with the COVID supervisor so they can resolve the issue. If that doesn’t yield the needed results, let your building rep and/or local president know so that they can either work with the district or help prepare a complaint to the state Department of Labor and Industries (L&I). 


L&I has a document called “Which mask for which task?” which might be helpful in answering some mask questions.  L&I also outlined minimum mask requirements on page 9 of its guidelines.   

Q. To protect student and staff safety in shared spaces, (barring medically exempt students) can teachers require proper mask use (covering both mouth and nose) as an entry requirement to a classroom? 

Yes.  Masks are required wherever people gather indoors. Mask requirements assume that they are worn and worn properly. If you see someone in your school not wearing their mask properly, ask them to adjust it or leave your classroom. If they refuse, talk to your building’s COVID supervisor. If that doesn’t work, contact your building rep or local president. Your union can assist in preparing complaints to L&I.

Q. Can districts require us to reuse masks that are disposable? 

Disposable masks should not be reused. Your district is required to provide you with the right type of mask to match the risk level of the type of job you do. If the mask you have been given is disposable, the district must provide you with replacements at least every day if not sooner if they become dirty or wet. 

Q. Is there uniform guidance on who should wear the N95 masks? Who should be using the N95? When is its use recommended? Is fitting of the mask a requirement before wearing?

N95 masks are required for people working in extremely high-risk scenarios or can be used for people in high risk. Extremely high-risk scenarios include working in an isolation or health room and high-risk scenarios include situations where instruction requires sustained close contact. 

Alternatives to N95 masks can be made available. Go to page 9 in this link to learn more.

Q. If a student is unable to wear a mask (special education or otherwise) does that elevate the risk level for that learning environment, and thus the PPE required? 

Yes. It would likely require that the people or person working with that student wear a more protective mask and be provided additional safeguards. Talk with the COVID supervisor in your building, or your building rep or local president. 

Q. Are districts required to provide the masks for the students or are parents expected to provide it?

Parents are required to provide masks for the students.  A school district could decide to provide them.

Q. What type of mask and/or shield is recommended for teaching phonics, letter sounds to the younger grades? They will need to see our mouths and we would need to see theirs.

Only when actually instructing phonics the teacher could wear a plastic shield which has cloth drapery fully tucked into one’s garment.  Parents could provide students with the same shield or use a mask which has a plastic insert.  Educators and students must wear a mask or shield.  

Q. When is a face shield allowed and when is it not?

Face shields alone without a mask should only be used when a regular mask cannot be used, and it is part of an accommodation conversation. In these instances, the face shield should have the cloth extensions that can be tucked into your clothing. 

There may be times when a face shield is used with a face mask to provide protection while the district works to secure the appropriate mask. For example, if an N95 mask is needed, but not available, the district could issue a face shield and a KN95 mask until the N95 is available and fit tested.  

Q. Our masks may get wet a few times in a day, each time needing a new one.  Will my district be required to issue several per day? 

L&I says the employer must immediately replace your mask if you request it, or if it becomes contaminated, wet, dirty, damaged, or when recommended by the manufacturer. Locals can bargain clarity around frequency to make sure that employees have additional PPE without needing to make the request. 

Cleaning, sanitizing and ventilation 

Q. Will teachers  be responsible for cleaning their own classrooms daily with sanitizer and such? Will that become a teacher’s job rather than a custodian’s job?

Your local can and should negotiate the roles and responsibilities for cleaning and sanitizing. There are many variables, but an important one is to avoid taking on the work of another bargaining unit, as that could put someone else’s job at risk. That said, some cleaning and sanitizing might be appropriate for a classroom teacher or instructional assistant, such as disinfecting manipulatives or tools between use. 

Q. What type of cleaning needs to be done in between groups/classes? 

L&I has a list of daily requirements that includes increased frequency of facility cleaning schedules, including:

  • Cleaning and sanitizing with a particular emphasis on commonly touched surfaces. 
  • Required disinfection occurs before work areas or tools are shared. 
  • For example, if a school employee moves from one classroom to another, all shared equipment and work spaces must be sanitized before the next employee arrives.
  • If students move from room to room, the room must be cleaned prior to a new group of students entering the room.

Q. I teach in a shop environment, close quarters if in person, with hundreds of shared tools and equipment. I’m not feeling safe, taking into consideration shared surfaces and the number of students cycling in and out. Who is responsible for cleaning all that and how often? 

