As Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools leaders prepare schools for the eventual return of students, the district is spending more than $1 million on products that apparently do little to protect anyone from COVID-19.
All through the summer, Deputy Superintendent Carol Stamper has said virus protection will rely largely on maintenance crews doing more of what they always do – sanitizing classroom surfaces, bathrooms and any other occupied school space.
But at a July 1 board meeting, she also mentioned a new product: A topcoat for school floors.
"It’s a Microban product – you may have seen the Microban products on the shelves – and they are inhibitor of the growth of this particular virus," she said. "So we have ordered gallons and gallons -- I can’t tell you how many."
It turns out CMS has bought 4,200 pails of Clarion 25, the floor coating with Microban. That cost $271,000.
Virus Causing Bacteria?
WFAE asked for details after the product was mentioned again at the Aug. 25 board meeting. A slide presented in that meeting said the product would “provide additional protection from germs that can be spread from shoes and inhibit the growth of virus-causing bacteria.”
By that time Microban had a disclaimer on its website, saying the company was getting a lot of queries about its power to fight COVID-19. The site says Microban’s active ingredients “are not currently proven to have any antiviral properties when built-into products.”
As for the “virus-causing bacteria” CMS referred to, North Carolina State University virologist Frank Scholle says "that one is weird."
"That term, 'virus-producing bacteria,' that does not make any sense," Scholle said. "Viruses are viruses, bacteria are bacteria."
So the floor coating isn’t likely to inhibit the coronavirus. Are school floors a major source of any kind of disease transmission?
Scholle says maybe for very young children who crawl on floors, but "as for anything in elementary school and up, is it going to hurt anything? No. Is it going to help anything? Probably not.
"I mean we’ve all hopefully by that age been taught to not pick things up off the floor and stick them in our mouths or anything like that," he said.
When asked about the floor coating, state health officials referred to their cleaning and hygiene guide for schools. It requires disinfection of high-touch areas such as door handles, desks and drinking fountains, but says nothing about floors.
Air Dryers Vs. Paper Towels
School restrooms are another focus point for CMS. Stamper has talked about making sure soap and hand sanitizer stay stocked. And she says CMS is changing the way kids dry their hands.
"We actually have a campaign going to put in more electric hand dryers," she said on a July 23 episode of WFAE’s Charlotte Talks.
Host Mike Collins reacted the way several people have on social media when Stamper mentions that project in public meetings: "That’s what I was afraid you were going to say. ... A lot of health officials say they are very dangerous, 'cause all they do is blow germs all over the room. "
Stamper responded that she didn’t know whether air dryers or paper towels were safer.
That’s understandable, says Scholle, the NC State virologist.
"That one’s a little bit more tricky, honestly, because I think there’s probably not a whole lot of good science out there," Scholle said.
A very small British study found that paper towels were more effective at reducing the spread of microbes. It got a lot of attention last spring.
A 2012 Mayo Clinic review of research found mixed results but concluded that paper towels are more hygienic than air dryers. And as several health sources note, a paper towel can be used to turn off faucets and open restroom doors, then be discarded.
But CMS notes that paper towels in schools also have to be restocked, and maintenance staff have to empty trash cans and pick up any that land on the floor – or worse, clog toilets. A statement from the district says the new dryers are no-touch and have filters to avoid recycling airborne contaminants.
So far, CMS has spent $240,000 to replace paper towel dispensers with air dryers at seven schools. Stamper says 33 more are in the engineering phase, at a projected cost of $658,000. The goal, she says, is to keep adding the dryers as money becomes available.
Then There's Behavior
Scholle, the virologist, says it’s not necessarily a bad idea to spend money on products to sanitize schools. But he notes the real challenge: "The best measure that we have right now to keep this virus from spreading is our own behavior."
Scholle teaches at NC State – one of several universities that brought students back in August, then shifted back to virtual classes after they mingled without social distancing and spread the virus. Scholle says he’s concerned that high school won’t be much different.
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