Safe School Environments
What happens when students and staff are back on campus?
In order to ensure a safe school environment during the current COVID-19 pandemic, it is critically important to: ensure physical distancing is observed and face coverings are used by all; arrange for regular symptom checks and testing that can identify cases early and deal with them immediately; maintain careful hygiene through regular handwashing and sanitation; and organize students and staff into small cohorts that stay together and do not interact with others on campus, so that infections do not spread.
This new reality imposed by COVID-19 will require new approaches to day-to-day school life that may greatly differ from previous years. As school systems continue to adapt to changing circumstances, they must entertain a series of new considerations to make sure students and staff come back to school environments that are not only conducive to learning but also safe.
To create safe school environments, schools must ensure staff are safe and trained, carry out daily symptom checks and monitoring, apply new physical distancing and sanitation practices, use personal protective equipment, avoid activities that involve physical contact, and create small cohorts with arrangements that avoid congregation.
The virus that causes COVID-19 spreads in droplets that are exhaled by someone who has the virus. Protective equipment—such as face coverings, gloves, and plastic barriers—helps prevent the spread of COVID-19 by limiting the flow of these droplets. Students and staff should use face coverings on campus, unless contraindicated, to reduce the chances of exposing each other to this virus.
- Teach and Reinforce Face Covering: Teach and reinforce use of face coverings including, in limited instances, face shields.
- Face Covering for Staff: All staff must use face coverings in accordance with CDPH guidelines unless Cal/OSHA standards require respiratory protection. Employers must provide face coverings and all required protective equipment.
- When Staff Can Use Face Shields: In limited situations when cloth face coverings cannot be used for pedagogical or developmental reasons (e.g., communicating with or assisting young children or those with special needs), a face shield can be used while in the classroom as long as the wearer maintains physical distance from others to the extent practicable. Staff must return to wearing a face covering outside of the classroom.
- Face Covering for Students: All students at 3rd grade and above are required to use face coverings unless exempt as noted below. Students who are 2 years old through 2nd grade are strongly encouraged to use face coverings, if they can be worn properly. A face shield is an acceptable alternative for children in this cohort who cannot wear them properly.
- Face Covering Exemptions: Persons younger than two years old, anyone who has trouble breathing, anyone who is unconscious or incapacitated, and anyone who is otherwise unable to remove the face covering without assistance are exempt from wearing a face covering.
- When to Remove Face Coverings: A cloth face covering or face shield should be removed for meals, snacks, naptime, outdoor recreation, or when it needs to be replaced. When a cloth face covering is temporarily removed, it should be placed in a clean paper bag (marked with the student’s name and date) until it needs to be put on again.
- Refusal to Wear Face Coverings: Schools must exclude students from campus if they are not exempt from wearing a face covering under CDPH guidelines and refuse to wear one. Schools must offer alternative educational opportunities for students who are excluded from campus.
- Stock Extra Face Coverings: To prevent unnecessary exclusions, schools should develop protocols to provide a face covering to students who inadvertently fail to bring a face covering to school.
- Parabola Project: Building a mask culture
Enhanced hygiene practices will go a long way in helping schools reduce exposure to and the spread of COVID-19. In addition to additional cleaning and disinfecting, LEAs will want to foster enhanced handwashing practices and limit the use and share of materials and equipment.
HANDWASHING: Students and staff should wash their hands frequently throughout the day, including before and after eating; after coughing or sneezing; after classes where they handle shared items, such as outside recreation, art, or shop; and before and after using the restroom.
- Best Practices: Teach and reinforce washing hands and avoiding contact with one’s eyes, nose, and mouth.
- Handwash for 20 Seconds: Students and staff should wash their hands for 20 seconds with soap, rubbing thoroughly after application.
- Staff Set the Example: Staff should model and practice handwashing. For example, for lower grade levels, use bathroom time as an opportunity to reinforce healthy habits and monitor proper handwashing.
- Develop Routines: Develop routines enabling students and staff to regularly wash their hands at staggered intervals. SDCOE suggests cleaning and disinfecting routines for the school site in this document.
- Choosing Between Handwashing and Using Hand Sanitizers: Frequent handwashing is more effective than the use of hand sanitizers. When handwashing is not practicable, however, students and staff should rub hand sanitizer into hands until completely dry.
