Can We Do Sensory Bins In Class During COVID?

I’m about to return to in-person teaching of toddlers and preschoolers for the first time in 18 months. I have many questions about sensory bins, shared toys, and craft supplies. I don’t have a lot of answers, but here’s what I’ve found.

Official Recommendations for Child Care Settings

Safest Options: Here are some recommended Sensory Ideas from King County public health. These are from May 2020, when worries about surface transmission were high, so the fact that these were considered safe then means they would definitely fit under current recommendations.

  • Individual sensory items in containers. To clean, just wipe down the outside.
    • Double-bagged ziplocks, sealed with tape. Fill with slime, gak, water beads, hair gel, etc. Kids hold and squish around.
    • Fill rubber gloves with sand, lentils, etc. Tie off.
    • Water bottles filled with colored water, oil, sequins, shells, etc. Tape or glue lids.
  • Individual sensory bins in plastic tubs. Each child has their own bin they use each week, filled with rice, beans or other material. Swap tools each week: cups, scoops, toys that can be cleaned.
  • Play-dough in individual containers for each child. For play, put them on a tray, or tape off part of a table. Give the child tools to play with – like cookie cutters. When done, put child’s playdough back in their bag, and clean tools before another child uses them.
  • Give child their own containers of finger paint. Use plastic handled paintbrushes, and clean before another child uses them.

Guidelines specific to sensory bins and shared items in childcare settings

The current recommendations from the Washington DOH (they’re supposedly releasing new recommendations soon) and the CDC, were originally developed when there was high concern about surface transmission.

DOH says (https://www.doh.wa.gov/Portals/1/Documents/1600/coronavirus/DOH-OSPI-DYCF-SchoolsChildCareGuidance.pdf)

  • “Children should have their own set of items to limit the sharing of supplies or equipment.
  • Some items cannot be cleaned and sanitized. This includes things like playdough and some items in sensory bins or tables, stuffed animals, and dress up clothes. Remove these items from the program unless they are individually assigned and labeled.
  • If using sensory materials, use items that can be disinfected or discarded and replaced between sessions…. All sensory table activities should be supervised for toddlers and preschool children. Hands should be washed before and after sensory table use.
  • Books and other paper-based materials are not high risk for spreading the virus and do not need to be cleaned more than normal.”

CDC adds “Machine washable cloth toys should be used by one person at a time or should not be used at all. These toys should be laundered before being used by another child.” https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/schools-childcare/guidance-for-childcare.html

What is known, but not yet reflected in the guidelines

Does the type of surface matter?

Viruses live a different amount of time on different surfaces. There were studies in the NEJM that looked at half-life – how long till it’s reduced in half and Lancet that looked at how long it took before the virus was undetectable. Department of Homeland Security has a page that addresses estimated surface decay. (Here’s a plain language summary of the research.)

When first “deposited” – like if an infected person without a mask just sneezed droplets on a surface – there’s more virus there. As time passes, the amount of virus drops, till there’s no longer any detectable. (Imagine a puddle on a sidewalk – at first it might be two feet across, then it gets smaller, and then the pavement is just damp, and eventually the pavement is pretty much dry… the water is undetectable.)

When the virus was intentionally deposited on surfaces, it’s virtually gone from paper in a few hours, from cardboard in 24 hours, wood and cloth in 2 days, glass in 4 days, and steel and plastic in 3 – 7 days.

So, that’s how long some small amount of virus might be capable of living (if not cleaned with soap and water, or sanitized with bleach, or disinfected.)

So… if we had someone in class with active coronavirus, and virus was deposited on a surface and we didn’t clean it, there is some small amount of virus on that surface the next day. The question is – how likely is it that someone who is masked and washing hands frequently would catch COVID from that?

What do we now know about surface transmission?

  • In April 2021, the CDC released a brief (https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/more/science-and-research/surface-transmission.html) which stated: “… surface transmission is not the main route by which SARS-CoV-2 spreads, and the risk is considered to be low. The principal mode by which people are infected with SARS-CoV-2 is through exposure to respiratory droplets carrying infectious virus. The risk of fomite transmission can be reduced by wearing masks consistently and correctly, practicing hand hygiene, cleaning, and taking other measures to maintain healthy facilities.” “… the risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection via the fomite transmission route is low, and generally less than 1 in 10,000….” “Routine cleaning … with soap or detergent, at least once per day, can substantially reduce virus levels on surfaces. When focused on high-touch surfaces, cleaning with soap or detergent should be enough to further reduce the relatively low transmission risk from fomites in situations when there has not been a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19 indoors.” “Disinfection is recommended in indoor community settings where there has been a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19 within the last 24 hours.”

How much does cleaning reduce risk?

“From studies of cleaning focused on other microbes, a 90–99.9% reduction of microbe levels could be possible depending on the cleaning method and the surface being cleaned.”

So, if a different group of people is entering the classroom within 24 hours, then cleaning does get you a substantial reduction in risk.

The Context of Our Classrooms

Child care can look like lots of things – there are some 24 hour child cares that are back-up emergency care for essential workers – those might be more likely to have a higher load of any virus, and may be harder to clean between children. A full-time child care with unvaccinated workers might be more likely to have virus, and harder to clean between children.

In the context of my classes, things might look very different and might lead to different decision making. Here are the layers of protection we have in place to reduce the possible viral loads in our classrooms:

  • We require all adults to be vaccinated. (Also, on the Eastside, over 90% of adults have received at least one dose of the vaccine.) We will ask them to do temperature checks, and symptom and exposure checks before coming. This reduces the risk that families will bring the virus to class.
  • We will require adults to wear masks and recommend that children do so. We will also increase ventilation. These practices reduce droplets and the risk of airborne transmission.
  • We will practice frequent hand-washing and hand sanitizing which reduces the risks of fomites being transferred to surfaces.
  • We have much higher adult to child ratios than a typical child care (between 1:1 and 1:5) and can provide closer supervision.
  • Some of our classrooms are only used once a week by one group of families.

Questions there aren’t official answers for

  • If an item is used by one child for a brief period of time, then put away for a week before being used again (like maracas or jingle bells at group time), does it need special cleaning?
  • Given frequent hand cleaning protocols, would it be reasonable to share materials like scissors and markers between children, or is it essential to have a system like a bin of clean markers, and then a bin for dirty markers where any marker that has been used by a child is placed?
  • If children hand sanitize before and after, is a shared sensory bin reasonable? Should it be filled only with materials that can be cleaned with soap and water and sanitized with bleach solution? Could some items (like rice and lentils) maybe be disinfected after class by stirring in alcohol? If health guidelines for child cares allow for sandbox play outdoors (they do) – what about sand in an indoor sensory bin?

These are the things I’m thinking about. If you have additional insight into this, let me know in the comments!

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