Limiting the Transmission of COVID-19 in Schools with Sneeze Shields

Block the virus, not the learning

In the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Considerations for Schools: Operating Schools During COVID-19, the CDC recommends the installation of “physical barriers, such as sneeze guards and partitions, particularly in areas where it is difficult for individuals to remain at least 6 feet apart.” OSHA’s Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19 publication also suggests, “installing physical barriers, such as clear plastic sneeze guards,” as a defense against the spread of COVID-19. In general, sneeze shields are recommended wherever it is not possible for people to remain more than six feet away from others, or when they simply forget to do so.

Sneeze shields have been widely used in school cafeterias for decades. However, their use in our “new normal” of American education is different. Rather than preventing students from dipping their fingers into the mashed potatoes, sneeze shields today are installed to create peace-of-mind for administration members, students and teachers during all face-to-face interactions where the shields serve as a way to:
• Intercept COVID-19 respiratory droplets;
• Re-enforce physical distancing requirements;
• And compliment the use of masks.

Ultimately the goal of sneeze guards in schools is to block the virus, not the learning.

To ensure that a sneeze shield performs its assigned duties, the most critical factor is that its dimensions exceed the users’ breathing zones by a wide margin. What is a breathing zone? It is defined as the pocket of air from which a person draws breath. Imagine a bubble with a radius of 12 inches extending from the mid-point between a student’s ears. That “bubble” is the breathing zone.

GermBlock Cough and Sneeze Guard School DesktopSneeze shield height and width are based on an average-sized person who is between five and six feet tall. In the United States the average height for men is five feet, 9 inches tall, while for women it is five feet, 4 inches tall. Obviously, in classrooms for lower grades you should take into account the smaller frames of younger students.

Also, the shield’s height should reflect whether or not people are sitting or standing. For example, in an office area, a student might be standing while an administrator remains in a chair. In this case, the sneeze shields should be the height of the average standing person.

Besides protection of the breathing zone, the width of a sneeze shield should take into account for user behavior, in particular if a student moves to the side of the shield to speak directly to another student. Currently, industry best practice is to make the sneeze shields as wide as the surface it is installed on to prevent circumventing it. Shield designs also may include wings or side panels to provide both stability and further shelter the user’s breathing zone from the potentially harmful emissions from coughing, sneezing, loud talking, laughing, and more.

GermBlock Cough and Sneeze Shield Tabletop with Pass ThroughBecause the purpose of sneeze shields is to ensure that a user’s breathing zone is not contaminated, speaking ports or grates should not be installed through the partition. However, sneeze shields often need openings at the bottom to allow for the transfer of items or payment for transactions. These slots should be kept as small as possible dependent on the activity. Also, the slot should be placed off-center, rather than directly in front of the person. If large packages must be passed, a slider or plastic flap can be installed. Please note that sliders and flaps are high-touch surfaces and will need to be sanitized throughout the day.

An alternative, albeit a poor one, to a slot, slider or flaps is to hang sneeze shields from the ceiling with space for transactions underneath. Although more convenient and visually appealing, hanging a sneeze shield leaves a large gap between the shield and the countertop, allowing air to flow through. Also, if the partition is able to swing, it may fan contaminated air from one person to another. Hanging shields are also difficult to clean. Surface-mounted or freestanding shields are the preferred design for school safety.

Sneeze shields are engineering controls that significantly reduce droplet transmission in schools, and should be purchased with great care. Materials vary greatly.

Polycarbonate, an optically transparent yet virtually unbreakable plastic, is an ideal material for sneeze shields. Polycarbonate is advantageous in schools because it is possesses a unique balance of toughness, dimensional stability, optical clarity, and excellent resistance to scratching. Properties such as scratch and impact resistance should be considered before making a selection for schools, especially in higher grades were vandalism may occur. Polycarbonate is also thin, which allows for easy communication between both sides. This is perfect for schools, because it allows students to clearly see and hear their instructions and interact with other students without having to come into direct contact. Additionally, polycarbonate allows access to natural light and shields out harmful ultraviolet rays.