- Supervising the Use of Hand Sanitizers: Children under age nine should only use hand sanitizer under adult supervision. Call Poison Control if consumed: 1-800-222-1222.
- Supplies: Provide adequate supplies to support healthy hygiene behaviors, including soap, tissues, no-touch trash cans, face coverings, and fragrance-free hand sanitizers with at least 60 percent ethyl alcohol for staff and children who can safely use hand sanitizer. Soap products marketed as “antimicrobial” are not necessary or recommended. Ethyl alcohol-based hand sanitizers are preferred and should be used when there is potential for unsupervised use by children. Isopropyl hand sanitizers are more toxic when ingested or absorbed in skin. Do not use hand sanitizers that contain methanol, which can be hazardous when ingested or absorbed.
- Portable Stations: Consider portable handwashing stations or the use of hand sanitizers throughout a site, especially near classrooms, to minimize movement and congregation in bathrooms to the extent practicable.
MATERIALS AND EQUIPMENT: To reduce the spread of COVID-19, limit use and sharing of objects and equipment such as toys, books, electronic devices, clothing, games, art supplies and playground equipment to the extent practicable. When shared use is allowed, clean and disinfect between uses.
- Separate Belongings: Keep each child’s belongings separated and in individually labeled storage containers, cubbies, or areas. Ensure belongings are taken home each day to be cleaned.
- Manage Supplies: To minimize sharing of high-touch materials, ensure adequate supplies (art supplies, equipment, etc.) to the extent practicable.
- Group Supplies: Limit use of supplies and equipment to one group of children at a time, if possible.
- Clean Frequently: Supplies and equipment should be cleaned and disinfected between uses.
- Extra Face Coverings, Soap, and Sanitizer: Keep extra face coverings for students who may not have, forget, misplace, or ruin their face covering. Maintaining extra supplies of soap and hand sanitizers will also help avoid interruptions.
- Drinking Fountains and Other Shared Amenities: Consider suspending or modifying use of site resources that necessitate sharing or touching items. For example, consider suspending use of drinking fountains and instead encourage the use of reusable water bottles.
Staff is at the center of everything that happens at a school site. Creating safe school environments necessitates ensuring their safety and training them on new protocols so they in turn may help ensure the safety of students.
- Train Site Leadership Teams: Ensure the site leadership team and related personnel are trained and up-to-date on the LEA’s policies and protocols. Establish clear processes for training additional staff in case self-quarantine requirements sideline existing staff or there is staff turnover.
- Professional Development and Staff Meetings: Conduct all staff meetings, professional development training and education, and other activities involving staff with physical distancing measures in place, outdoors, or virtually if physical distancing is a challenge.
- Ensure Staff Safety: To ensure staff safety at all times, ensure staff use face coverings (in accordance with CDPH guidelines and Cal/OSHA standards) and maintain physical distancing from each other.
- Support Staff at Higher Risk: Support staff who are at higher risk for severe illness or who cannot safely distance from household contacts at higher risk, by providing options such as telework, where appropriate, or teaching in a virtual learning or independent study context.
- Recommend Flu Shots: Strongly recommend that all students and staff be immunized each autumn against influenza unless contraindicated by personal medical conditions. This helps protect the school community and decrease illnesses that cannot be readily distinguished from COVID-19 and would therefore trigger extensive measures from the school and public health authorities.
- Provide Health and Safety Training: Train all site personnel on how COVID-19 is spread and on health and safety policies, including health screenings, daily symptom monitoring, the use of face coverings, handwashing, physical distancing, and mandatory self-quarantining.
- Designate a Staff Liaison to Act as Point of Contact: A single point of contact should be established and identified at each school site to handle questions or concerns around practices, protocols, or potential exposure. This person can also serve as a liaison to public health agencies and should be in constant contact with its LEA and/or COE.
- Inform Staff of Liaison: Staff should know who they are and how to contact them.
- Tracking and Notification: The liaison should be trained to coordinate the documentation and tracking of possible exposure, in order to notify local health officials, staff, and families in a prompt and responsible manner.
- Minimize Penalty for Staff Absence: Develop policies that encourage staff who are sick or who have recently been in contact with a person with COVID-19 to stay at home without fear of reprisal, and ensure staff are aware of these policies.
