How a school operates significantly impacts the safety of its students, teachers, and staff. This section outlines potential school policies to monitor and respond to potential COVID-19 cases and thus support the health of the entire school community.
Public health interventions only work when there is training and reinforcement. Schools can begin training staff, teachers, and students in the weeks leading up to the beginning of school. This can include virtual training and education sessions focused on the basics of disease transmission, new policies and procedures, and expectations regarding code of conduct. General training sessions should be supplemented with training targeted toward specific people (administrators, facilities, teachers, students, staff). A strong communications plan should be developed with daily and weekly “all school” communications via email. Big, bold, and fun signs should be placed throughout the school to reinforce the culture of health messaging. For example, hand washing instructions could be posted in all bathrooms, physical distancing plans, and proper face mask techniques could be posted in hallways, and a COVID-19 symptom chart and contact plan could be available in the nurse’s office. Administrators and teachers should begin each day with a safety message.
Public health interventions only work when there is training and reinforcement.
Schools should have a dynamic COVID-19 plan document that they can share with students, parents/ guardians, teachers, staff, and anyone else using the facilities (e.g., for election voting). As situations evolve rapidly, it may be useful to designate a person or team to act as the liaison between school administrators, teachers, students, families, and local boards of health. This team should disseminate information about new policies and programs as soon as it becomes available, including information about anything children need to carry with them (e.g., face masks) and any changes to the timing or location of classes.
Schools could consider ways to cross-train and/or recruit additional teachers and staff to form a reserve of employees that can be utilized dynamically.
The COVID-19 response team may also be responsible for gathering symptom reports and sending contact tracing notifications in collaboration with local health departments. When someone in a class is sick, contract tracing is very important to prevent a school outbreak. While Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) policies must be strictly adhered to, those who have been in contact with a suspected or confirmed COVID-19 case should be notified as soon as possible so they can follow quarantine procedures. Students or staff sharing classroom space with a case are assumed to be contacts, but schools may find it useful to also encourage parents and/or guardians to log additional interactions (e.g., playdates or after school activities) so they can be contacted quickly.
Additional staff members may be needed for the COVID-19 response team or due to reduced class sizes, increased requirements for supervision (e.g., during recess), and an increased number of sick days. Schools could consider ways to cross-train and/or recruit additional teachers and staff to form a reserve of employees that can be utilized dynamically. Schools may be able to increase recruiting pools by reaching out to student teachers, substitute teachers, community volunteers, and recent retirees. Care should be taken to ensure these staff are trained in school COVID-19 policies and can either work remotely or adequately maintain physical distancing at school.
Schools should ask individuals to stay home when sick. Sick individuals staying home should face no negative consequences or unfair attendance records, and there should be a plan in place to ensure continuity in remote learning or work for sick individuals who cannot come to school in-person.
Sick individuals staying home should face no negative consequences or unfair attendance records, and there should be a plan in place to ensure continuity in remote learning or work.
Students, school staff, and parents should be made aware of the symptoms of COVID-19. Schools should consider a daily declaration, via electronic means, that each person heading to school that day is free of symptoms. Additionally, a system should be in place for any of them to privately report symptoms, so this information can be used to make decisions about cleaning, notification of potential contacts, and/or classroom or school closures. Schools may also opt to directly screen students before school (e.g., using temperature checks and visible symptom inspections), following guidance of the CDC or other relevant organization, to ensure that students who are sick remain at home. In addition, teachers should be vigilant about the health of the students in their class and notify the school nurse or a designated administrator immediately if a child is coughing or seems to have a fever in class.
If a student is found to exhibit new symptoms of illness while at school and it is not possible for them to go home immediately, the sick student could be asked to isolate in a dedicated room(s) in the school, such as the nurse’s office. There should be a predetermined protocol for how to clean and disinfect any room the sick individual may have contaminated (including the isolation room). Ventilation and filtration in these isolation rooms needs to be verified. Ideally, contaminated rooms should be left empty for up to 24 hours or as long as possible before having staff clean or before allowing the room to be reoccupied. Care should be taken so as not to unnecessarily disclose student health status to other teachers or students in accordance with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and Americans with Disabilities Act policies.
Diagnostic viral testing for those with symptoms or who have come in contact with someone who has COVID-19 is a critical strategy for slowing the spread of the virus and preventing major outbreaks in schools because it can help identify those with active infections who then need to self-isolate. Schools should identify locations where students, staff, and families can be tested nearby and provide that information to everyone ahead of time. As testing capacity, speed, and accuracy improves, schools should consider more frequent testing as an approach to identify pre-symptomatic individuals.