Students should always be at least six feet away from each other and wearing cloth masks.  You should have a cloth mask. If distancing isn’t possible, then you should have a KN95 or other approved surgical-type masks.  If it is impossible to maintain a 6-foot distance then the class is considered a high-risk classroom.

Shared surfaces and tools must be disinfected between use. Your local may have negotiated with your district who has this responsibility and whether to provide additional time or staff support. You can ask your building’s COVID supervisor, union building rep or local president for information specific to your school and district. 

Q. Can I bring in my own disinfecting wipes? The district has prohibited the kind with bleach.

The district can direct you to not bring any cleaning materials from home into the school. The district is required to provide cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting supplies that meet Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Department of Health (DOH) recommendations. If that is not occurring, talk to your building’s COVID supervisor, your building rep or local president. 

Q. Can we talk more about student/staff restrooms?  The emphasis on sanitizing surfaces ignores the fact that this is a respiratory virus. 

Staff and students are required to wear masks at all times. Additional cleaning and sanitizing are required in areas that are frequently used by more than one person. L&I has not issued specific guidance for restrooms so the general guidance holds.

Infections in school

Q: What happens in case of infection, in terms of quarantining students and teachers? 

Each building is required to have an isolation room where students can wait until a parent or guardian can pick them up. Staff working in the isolation room will be required to wear an N95 mask that has been fit tested, or the approved masks only if N95 masks are not available.  See page 9 in this link from L&I.  

School staff who exhibit symptoms will be asked to go home immediately.  Per public health guidelines, they should quarantine for at least 10 days, unless they receive a negative result on a COVID test. Depending upon the circumstances, others who were in contact with the possibly infected person may also be asked/required to quarantine. This process should be clearly stated in the building’s COVID plan. Areas where the possibly infected person was should be cordoned off and cleaned and disinfected as soon as possible.

Q: What if a school building does not have the space for an isolation room?

Isolation rooms are required by L&I. If your building doesn’t have one, talk to the COVID supervisor. If you don’t know who that is, talk to your building rep or local president.

Q: Are we expecting students and staff to stay home with COVID symptoms, even though they may be indistinguishable from flu, etc.?  What does that mean in terms of sick days for staff?

Anyone with symptoms should consult with their doctor to determine if they should be tested for COVID.  Several counties have free testing sites if lack of insurance is an issue. Check your county’s public health department web page for more information. 

Some locals have negotiated a special sick leave for COVID. Check with your building rep or local president to see if your district provides this. 

Q. What would trigger closing a school in the event of an outbreak in a classroom, or more broadly in the school? 

First, let’s look at the definition of “outbreak.” A COVID-19 outbreak is when the following have been met: 

  • There are two or more laboratory-positive cases among students or staff. 
  • The cases have a symptom onset within a 14-day period of each other. 
  • The cases are epidemiologically linked. 
  • The cases do not share a household. 
  • The cases are not identified as close contacts of each other in another setting during the investigation. 

If the school is grouping or cohorting students, then it would dismiss the entire classroom for home quarantine for 14 days if two or more laboratory positive (PCR or antigen) COVID-19 cases occur within the group or cohort within a 14-day period. 

A school could be closed, and switched to remote learning for 14 days when:

  • Two or more classrooms are dismissed due to outbreaks in schools with 10 or fewer classrooms. 
  • 10 percent or more of classrooms are dismissed due to outbreaks in schools with greater than 10 classrooms. 
  • School cannot function due to insufficient teaching or support staff. 

If the school is not grouping or cohorting students, then it would quarantine close contacts and notify families if two or more laboratory positive COVID-19 cases are reported in a 14-day period. It would then evaluate to determine if transmission is occurring in the school. 
Consider the following to determine the need to close a school and switch to remote learning for 14 days when: 

  • The school experiences a rapid increase in cases. 
  • There is a prolonged chain of transmission (two or more generations) occurring in the school. 
  • School cannot function due to insufficient teaching or support staff.


Q. Is a full classroom a cohort? Is that safe?

A full classroom could be considered a cohort if each student has at least six feet of social distancing between them and others.  