- Prepare a “Substitutes” Plan:
- Have a roster of trained back-up staff where available to ensure continuity of operations.
- Consider expanding your LEA’s list of eligible substitutes to assure there are enough eligible substitutes in case of increased demand. This may include supporting existing staff in becoming qualified substitute teachers.
- Check on existing substitute policies to avoid any conflicts or challenges if substitutes are on site more frequently.
- Think about how moving a substitute from one cohort of students to another may increase risk.
- CCEE’s staff checklist
To mitigate potential exposure to COVID-19, arrival and departure from schools may need to be significantly restructured to follow current health guidance, including physical distancing requirements.
- Minimize Contact: Minimize contact at school between students, staff, families, and the community at the beginning and end of the school day. Prioritize minimizing contact between adults at all times.
- Different Routes: Designate routes for entry and exit, using as many entrances as feasible and safe. Put in place other protocols to limit direct contact among those entering as much as is practicable.
- Stagger Times and Locations: Stagger arrival and drop off-times and locations to facilitate physical distancing and to minimize scheduling challenges for families.
- Post Helpful Signage: Consider posting signage at each public entrance of each site to inform all students, staff, and visitors that they should:
- Avoid entering or using the facility if they have COVID-19 symptoms;
- Maintain a minimum six-foot distance from one another;
- Sneeze and cough into a cloth or tissue or, if not available, into their elbows;
- Wear face coverings, as appropriate; and
- Avoid shaking hands or engaging in any unnecessary physical contact.
- Sample guidance for arriving and leaving from Dallas ISD (English and Spanish)
- LACOE offers posters, graphics, directional signs and safety instructions you can use.
Preventing infected persons from entering into contact with others is one of the most important measures we can take to halt the spread of COVID-19. LEAs should create protocols and procedures that clearly define how all staff and students will be screened for symptoms before or immediately after entering the school facility. Monitor staff and students throughout the day for signs of illness, and send home students and staff with a fever of 100.4 degrees or higher, cough, or other COVID-19 symptoms. LEAs should also recommend testing in those cases.
- Conduct Health Screenings: Conduct wellness checks of all persons entering the facility and establish procedures for parents to monitor students at home. If checking temperatures at school, use a no-touch thermometer.
- Screening Prior to Arrival: Some schools may conduct all health screening on campus, either upon entry or in their cohort’s classroom at the start of the day, or schools may opt to have students demonstrate that they’ve been screened prior to arrival.
- Ask About Symptoms: Ask all individuals if they or anyone in their home is exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms. SDCOE and Dallas ISD offer some examples you can use:
If Someone Shows Symptoms:
Respond to Serious Injury or Illness: For serious injury or illness, call 9-1-1 without delay. Seek medical attention if COVID-19 symptoms become severe, including persistent pain or pressure in the chest, confusion, or bluish lips or face. Updates and further details are available on the CDC’s webpage.
Isolate and Recommend Testing: Any students or staff exhibiting symptoms should immediately be required to wear a face covering and to wait in an isolation area until they can be transported home or to a healthcare facility, as soon as practicable. LEAs should recommend testing if they return home. They should also observe a 14-day quarantine that should remain in place regardless of test results.
Inform Parents/Caregivers of Symptoms: If a student is exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19, staff should communicate with their parent/caregiver and refer to the student’s health history form and/or emergency card.
Self-quarantine: Advise those who might have been exposed to COVID-19 to stay home until they’ve met CDC criteria to discontinue quarantine, including at least three days with no fever, improvement of symptoms, and at least 10 days since symptoms first appeared.
Arrange for Safe Transport: LEAs should establish procedures to arrange for safe transport home or to a healthcare facility, as appropriate, when an individual is exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms.
Track and Notify: Document incidents of possible exposure and notify local health officials, staff, and families immediately of any exposure to a positive case of COVID-19 at school, while maintaining confidentiality as required by FERPA and state law related to privacy of educational records. Additional guidance can be found here.
Disinfect Exposed Areas: Close off areas used by any individual suspected of being infected with the virus that causes COVID-19 and do not use them again before cleaning and disinfection. To reduce risk of exposure, wait 24 hours before you clean and disinfect. If it is not possible to wait 24 hours, wait as long as practicable. Ensure a safe and correct application of disinfectants using personal protective equipment and ventilation recommended for cleaning. Keep disinfectant products away from students.
