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Schools For Health
Schools For Health

Risk Reduction Strategies for Reopening Schools

June, 2020

Schools Will Eventually Need to Reopen

Keeping schools closed comes with massive, long-term individual and societal costs. Many children cannot effectively learn, grow, engage, socialize, be active, eat healthy food, or get support until schools reopen. Parents and caregivers cannot go back to work until children go back to school. Knowing that schools will reopen at some point, we set out to answer this question: What strategies should schools consider to reduce risk of COVID-19 transmission?

Note that a risk reduction strategy is different from a goal of achieving zero cases. There is no such thing as “zero risk,” in anything we do, and certainly not during a pandemic.

However, scientific evidence indicates that risks to students and staff can be kept low if schools adhere to strict control measures and dynamically respond to potential outbreaks.

We recognize there are immense challenges. There is no perfect plan to reopen schools safely, only “less bad” options. There is no “one size fits all” strategy that works for every school. Schools have limited budgets and staff. Compliance will be imperfect. Learning will be different. There will be disruption. Schools may need to re-close unexpectedly depending on local conditions. No one knows with certainty what the fall will bring in terms of this pandemic.

Despite these challenges, the enormous individual and societal costs of keeping schools closed compels us, a team focused on Healthy Buildings and exposure and risk science, to present a range of control strategies that should be considered in discussions of school reopenings:


Following safe practices in classrooms.

  • Wear masks
  • Wash hands frequently
  • Maximize physical distancing to protect individuals
  • Maximize group distancing to slow transmission chains
  • Disinfect objects between users


Breathing clean air in the school building.

  • Increase outdoor air ventilation
  • Filter indoor air
  • Supplement with portable air cleaners
  • Verify ventilation and filtration performance
  • Consider advanced air quality techniques
  • Use plexiglass as physical barrier
  • Install no-contact infrastructure
  • Keep surfaces clean
  • Focus on bathroom hygiene


Building a culture of health, safety, and shared responsibility.

  • Establish and reinforce a culture of health, safety, and shared responsibility
  • Form a COVID-19 response team and plan
  • Prioritize staying home when sick
  • Promote viral testing and antibody testing
  • Establish plans for when there is a case
  • Support remote learning options
  • De-densify school buildings
  • Protect high-risk students and staff


Moving between rooms and locations safely.

  • Manage transition times and locations
  • Make lunchtime safer
  • Rethink transportation
  • Modify attendance


Enjoying modified activities.

  • Provide recess
  • Modify physical education
  • Reimagine music and theater classes
  • Continue sports with enhanced controls
  • Add structure to free time

Schools should adopt and adapt these recommendations to best fit their unique situation, depending on available personnel, resources, finances, school demographics, and building attributes. In addition, schools should frequently revisit their approach as the COVID-19 situation changes over time in each community. Although it is unlikely that any given school will be able to incorporate every recommendation, we want to emphasize that these strategies work together as part of a multi-layered plan to reduce exposure and limit transmission of COVID-19 in schools.