Testing for antibodies should also be encouraged to help schools track disease progression through the community and plan control strategies. Antibody testing is a type of test to determine if someone has previously had a COVID-19 infection. Although a positive antibody test result for one individual does not guarantee immunity, current scientific evidence indicates there may be some protection, for some time. In addition, a negative antibody test does not mean that someone doesn’t currently have an active infection, for which a diagnostic viral test would be needed. Regardless of antibody status, and until we have more scientific research, the same precautions should be followed by all individuals. However, at the school population level, this information may be helpful to evaluate the prevalence of past COVID-19 infections and inform future control measures.
The CDC recommends a 2-5 day building dismissal to clean, disinfect, and contact trace in consultation with local health officials in the event there is a case in a school. This presents a massive disruption to learning, and, depending on the nature of the case and controls that are in place, schools can coordinate with local boards of health to determine if that is absolutely necessary in each instance. In addition, close contacts of the infected individual should stay at home for 14 days after their last interaction with that person.
A “close contact” is defined by the CDC as an individual who spent time closer than six feet away for at least 15 minutes with the person who had symptoms or tested positive and has not yet met the criteria for returning to school. Note that some hospitals do not consider it a ‘close contact’ if both people are wearing masks.
Identifying close contacts will be simplest in the case of distinct class groups that take all the same classes together; then, when an individual from the class group becomes sick, the whole class can stay home and move to remote education for 14 days after the exposure. Having the entire exposed class group stay home and transition to remote learning would also help maintain privacy for the sick individual and ensure equal educational access within the class. Isolating exposed class groups will help prevent outbreaks from occurring in the whole school. Finally, there should be a policy on when a school should entirely shut down in favor of remote education if COVID-19 appears to be spreading through the school.
Schools may find it useful to follow CDC guidance for healthcare workers when developing a school policy on when sick individuals can return to school in person. For example, if a student or staff member was suspected or confirmed to have COVID-19, they could be asked to stay at home (with remote learning or work options) until the appropriate criteria are met as described below:
If the individual has symptoms, they should stay home until:
Otherwise, if the individual tested positive in a diagnostic COVID-19 test but does not get symptoms, they should stay home until:
There are a number of reasons that some students may need to continue remote learning as schools reopen. Students who are sick or who have family members who are sick with COVID-19 should remain at home for two weeks. Students who are immunocompromised, or have family members who are, may feel safer remaining at home. Students with behavioral or medical circumstances who may find it difficult to adjust to new policies such as no physical contact, required facemasks, or frequent handwashing may benefit from remaining at home. Older children may have to remain at home to provide childcare for younger siblings who are not in school full-time as parents return to work.
Regardless of the reason a student is learning from home, it is vital that they are provided with access to the Internet, necessary technology such as a tablet or computer, and support systems often found in schools such as guidance counselors and meals. Flexibility may be required, as some students may not have equal access to support, time, or resources to complete schoolwork at home. Schools will need to provide staff training on learning platforms that allow for equity and access to learning and that conform with students’ individualized education plans and medical needs. School districts can consider creating district-wide remote learning teams for each grade level, staffed by calling up recent retirees or current teachers with pre-existing conditions so classroom teachers can focus on in-classroom learning.
Minimizing the number of visitors in the building can help reduce the density of occupied spaces. If parents or guests need to enter the school building, they could be required to gain approval first, be briefed on school COVID-19 policies, and verify they do not have symptoms. Schools can also consider restricting visitor access to limited times when classes are in session (i.e., at times when there will not be many people in the hallways). Furthermore, any parent-teacher conferences or other planned meetings with visitors could be held online instead of at the school.
In addition, to facilitate physical and group distancing within schools and reduce everyone’s risk of exposure, schools may consider classifying non-essential staff that can work remotely. Any necessary faculty or staff meetings could be held remotely through video conferencing if possible.
Students, staff, or their family members who have pre-existing conditions making them at higher risk for a more severe case of COVID-19 may require additional considerations in order to keep them safe. It will be critical to communicate with these students, families, and staff to come up with a strategy that works best for them. In many cases, this may result in at least some degree of remote learning or teaching. In addition to the remote learning considerations above, it is important to consider the mechanisms that can allow students studying remotely to remain engaged with their teachers and classmates that are in the classroom as much as possible.
Some high-risk students who require additional safety measures may not have the same access to resources or a safe family environment for remote learning.
Some high-risk students who require additional safety measures may not have the same access to resources or a safe family environment for remote learning. In these scenarios, consider repurposing rooms within the school building as a computer lab, where high-risk students can safely complete their remote work with facilitation of a staff member. These rooms should follow all of the same protocols as classrooms and be reserved only for students who need to use them and are high-risk.
Similarly, consider allowing high-risk teachers who do not wish to work from home to work from a designated room in the school building. They may, for example, be assigned a new role (e.g., on the COVID-19 response team) or contribute to lesson planning or teaching remotely.