Lakeside, Put Down the Paper Towels

It’s become a familiar ritual: at the end of every in-person class period, we Lakesiders make our way awkwardly to the front of the room, trying to skirt six feet around our classmates, where we retrieve a paper towel and disinfectant spray. Only once we’ve wiped our desks — and don’t forget the chairs! — may we leave. 

Lakeside’s passion for surface decontamination also shows up in the library, where students signing in must select a pen from the “clean pens” bin and deposit it in “used pens,” or in classes, where we are prohibited from writing on whiteboards because of possible germs on the markers. On April 1, when someone at Lakeside was believed to have contracted Covid (thankfully a false positive), Health and Safety Officer Bryan Smith promised “a deep cleaning of the Upper School campus.”

The mandatory table-wiping has a few upsides. Nobody really minds ending 8th period at 3:05 instead of 3:10, and for the first time in Lakeside history, classes after lunch don’t encounter bits of food on their desks. The main point of consternation among students is the sheer number of paper towels consumed on a daily basis.

Time for a bit of back-of-the envelope math. The lunch roster for the week before spring break showed 274 upperclassmen on campus, but some of them probably didn’t attend in person or left midday; let’s lowball it at 240 students on campus each day. Each day at Lakeside has four class periods and lunch, bringing the daily total of paper towels consumed to 1,200. Multiply by the number of days Lakeside has spent open: 12 weeks (by the time this article goes to press), times four days a week makes 57,600 paper towels (remember, this is a low estimate). 

Laid out flat, that’s enough paper towels to cover 13 football fields; laid end-to-end, they would stretch about 15 miles (roughly the distance to drive from Lakeside to Boeing Field). All crumpled up at the end of class and thrown in the trash. Is all the wiping-down and waste really necessary?

“It is possible for people to be infected through contact with contaminated surfaces or objects (fomites), but the risk is generally considered to be low,” reads the CDC’s updated guidelines for preventing the spread of Covid-19, released on April 5. Lindsey Marr, a Virginia Tech professor and expert on airborne viruses, put it more bluntly to the New York Times: “There’s really no evidence that anyone has ever gotten Covid-19 by touching a contaminated surface.”

The CDC’s guideline update may be recent (and, according to many scientists, belated), but the wisdom is not. A New York Times headline from November 18, 2020 asked the same question as this very article: “The Coronavirus is Airborne Indoors. Why Are We Still Scrubbing Surfaces?” It is old news that decontaminating tables and chairs is ineffectual; Lakeside should have gotten the memo.

Wiping the tables (and chairs, and pens, and markers) is “hygiene theater.” This term, coined early in the pandemic, refers to anything that makes a show of making people safer without a tangible impact on their risk of catching Covid. Hygiene theater is alluring, the impulse understandable. Sitting in a chair left warm by its previous occupant is an uncomfortable feeling; the bacterial equivalent of that is a lot worse during a deadly pandemic. If it makes people feel more comfortable, the school could argue, what’s the harm?

Even if we set aside the reams of paper thrown in the trash for a moment, Lakeside’s current operation poses another risk to the community. In the aptly-titled article “Deep Cleaning Isn’t a Victimless Crime,” the Atlantic’s Derek Thompson puts it succinctly: “hygiene theater carries with it an immense opportunity cost.” By focusing on cleaning the desks, Lakeside diverts resources and teachers’ attention away from measures that really do prevent the spread of Covid-19, like ventilation, social distancing and compliance to masking rules. Emphasizing bacteria on surfaces also confuses people. It’s harder to focus on avoiding the coronavirus in the air (where it actually spreads) when you’re told it’s also on your desk, chair and pens, Thompson writes. There’s certainly irony to sitting in a room with no windows, as do a few of Lakeside’s classrooms, but being asked not to share books or writing utensils.

Sure, wipe the desks before and after lunch — that’s good hygiene even in non-pandemic conditions — but most of the fuss is unnecessary and harmful. Lakeside, put down the disinfectant, save the trees, and stop this madness.