A cohort is a group of students that have limited contact based on when they are on-site for in-person learning. Each cohort would be limited to those in that group for all school interactions, including recess, lunch, bus transportation if students are in closer contact, or if is necessary to remove their mask to eat. 

Cohorts are intended to help limit exposure and provide easier contact tracing should there be an outbreak. 

Q. What is a cohort for middle and high school? How many students? 

Cohort size may vary depending upon the size of the classroom and the subject being taught. Your local union may have had a role in negotiating the size of cohorts. Six feet of social distancing should be maintained, and cloth masks should be worn by all students.  

Q. How do you measure six feet between students in a classroom? 

The CDC says to measure from the edge of the body.  Further, WEA recommends the six feet be between desks, because students move around and this extra distance increases the likelihood that students can “easily maintain” six feet between each other. 

Staff with underlying health concerns or other high risks

Q: I am an office staff worker who is high risk. Our school won’t be having a full-time nurse or health aid, so we office workers are expected to step in. Given my risk status, can the district make me do this? Do I have options? How do we get a health clerk for more hours during the day?

Only designated, trained staff should interact with people showing symptoms of COVID-19. At least one designated, trained staff member should be available at all times in case there is a need to isolate a symptomatic employee or student. 

When providing care for anyone with suspected or confirmed SARS-CoV-2 infection, personnel who need to be within 6 feet of a sick colleague or student must be provided appropriate PPE (including gloves, a gown, a face shield or goggles, and an N95 or equivalent or higher-level respirator or a surgical facemask and face shield if a respirator is not available), and follow Standard and Transmission-Based Precautions. 

The Governor’s Proclamation 20-46.2, “High-Risk Employees – Workers’ Rights” provides that employers must provide accommodations for employees identified as high risk. An accommodation could include alternative work assignment or the ability to use leave. Check with your local union to see what if it has bargained provisions for those who are in this category.  

Q: Are there options for educators who are personally at a higher risk due to age or health issues and who don’t feel safe working in the building? 

Some locals have negotiated a special leaves or accommodations such as working from home for COVID. Check with your building rep or local president to see if your district provides this.

Special Education and Life Skills class

Q: When working with a student who needs help going to the bathroom or with a diaper change, what PPE should be provided to paraeducators, teachers or health educational assistants, during COVID-19?  Do we need head-to-toe PPE? 

If the student is not wearing a mask and sustained contact is necessary, this is a high-risk assignment, and the district must provide the appropriate PPE.  

L&I says best practice includes wearing a disposable gown that is discarded after each close interaction, frequent hand washing and reminders to not touch your face. Gloves should be considered a requirement for assisting students going to the bathroom or changing diapers, just as they were pre-COVID. Your local may have bargained additional clarity around these protections.

Q: Is Life Skills Class considered High Risk for the type of masks we need to wear?

Required mask use is based on working in close proximity to a student and/or the student’s inability to wear a mask. If that is true in a Life Skills Class then it is considered a high-risk classroom and the district must provide appropriate PPE.


Q. Do we have any power to stop a district from re-opening if case numbers per 100,000 exceed Health Department guidelines?

The local school board is the only authority authorized to re-open schools. Guidance from local and state health departments should influences this decision and should follow the DOH decision tree model

In addition, districts must meet the health and safety standards of L&I. Therefore, it is important that employees can identify and report if the appropriate protocols and equipment are not being followed.  

Our power comes from the conversations and engagement with our communities to help make sure they know if the district is prepared to meet these necessary health and safety guidelines. Check with your local to determine if it has bargained reopening conditions. 

Q. Many things are "strongly recommended."  Does that mean there's no accountability/teeth to those provisions? 

If masks and proper PPE are not provided or are not being worn, then report it to the COVID supervisor. If you don’t know who that is, talk to your building rep or local president.  It may be necessary to file a complaint with Department of Occupational Safety and Health (DOSH) to ensure compliance, again consult with your union building rep.

Q. Does the district need to provide safe places for lunch and rest breaks indoors? My district's answer so far is eat in your car or outside weather permitting.

Check with your building rep or local president to determine what has been bargained concerning meal and rest break safety.

Q. If we move to hybrid learning, will I be required to teach students in a building and online? There’s not enough time in the day to teach in two formats. What about prep time? 

Consult with your building rep and/or local president.  This is a term and condition of work that most likely has or will be bargained.

Posted in: Health care
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