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Supermarkets and Airplanes

by David Irwin

I still vividly recall my first trip to the supermarket when quarantining started in early March. I was freaked out. It was before masks were mandatory and health officials didn’t have a good grip (well, as good as they do now) on how the virus was transmitted. I never saw parking lots that crowded at the crack of dawn with lines reminiscent of waiting for tickets to a boy band concert to be released.

Fast forward five months. Although the experience has changed, people are comfortable going to the grocery store. I haven’t heard of any reports of anyone catching COVID-19 while grocery shopping. I’ve asked a lot of friends and colleagues if they have concerns going to the grocery store and the general consensus is people feel safe grocery shopping.


For the most part, grocery stores limit how many patrons can enter at a time. Wearing a mask is strictly enforced (for both employees and customers). Carts are wiped down with disinfectant after each use. Wipes are at the entrance. Signs on the ground mark the direction of the aisles. Decals on the floors instruct customers where to stand to maintain six feet of social distancing from each other. Checkout areas are disinfected after each customer. Plexiglas is everywhere.

This didn’t happen overnight, but grocery stores learned and tweaked and customers adapted quickly. I do occasionally see a customer in the store without a mask, but other customers do a good job of self-policing (or shaming).

It’s a totally different experience on airplanes.

Though airlines have been proactively advertising all of their safety procedures and protocols, passenger sentiment seems to be that they are falling short of expectations. Every row and seat is full and reports of noncompliance with mask rules routinely show up online. I get there is a difference between a quick trip to the supermarket and a cross-country flight, but that fact doesn’t make passengers feel safe about their health.

As schools across the U.S. prepare to open their doors in the coming weeks (well, those that have not already announced plans to start with virtual instruction), I think it’s critical that district leaders consider the lessons learned from supermarkets and airplanes.

First, people generally feel safe going to supermarkets because they know what the experience looks and feels like. Parents and teachers won’t believe school is safe just with presentations saying what it will look like.

Instead, they need to see it.

Do you have signs up already guiding students? Show them! Take a selfie video of you walking through the halls of schools, classrooms and common areas. Do you have Plexiglas installed in certain spaces? Show it! Are you providing actionable guidance on students wearing masks now? Share it! Find ways to communicate every day.

The reality is despite the best laid plans of school systems, experiences in schools are going to start off looking like experiences on airplanes. The key will be to course correct often and proactively show (not tell) parents and teachers what you are doing to keep kids and teachers safe.

The evolution of safety in supermarkets gives me hope that schools can figure it out soon, using their past five months of experience to learn and adapt as well.