Prevent Discrimination: Prevent discrimination against students who (or whose families) were or are diagnosed with COVID-19 or who are perceived to be at risk of COVID-19.
If Someone Reports Close Contact with a Confirmed COVID-19 Case:
Isolate and Send Home: Any students or staff exhibiting symptoms should immediately be required to wear a face covering and to wait in an isolation area until they can be transported home (or to a healthcare facility), as soon as practicable.
Self-quarantine: Advise those who might have been exposed to COVID-19 to stay home until they’ve met CDC criteria to discontinue quarantine, including at least three days with no fever, improvement of symptoms, and at least 10 days since symptoms first appeared.
Recommend Testing: LEAs should recommend testing to anyone who has been in close contact (within 6 feet for 15 minutes or more) with a confirmed COVID-19 case.
Document Occurrence: Document incidents of possible exposure while maintaining confidentiality as required by FERPA and state law related to privacy of educational records. Additional guidance can be found here. Should it later develop into a confirmed COVID-19 case, LEAs will be able to notify local health officials, staff, and families immediately of any exposure.
To ensure the health of the local community, LEAs may have to take additional measures when a student, teacher, or staff member has symptoms, is a contact of someone infected, or is diagnosed with COVID-19, or when the county has widespread transmission and is placed on Tier 1 (Purple – “Widespread”) of the state’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy.
Testing for COVID-19:
- Recommended: LEAs should recommend testing for students and staff who display symptoms or who have been in close contact with someone who is a confirmed case of COVID-19.
- Mandated: CDPH guidance states school districts and schools shall test staff periodically, as testing capacity permits and as practicable.
Reporting COVID-19 Cases:
- Laboratory Confirmed Cases: Notify the Local Health Department where the workplace is located if there is a laboratory confirmed cases of COVID-19 at the workplace.
- Hospitalization of Staff: Employers should report serious injury, illness, and death, including hospitalization and death from COVID-19 to Cal/OSHA, even if work-relatedness is uncertain.
Below are the actions LEA should take when:
Student or Staff Is Confirmed to Have COVID-19:
- Notify the local public health department.
- Isolate case and exclude from school for 10 days from symptom onset or test date.
- Identify individuals who have been in close contact with the confirmed case (within six feet for 15 minutes or more) within the school community and exclude exposed contacts from in-person learning (likely the student or staff member’s entire cohort) for 14 days after the last date the case was present at school while infectious, regardless of contacts’ test results.
- Recommend testing of contacts, prioritizing those with symptoms.
- Disinfect and clean classroom and primary spaces where case spent significant time.
- School may remain open.
- Send the school community notification of a known case.
Student or Staff Member Tests Negative After Symptoms:
- Allow student or staff member to return to school three days after symptoms resolve.
- Consider sending the school community a notification if there is prior awareness of testing.
County Moves Back a Tier on the State’s Transmission Risk System After a School or District Has Reopened for In-person Instruction:
- Schools should begin testing staff or increase frequency of staff testing.
- Schools are not required to close.
- MCOE Response Protocols one-pager.
- CDC’s short animation on the difference between quarantine and isolation.
- Table of scenarios and options on page 3 of CDPH’s COVID-19 and Reopening Framework for K-12 Schools in California
- CDC’s COVID-19 Diagnosis flowchart with suggested steps schools should follow if someone becomes sick at school or reports a new case.
Mandated Testing for Staff
Because staff may interact with many students and other staff throughout the day, they could become a vector for the quick spread of COVID-19 in a school environment if they become sick. As a layer of precaution in preventing the spread of the virus on campus, LEAs should create and implement protocols that clearly define how and when staff will be tested as part of their ongoing pandemic response efforts.
- Who Gets Tested at the School Site: School staff are essential workers, and staff includes teachers, paraprofessionals, cafeteria workers, janitors, bus drivers, and any other school employee that may have contact with students or other staff.
- Frequency of Testing: School districts and schools shall test staff periodically, as testing capacity permits and as practicable. Examples of recommended frequency include testing all staff at the beginning of the year and then once every two months (rotating so that 25% of staff are tested every 2 weeks, or 50% every month).
