Throughout the school day, there are opportunities to reduce transmission risk. As a starting point, schools may choose to implement an attendance policy that reduces the number of students in the school at a given time. While students are in school, transition times can be limited and lunch can be modified to maintain physical and group distancing. Schools may also be able to facilitate lower-risk transportation to and from school.
School arrival, departure, and class transitions can be a high-risk time due to the potentially large number of people in close contact in school entrances, exits, and hallways. Schools may consider staggering arrival and departure times so that children in different classes are not all entering or exiting the building at the same time. Even a difference of 5-10 minutes for each class or grade level could greatly reduce the number of students in the hallway heading to the door for dismissal at one time. Students and staff should be encouraged to not loiter in entrances, exit areas, or hallways, but if waiting is necessary, lines should be clearly marked to maintain physical distancing. In small hallways or stairwells, clearly marked paths on the floor that indicate one direction of travel could be used when possible. Additionally, different doors could be used by different classes or grades to enter and exit the school to minimize crowding and to reduce the number of people touching the same doors. Other recommendations about ways to reduce the number of transition times, such as by rotating teachers (instead of students) and serving lunch in the classroom, are found in other sections of this report.
Even a difference of 5-10 minutes for each class or grade level could greatly reduce the number of students in the hallway heading to the door for dismissal at one time.
Lunchtime brings a distinct set of challenges. Masks cannot be worn while students are eating, and many schools typically hold lunch in crowded lunchrooms. To limit the number of contacts of students and staff and maintain group distancing, schools may serve lunch in classrooms at students’ desks or in alternative lunchrooms (e.g., repurposing the gymnasium or auditorium for expanded lunch capacity). If a single large lunchroom is to be used, schools may stagger lunch times, keep classrooms/cohorts together, maintain physical distance, and have all students face the same direction or be seated in a staggered pattern, so there is no face-to-face contact. It may also be helpful to clearly mark spaces where each class/cohort will sit in the shared lunchroom. Instead of students going through a line to be served school-prepared lunches, consider alternative solutions, like using single-serving containers clearly labeled with any allergens in the meal. Schools need to reinforce messaging regarding no sharing of food, utensils, and drinks.
To limit the number of contacts of students and staff and maintain group distancing, schools may serve lunch in classrooms at students’ desks or in alternative lunchrooms (e.g., repurposing the gymnasium or auditorium for expanded lunch capacity).
Extra precautions are necessary for times when masks cannot be worn, such as when eating or drinking. Ideally, these activities should occur outdoors, weather permitting. If indoors, engineering controls should be enhanced. This includes opening windows during times when students are actively eating, even in cold weather, and even if the windows can only be opened a few inches. Additional options include increasing outdoor air ventilation rates through mechanical systems, increasing filter efficiency, and supplementing portable air cleaners with HEPA filters.
School policies regarding transportation to and from school will largely depend on the primary mode of transportation of students. For reducing viral transmission, the safest routes of transportation are walking, biking, or personal vehicle. There may be ways to promote use of these modes of transportation; for example, walking school bus programs for elementary schools, or the addition of more crossing guards and bike racks. Local police departments should be engaged to help with safety protocols across extended walk zones.
If students are driven to school, the school may organize drop off locations and/or times so that students can be dropped off at the door while limiting disruptions (e.g., to nearby roadways, in coordination with local police departments) and minimizing contact between students not in the same class. After school, cars can line up in the parking lot or adjacent streets, and students can meet their parent or guardian at their car. This will reduce the number of people waiting at school doors. High schools may consider designating extra parking lots or street spaces for student parking if it is anticipated that more students will be using personal vehicles.
Keep windows open on buses, and wear masks. Even opening windows a few inches can greatly increase the amount of ventilation inside the school bus. Students will need to dress appropriately while on the school bus, because windows should be cracked open even when the weather is cold outside and when it rains. Schools may also consider hiring more buses or having buses complete multiple routes so that fewer students are on each bus, although we recognize this option presents massive financial and logistical challenges. Depending on the routes and number of buses, some schools could consider designating a separate bus for each class group in order to maintain group distancing between students from different classes. Assigned seating could help facilitate physical distancing, with vacant seats clearly marked. For example, one student seated per bench on both sides of the bus, skipping every other row or one student seated per bench, alternating rows on each side to create a zig-zag. Seating students starting from the back of the bus to the front could help maintain physical distancing. Consider having an additional bus aide to ensure students maintain a safe distance, as long as it’s possible for the aide to also maintain appropriate physical distance.
Schools where students take public transportation can start school before or after rush hour so students are not taking crowded buses and trains. This would reduce the risk of exposure for both students and other community members on public transportation. Students should wear masks on public transportation and wash hands immediately after exiting a subway or bus.
Three attendance-based strategies to reduce transmission risk that have been proposed are staggered attendance, split attendance, and phased re-entry. Staggered attendance is when students, perhaps based on grade level or class, attend school every other day or every other week. With split attendance, half of the students in the school may attend class in the morning, and the other half may attend in the afternoon. In both strategies, when not physically attending school, students engage in remote learning. Each school could decide the best length of time between group rotations. In phased re-entry, small numbers of students are brought back to school first, such as only kindergarten students or high school seniors, then the number of students in school is increased as case numbers in the area decrease, and the school adjusts to new protocols.
These hybrid learning strategies can be considered when community transmission levels increase before deciding to resume remote learning for all students. However, it is important to note that a hybrid learning model may increase community transmission by increasing students’ contacts at home. Parents may need to seek other childcare or playgroups for the days that their child is home, and these additional contacts make it easier for the virus to enter the school community. Schools may need to dynamically adjust their attendance policies as new cases emerge in the school or surrounding community and based on which interventions are working effectively. This does not have to be an ‘all or nothing’ approach. Controls should be scaled up if community spread rises, and districts should consider age-specific strategies that prioritize keeping young learners in school before widespread, blanket school closures. For example, if community spread increases, districts should consider moving high school to remote before middle schools and elementary schools. For more in depth information about recommended threshold transmission rates for adjusting interventions, reference our report with Harvard’s Safra Center for Ethics and Harvard Global Health Institute, available here: https://ethics.harvard.edu/covid-19-response.
Splitting attendance should be considered very carefully because it presents significant challenges for society and school operations. For example, many teachers have children of their own in other school districts. If these policies are implemented, teachers with children will not be able to report to school to teach if their child in another school has a dedicated school-from-home week.