SSMT and COVID-19
This has been quite a year for everyone on the planet. For anyone like me, who has built a life – and a living – out of close human interaction, it has been a time for deep reflection.
Close contact with people increases the risk of infection from COVID-19. That risk increases further when contact is closer than 6 feet, and even further when it occurs indoors for durations longer than 10 or 15 minutes.
It is impossible to give or receive massage from 6 feet away, in 15 minutes, or limit classes to such a short duration.
Fortunately, we know more about how to minimize risk, even when meeting indoors for hours, than we did several months ago.
SSMT reopened for live classes September 8, having held only theory classes online since March. We used the time live classes were paused to follow closely what scientists were learning about COVID-19, and how to minimize its chance of spread. We watched as other massage therapy schools around the country resumed live classes over the summer, and were pleased to note that – with a few precautions – spread in the classroom seems rare.
While we have watched other schools send students home for quarantine because a student tested positive, we have not seen a single case where a positive student spread the virus to others in the school. All the schools we’ve been in touch with require masks, some require shields, some have air purification, but none have all the safety measures SSMT has adopted. In the five weeks we’ve held live classes, we have not had anyone receive a positive COVID-19 diagnosis. (December 18, 2020 update: we have still not had anyone receive a positive COVID-19 diagnosis since reopening more than 3 months ago – not students, not faculty, not administration or staff).
While there is no guarantee that any close human interaction is safe from spreading COVID-19, SSMT has adopted every measure that has worked in other schools, and other settings.
- Ventilation – Air exchanged with the outside environment at least once every 45 minutes
- HEPA filtration – Air filtered through HEPA filters about every 8 minutes
- UV-C and Ionizers – HVAC system fitted with the only air purifier approved by NASA
- Face Masks – Everyone in the building is masked always
- Face Shields – Students wear face shields when in the classroom (except when lying down)
- Disinfection – SSMT disinfects all surfaces twice each day with the most non-toxic disinfectant on the FDA’s approved list
- Physical Distancing – Except for trading partners and practical instructors, everyone maintains at least six feet of distance – and often much more
- Online Instruction – Some science and theory classes are held online
- Limited Class Size – to accommodate distancing, class size has been limited to 10-12, depending on the classroom
Ventilation – There is a vent in the exterior wall allowing outside air into the HVAC system, so fresh exterior air is cooled and pumped into the room. The four classrooms have exhaust fans that draw air up and out of the room through the roof. The entire volume of air in the classroom is exchanged every 45 minutes.
HEPA filtration – There are two HEPA filtration units in each classroom, and similar units in the offices, library, bathrooms, and reception area. These turn over the entire volume of air in the classrooms over seven times each hour, passing it through what is essentially an N95 mask for indoor air.
UV-C and Ionizers – SSMT has installed Aerus Air Scrubber units in each of the four HVAC units. These have the same technology used on the space shuttle, and function whenever the unit is cooling (or heating). They pass the air through UV-C light, and produce hydroxyl ions, peroxides, and oxygen anions that are safe for humans, but attach to pathogens, pulling them out of the air, and killing them. SSMT got the model without ozone, since ozone may have negative effects on health.
Face Masks – Since March there has been much research on mask effectiveness, and we have followed it closely. In March it was thought that cloth masks might protect others a small amount, but probably not the wearer. It is now clear that well-made, well-fitted masks significantly, though not perfectly, protect both the wearer and others. Students, instructors, administration, staff, and all visitors to SSMT wear face masks, with a nose-wire, that covers the nose and mouth.
Not all masks are created equal. Numerous studies have confirmed that bandanas and handkerchiefs do not significantly filter droplets, a study at Duke University demonstrated that polyester/spandex gaiters break large droplets into smaller ones, causing them to remain in the air and be inhaled deeper into the respiratory tract. These gaiters are actually more dangerous to both the wearer and others than no mask at all. SSMT provides a list of comfortable, realtively effective cloth masks, and provides ASTM rated surgical masks (that filter particles as small as .1 micron) for anyone who needs one.
Face Shields – Face shields are an impenetrable barrier that prevent over 96% of exhaled t
droplets from passing between people, even at the close range required for massage therapy. Since shields do not prevent aerosol transmission, they don’t replace masks, but supplement them. SSMT provides all students with a Z-Shield Wrap – a comfortable shield that rises up from the shoulder girdle, rather than down from the forehead. It meets the CDC guidelines for shields by dropping below the chin and wrapping around the face. It prevents air exchange toward the client, and unlike most shields, exchanges air from above and behind the wearer, rather than below and in front.
Physical Distancing – When practicing massage therapy, the practicing student and instructor are wearing masks and shields, and the student receiving massage is wearing a mask. At all other times everyone maintains at least six feet of distance – and often much more.
Online Instruction – Now that we have resumed live classes on campus, most classes are held live on campus. Students will continue to attend some science and theory classes online. The online classes are streamed live, and include opportunities for participation. SSMT has created dynamic and effective visual presentations to anchor lectures and discussions. Students’ performance and enjoyment of online classes has generally been similar to what occurs in live classes.
Limited Class Size – To accommodate distancing, class size has been limited to 10-12, depending on the classroom. We have started three day classes and two night classes since the pandemic began; because of the limited size, all have had waiting lists. People exploring the possibility of attending SSMT are encouraged to begin the process early.