By Mark J. Berger
With a presidential call to bring students back to the classroom by May, many school facilities are asking themselves the question: How do we return our children to school in a way that is both safe and secure?
The answer can become quite complex – to be both safe and secure requires incorporating new protocols to prevent community spread of viruses and germs; it also means taking into account security measures designed to keep our children protected against bad actors who threaten their lives.
Many organizations have created guiding documents to aid communities in reopening their schools, including the Harvard School of Public Health, which produced “Schools For Health: Risk Reduction Strategies for Reopening Schools,” published in June 2020 and updated in November of that same year. This publicly available document’s goal is “to present a range of control strategies that should be considered in discussions of school reopening.”
In Harvard’s “Schools For Health,” the guidance refers to the “use of automatic or touchless alternatives (e.g., automatic doors)” as a method to minimize fomite transmission (spreading contagions through contact with objects). Yet, there are literally hundreds of doors in any given school. Hence, the cost of applying automatic doors to every classroom, cafeteria, lab, and auditorium entry is untenable, even for the wealthiest of private schools.
“Schools for Health” seems to recognize this, as the following sentence begins with “If installing new infrastructure is not feasible…”
Sadly, however, a hazardous statement follows: “alternative policies could be implemented (e.g., doors could be propped open, so students do not need to touch them).”
With all due respect to the thoughtful, and well-meaning contributors of “Schools for Health” – we in the door and hardware discipline must object. Propping doors open not only creates a fire risk; it also removes an essential layer of protection to secure the classroom.
Many classroom doors are fire-rated, meaning that they are used for fire or smoke containment. Any door labeled “Fire-Rated” cannot be propped open, as that voids necessary safety measures. Further, propping open a door can create a risk to the lives of students and staff in active shooter situations. This nuance is particularly relevant when one considers the potential for increased aberrant behavior due to the isolation and upheaval of the past year, making the issue of security much greater.
We are aware that quickly securing classroom doors saves lives. Many studies have concluded that fine motor skills rapidly deteriorate during periods of high stress, so there could be issues in removing the item propping a door open while trying to quickly close a door. That is why there are a variety of lockdown options from continuously locked doors to those where a single action (like pressing a red button) instantly secures the room.
This combination of practical and strategic planning for schools is why the Partnership Alliance for Safe Schools (PASS) provides communities with guidance for safe school design and measures to be taken to ensure a safe environment against the increased dangers of active shooters and violence in schools. Now in its 5th edition, the PASS Guidelines contains the most comprehensive information available on best practices specifically for securing K-12 school facilities, including easy-to-follow checklists and a tiered approach for school facilities, rather than one-size-fits-all guidance.
Can doors ever be safely and securely propped open? With the right strategy and resources, yes.
While working with security consultants on the new Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, CT, we combined automatic deadbolting locksets with electromagnetic door hold-open devices. Teachers can intentionally swing a door open so that it catches on the hold-open. Doors can be manually opened or closed by the teacher at any time from the interior, but a key is always required for entry when the door is closed. Life-safety and lockdown security are both instantaneous as well. Upon a signal from the school office, or in the event of a signal from the fire system, power is removed from the electromagnetic door hold-open devices, and all doors swing closed and then deadbolt.
There are many detailed solutions contained within “Schools for Health.” The absence of guidance on door hardware is a notable omission, and providing suggestions that violate best practices could have disastrous unintended consequences.
Door and hardware manufactures have developed arm pulls, foot pulls, and lever adaptors, as well as antimicrobial and bactericidal copper alloy products, to help reduce fomite transmission in a way that is secure and compliant. The door and hardware industry is also very active in assisting national, state, and local authorities and code development agencies in developing the correct language for life-safety and security within codes, legislation, and local ordinances. Organizations such as the BHMA (Builders Hardware Manufacturers Association), DHI Door Security & Safety Professionals, ASIS International, and SIA (Security Industry Association) all have committees dedicated to this effort.
The door and hardware industry has subject matter experts available to help develop documents, checklists, and procedures to create safe schools. Please reach out and let us be a part of a successful return to in-person education for everyone.
Mark J. Berger is the former president of DHI Door Security & Safety Professionals, chairs BHMA’s Codes and Government Affairs Committee, served as chair of ASIS International’s School Safety & Security Council, is a member of PASS’s advisory board, and is President and Chief Product Officer of Securitech Group, Inc., an innovative lock manufacturer in New York City.