Acrylic (Plexiglas) shields are less expensive than those fabricated from polycarbonate. In a case of “you get what you pay for,” Acrylic is also easier for students to damage and will require more replacements, more frequently. Both acrylic and polycarbonate are stronger than untempered glass. However, acrylic is only 4x to 8x stronger than glass, while polycarbonate is approximately 250x stronger. When struck by an object polycarbonate bends but doesn’t break. When acrylic is struck it stays stiff but cracks and shatters under impact. This exposes students to another potential hazard in addition to COVID-19: sharp plastic shreds. Yet another issue is acrylic is fire resistance. In several states, including New York, the use of acrylic in schools is prohibited, as it does not meet fire code standards.

Some school districts that have re-opened are championing the portable desk sneeze guard. Equipped with a carrying handle to, portable desk sneeze shields are susceptible to being dropped by students onto hard floors. For that reason a hard, virtually unbreakable material like polycarbonate is required.

A sturdy metal frame may be required in instances where sneeze shields are subjected to heavy impact, vandalism, or are placed outside to act as freestanding partitions. A frame is also necessary in applications that need a bolted solution for high traffic areas or a movable solution to roll from one place to the next on caster wheels.

Sneeze shields intercept respiratory droplets. For that reason they must be treated as contaminated surfaces and should be cleaned regularly according to a set protocol. Shields that are not touched should be cleaned daily, whereas portions of the partition that are touched should be cleaned twice daily, or more frequently if visibly soiled, as with other high-touch surfaces.

GermBlock Cough and Sneeze Guards in SchoolsSchool districts around the country are hard at work making and installing sneeze guards throughout their facilities. Sneeze guards are installed in their front offices, around and on student desks, separating library and cafeteria tables, and in entrances where temperature checks are being performed. School buses are using them to provide extra separation between students. When combined with social distancing, face masks, hand washing and sanitizing, sneeze guards for schools have the potential to make a major impact on safety and help everyone breathe a little easier this school year.

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Preventing the Spread of COVID-19 with Cough and Sneeze Shields

According to the American Lung Association, sneezes and coughs are your body’s way of releasing irritants found in the nose and lungs. In effect, people have a high-speed face cannon capable for expelling all sorts of bugs and germs. Unfortunately, getting rid of irritants in such a violent method means spreading germs in a large spray of saliva, mucus, and germs. A cough can travel as fast as 50 mph and expel almost 3,000 droplets in just one go. Sneezes are even more forceful —they can travel up to 100 mph and create upwards of 100,000 droplets.

GermBlock Cough and Sneeze Guards

Public health experts and elected officials have emphasized again and again that social distancing is the best tool we have to slow the coronavirus outbreak. However, many organizations are unable to effectively manage to keep people six feet or more apart, simply due to the nature of their business. Consider the interactions between a teller and a bank customer, employees in side-by-side cubicles, or assembly-line workers standing shoulder to shoulder in food processing plants. In those situations, and many more, safe social distancing cannot be achieved and a shield may help limit the spread of pathogens.

Restaurants first installed cough and sneeze shields around the “all you can eat” buffets and supper-club salad bars of the 1950’s to prevent guests from contaminating food. Today, cough and sneeze guards are being mounted in all types of settings, from grocery stores to post offices, as a blockade against the highly contagious coronavirus (COVID-19).

GermBlock Cough and Sneeze Guard Floor Standing

Sneeze guards are not medical devices, but they have PPE qualities contributing to transmission slowdown—even if a customer and employee aren’t wearing masks. In addition, shields provide customers with an extra reassurance of safety as they cautiously re-enter the so-called “new normal” of everyday life. Installing shields demonstrates an organization’s dedication to the health of their staff that helps to retain employees. Shields may also serve as a visual reminder to use proper hygiene to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Like N95 masks and disposable gloves, sneeze shields have become another new icon of the current pandemic.