- Resources for Testing: Consult with local health departments to see if routine testing is being considered by local agencies. The role of providing routine systematic testing of staff or students for COVID-19 (e.g., PCR swab testing for acute infection, or presence of antibodies in serum after infection) is currently unclear as of July 27, 2020.
To minimize risk of exposure, some activities must be adapted, curtailed, or prohibited based on the scientific understanding of the transmission of COVID-19.
- Youth Sports and Physical Education: Youth sports and physical education are permitted only when the following can be maintained:
- physical distancing of at least six feet; and
- a stable cohort, such as a class, that limits the risks of transmission (see CDC guidance on schools and cohorting).
- Physical Distancing and Sports: For sports that cannot be conducted with sufficient distancing or cohorting, students can only do physical conditioning, and training can only take place when physical distancing can be maintained. Conditioning and training should focus on individual skill building (e.g., running drills and body weight resistance training) and should take place outside, where practicable.
- Outdoor versus Indoor Physical Activities: Activities should take place outside to the maximum extent practicable. Activities that require heavy exertion should be conducted outside in a physically-distanced manner without face coverings. Activities conducted inside should be those that do not require heavy exertion and can be done with a face covering.
- Indoor Physical Conditioning and Training: Indoor physical conditioning and training is allowed only in counties where gyms and fitness centers are allowed to operate indoors.
- Equipment Sharing: Avoid equipment sharing. If unavoidable, clean and disinfect shared equipment between use by different people.
- Face Coverings During Physical Activities:
- Consistent with guidance for gyms and fitness facilities, cloth face coverings must be worn during indoor physical conditioning and training or physical education classes (except when showering).
- Players should take a break from exercise if any difficulty in breathing is noted and should change their mask or face covering if it becomes wet and sticks to the player’s face and obstructs breathing. Masks that restrict airflow under heavy exertion (such as N95 masks) are not advised for exercise.
- Informing Parents and Guardians: Youth sports programs and schools should provide information to parents or guardians regarding the school’s protocols for sports, along with the safety measures that will be in place in these settings with which parents or guardians must comply.
- Electives: Activities with high likelihoods of transmission from contaminated exhaled droplets, such as band and choir practice and performances, are not permitted. Activities that involve singing must only take place outdoors.
- Events, Tournaments, Assemblies, Dances, Field Trips, Etc.: Outdoor and indoor sporting events, assemblies, dances, rallies, field trips, and other activities that require close contact or that would promote congregating are not permitted at this time. For example, tournaments, events, or competitions, regardless of whether teams are from the same school or from different schools, counties, or states, are not permitted at this time.
We are all in this together. Parents and guardians are powerful partners in keeping children and the community safe.
Consider providing educational materials to families on COVID-19, school prevention practices, and how they can help:
- How COVID-19 is spread.
- COVID-19 specific symptom identification.
- Prevention practices to use around the house, especially if someone with COVID-19 has been in the home.
- Preventing the spread of COVID-19 if you are sick, including the importance of not coming to school if kids have symptoms, or if they or someone they live with has been diagnosed with COVID-19.
- Immunizations and flu shots
- Remind parents to make sure immunizations are up to date.
- Strongly recommend that all students and staff be immunized each autumn against influenza unless contraindicated by personal medical conditions, to help:
- Protect the school community;
- Reduce demands on health care facilities; and
- Decrease illnesses that cannot be readily distinguished from COVID-19 and would therefore trigger extensive measures from the school and public health authorities.
- Information about practices the school will implement regarding symptom monitoring, temperature checks, mask wearing, physical distancing, transportation to and from school, campus visitation policies, electives and afterschool activities, sports and physical education, mealtimes, and other areas related to COVID-19 infection control
- Physical distancing guidelines and their importance
- Proper use, removal, and washing of face coverings
- Circumstances in which face coverings must be worn and the exemptions
- Youth sports programs and schools should provide information to parents or guardians regarding this and related guidance, along with the safety measures that will be in place in these settings with which parents or guardians must comply.
- CDC checklist for parents to send their kids back to school
- CDC resource on talking to your child about COVID-19, in English and Spanish
- Cleaning your home after possible exposure to someone with COVID
- SDCOE Together We Can Keep Children Safe Online During Covid Flyer
- Harvard Health COVID fact sheets in 35 different languages, including age-specific materials
For more information about how this tool was created and answers to other questions, see the FAQ section.