UK Researchers Study COVID-19 and Decision-Making for Reopening Schools

Photo of Students in Class
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LEXINGTON, Ky. (Oct. 26, 2020) — Over the past several months, schools across the country have been forced to make difficult decisions about whether and how to return to the classroom.

At what point will it be safe?

While it's tough to answer that question, Kelly G. Pennell, Gill Associate Professor in the Department of Civil Engineering and director of the University of Kentucky Superfund Research Center (UK-SRC), has co-authored an article detailing lessons learned about stakeholder engagement and risk communication relevant for COVID-19 and school reopening.

The article, “Balancing incomplete COVID-19 evidence and local priorities: risk communication and stakeholder engagement strategies for school re-opening,” appeared in the recent edition of Reviews on Environmental Health.

Anna G. Hoover from the UK College of Public Health and Wendy Heiger-Bernays from the Boston University School of Public Health are listed as the first authors, followed by Sweta Ojha, a doctoral student in Pennell’s research group. Pennell, Hoover and Heiger-Bernays are longtime collaborators through the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) Superfund Research program, leading “translational research” for over a decade. 

Although most school systems around the country already have resumed classes in some form, many are still struggling to balance face-to-face, hybrid and virtual learning options. In the article, the authors draw upon lessons learned from decades of working with at-risk communities who live near hazardous waste sites. They discuss the roles of engineering (ventilation), administrative (risk communication), personal (masking) controls, and position stakeholder engagement as a potentially important modulator of the effectiveness of these controls.

On Oct. 5, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated its guidance, acknowledging the coronavirus can spread through airborne particles. Circumstances under which airborne transmission have occurred include enclosed spaces, prolonged exposure to respiratory particles and inadequate ventilation or air handling.

“The CDC’s acknowledgment that close contact, airborne transmission and inadequate building ventilation play a role in COVID-19 follows recognition of this exposure pathway by many experts within the scientific community,” Pennell said. “The recently updated CDC guidance reinforces the importance of our article, which discusses methods for engaging with stakeholders to share accurate, science-based, and importantly, context-specific information.”

Pennell is an expert on indoor air exposure risks, Heiger-Bernays brings expertise about risk assessment and Hoover is an authority on risk communication. Pennell and Hoover currently have several grants together that focus on stakeholder engagement, while Pennell and Heiger-Bernays have been collaborators for more than a decade and have conducted NEIHS-funded research together, as well as field studies in community settings. Collectively, all three are passionate and skilled at conducting stakeholder-engaged translational research.

“Fostering Informed Decisions and Actions” is one of the 21st Century Grand Challenges for Environmental Engineering and served as one the main themes of Pennell’s 2015 NSF CAREER Award. She designed a course as part of her CAREER award titled, “Environmental Health and Engineering.” As part of that course, Pennell focuses on the importance of stakeholder engagement for engineering solutions to complex environmental problems. In early spring 2020, as SARS-CoV-2 infections spread and the COVID-19 pandemic was gaining attention, Hoover, a guest lecturer in the course, and Pennell designed a class project that connected stakeholder engagement and the use of cloth face masks to reduce SARS-CoV-2 airborne transmission.

“When I assigned the project, the CDC had just changed its guidance about the benefits of cloth face masks,” Pennell said. “Prior to the course project, the class had been learning about indoor air quality and ventilation, so it was an ideal project.” 

Ojha, an international student from Nepal, was one the students in the course. At the direction of Pennell and Hoover, she also conducts research related to stakeholder engagement around per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) and drinking water systems. Pennell says Ojha has a unique perspective about the importance of risk tolerance among diverse groups and how wearing face masks on campus would be perceived differently among different student populations. Ojha has been a passionate advocate for reducing SARS-CoV-2 exposure risks in public spaces, especially in confined spaces within graduate housing.

Although not directly related to COVID-19, Pennell and Hoover lead a research project within UK-SRC that incorporates stakeholder engagement approaches to develop engineering solutions for aging piping infrastructure in ways that are acceptable to communities. Ojha is one of several students working on the project.

As the state’s flagship, land-grant institution, the University of Kentucky exists to advance the Commonwealth. We do that by preparing the next generation of leaders — placing students at the heart of everything we do — and transforming the lives of Kentuckians through education, research and creative work, service and health care. We pride ourselves on being a catalyst for breakthroughs and a force for healing, a place where ingenuity unfolds. It's all made possible by our people — visionaries, disruptors and pioneers — who make up 200 academic programs, a $476.5 million research and development enterprise and a world-class medical center, all on one campus.   

In 2022, UK was ranked by Forbes as one of the “Best Employers for New Grads” and named a “Diversity Champion” by INSIGHT into Diversity, a testament to our commitment to advance Kentucky and create a community of belonging for everyone. While our mission looks different in many ways than it did in 1865, the vision of service to our Commonwealth and the world remains the same. We are the University for Kentucky.