Sneeze barriers work best when they are used alongside other proven methods including enhanced cleaning and hygiene practices, PPE, social distancing measures, and drastic changes in how services are provided, especially in the hard-hit retail and hospitality industries.


Back in 1959, Johnny Garneau, who owned and ran the American Style Smorgasbord chain of restaurants in Ohio and Pennsylvania, filed a patent for the “Food Service Table,” later known as the “sneeze shield.” An admitted germaphobe, Garneau couldn’t stand customers smelling the entrees and having their noses too close to the food. He installed his invention in each of his restaurants, and as a indirect result, he played a crucial role in food safety initiatives. By the early 1960s the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulated the presence of food shields in restaurants across the country. Garneau passed away in 2003 but would certainly have been proud of how his invention has today become instrumental in preventing COVID-19 infections.

While the CDC recommends the use of shields as protection against COVID-19, there are currently no enforceable government standards or codes requiring shields for this specific purpose. The FDA governs sneeze guards for food safety only, requiring that restaurants with buffets, hospital and school cafeterias, portable food carts and self-serve fast food displays have shields.

GermBlock Cough and Sneeze Guards in Factory

Some of the country’s largest unions have recently called for emergency regulations to ensure the safety of “essential workers” against COVID-19. They have joined together to lobby OSHA to implement enforceable emergency coronavirus workplace regulations for those workers who have continued to punch into work despite COVID-19, including store clerks, machine operators and of course, the healthcare workers on the frontline.

The most effective sneeze guards are tall and wide enough to protect an individual whether they are standing or sitting. These calculations are based on an average-sized customer who is between five and six feet tall. Shields should cover the full interaction.

GermBlock Cough and Sneeze Guards for Cubicles

Cheaply made shields are unlikely to withstand the rigors of daily wear and tear. In clean-room settings, for example, shields need to withstand the rigors of frequent deep cleaning, using very hot temperatures, pressurized wash downs and specific cleaning agents, such as ethanol, hydrogen peroxide, isopropyl alcohol, ammonia and soap solutions, all of which are cleaning agents specifically recommended by the CDC in the fight against the coronavirus. Disinfection should be performed daily.

Although some manufacturers opt to use tempered glass or plexiglass, shields constructed of polycarbonate hold many advantages over their counterparts. Polycarbonate is harder to scratch, reducing the risk of bacteria “hiding” within scratches, and it can be cleaned with ease. In addition, it is far stronger than glass yet considerably lighter in weight, while also providing excellent resistance to long-term exposure to environmental elements such as UV rays. Enhanced strength means that sharp impacts or abrasive cleaning chemicals aren’t a danger. Also, sturdy polycarbonate panels can resist damage caused by customers leaning on them. From the manufacturer’s standpoint, polycarbonate holds the advantages of being easily routed, drilled, formed, bent and sawed without snapping or breaking under stress.

Just as you wouldn’t want a mask without a tie string, you don’t want a sneeze shield without a sturdy frame. A rugged metallic frame offers strength and durability. Stainless-steel frames allow shields to be washed down and sterilized per the CDC’s recommendation for frequent cleaning. Avoid frames that have large gaps or cracks that encourage bacterial build up. Instead, insist on full penetration welds.

What will the new normal look like when the COVID-19 lockdown finally ends? Most likely, adjustments to life that were thought to be temporary will become permanent including the wearing of masks, the habitual washing of hands and, of course, sneeze shields anyplace people interact in close proximity.

Rockford Systems manufactures a full-line of GermBlock™ Cough and Sneeze Shields that limit airborne droplets resulting from coughing, sneezing or speaking from reaching a nearby person. Well suited for industrial, commercial, clean room and retail settings. Industrial strength, constructed of heavy-duty clear 3/16″ polycarbonate and 16-gauge 304 stainless steel ¾” framing with full penetration welds. To ensure shield stability, floor standing shields include foot plates with gussets. Custom shields and clean room models are also available, which include a broad array of size and mounting options, as well as casters. Contact to learn more.

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