Cohorts to Support Safe Learning
How can we structure student groups to maximize safety?
Because the virus that causes COVID-19 is more easily transmitted when someone infected with it is in close proximity to others, physical distancing, student grouping and thoughtful use of existing space will be key factors in mitigating risk in the era of COVID-19. Creating small cohorts of students and staff who stay together and avoid contact with other cohorts is a necessary and powerful tool to prevent the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19 while also providing opportunities for in-person interaction in a safe context.
When cohorting is in effect, a suspected or confirmed case requires that the members of the cohort who have been in contact with the individual in question be quarantined and tested. Without cohorting, many more members of the school community may need to be quarantined and/or the entire school closed.
State guidance distinguishes between 3 scenarios for returning students to campus for in person instruction:
Grouping students into stable cohorts and sticking to Six Key Considerations can help increase safety and must be done in all of these scenarios, with the most stringent cohorting requirements in place for the early return to in-person small-group targeted instruction option. Cohorts will typically require rethinking lunch, recess, and electives, as well as departmentalized instruction that would normally create different configurations of students and staff for many classes, thus dramatically increasing the possibilities for transmission.
Student grouping, or cohorting, can increase safety once schools are ready to return to in-person instruction. Cohorts can minimize exposure, first and foremost, and maximize connection in order to accelerate learning. They can be an important component of reopening school buildings safely by reducing the number of people with whom school staff and students interact face-to-face.
State guidance distinguishes between 3 scenarios for returning students to campus for in person instruction:
Grouping students into stable cohorts and sticking to the 6 Key Considerations can help increase safety and should be done in all of these scenarios, with more stringent cohorting requirements in place for the early return to in-person small-group targeted instruction option. (See the “Additional Considerations for Small-Group Targeted Support” section below).
What Are Cohorts?
A cohort is a stable group with fixed membership that stays together for all courses and activities (e.g., lunch, recess, etc.) and avoids contact with other persons or cohorts.
What Are Small-Group Targeted Instruction Cohorts?
Small-group targeted support cohorts (scenario #3 above) are stable groups of students with no more than 16 individuals, who are meeting for targeted support and intervention services, under the direction of the LEA, while the school is closed to in person instruction and in addition to distance learning.
What Is the Purpose of Cohorts?
The goal is to reduce the number of people any individual is exposed to and to reduce the number of people in any given space. Utilizing cohorts minimizes the number of people exposed if a COVID-19 case is identified in a child attendee, provider, other instructional support provider, or staff member of a particular cohort.
How Do You Set Up Cohorts?
Children, attendees and adults in supervised care environments during the COVID-19 pandemic must be in groups as small as possible. This practice decreases opportunities for exposure to or transmission of the virus; facilitates more efficient contact tracing in the event of a positive case; and allows for targeted testing, quarantine, and isolation of a single cohort instead of an entire population of children in the event of a positive case or cluster of cases.
Children and supervising adults in one cohort must not physically interact with children and supervising adults in other cohorts, other child care facility staff, or parents of children in other cohorts.
Cohorts should be in addition to (not instead of) other safety measures like wearing face coverings and maintaining at least 6 feet of distance from others.
Examples of What Cohorts Could Look Like
Below are some examples to illustrate what the implementation of cohorts could look like in LEAs. Each LEA should consider how to best implement the existing guidelines to serve their respective communities.
What Cohorts Could Look Like In Elementary Schools
- Students can be grouped into cohorts that stay together all day with their core teacher (and any aide or student teacher that is present) in order to minimize group size and the number of different students teachers are exposed to. If there are counselors or teachers of electives, they would ideally be assigned to only one cohort or conduct their classes / counseling virtually.
- If needed to achieve physical distancing in the classroom, students in cohorts could attend school in person on a rotating schedule. This might be two days a week of in-person instruction —for example, either Monday & Tuesday, or Thursday & Friday—and remote instruction on the other two days. Wednesday could be used as a planning and cleaning day. Some districts are having students attend for alternating weeks. In either case, these approaches create even smaller cohorts that stay together and do not mix with one another. Electives or counseling would be conducted virtually to avoid some staff having contact with multiple cohorts.
What Cohorts Could Look Like In Middle and High School
- Students could be grouped into cohorts that remain together all day during in-person instruction. These should be constructed to be as heterogeneous as possible to avoid segregating effects.
- The CDC guidance notes that schools may keep a single cohort together in one classroom and have teachers rotate between cohorts, or have small cohorts move together in staggered passing schedules to other rooms they need to use (e.g., science labs) without allowing students or staff to mix with others from distinctive cohorts.
- Teachers from different content areas could work in teams that share students, preferably in a dedicated space, separate from others. For example, a math, science, English, and history teacher might comprise a team with a set of students they share. If class sizes were 20, each student would spend time with only 19 other students all day. Each teacher would see all 4 groups (80 students total), but would not see any other students in the school. When combined with block schedules that reduce the number of courses students take in any one semester, the number of teachers and students who interact can be minimized.
- Another way to minimize the number of interactions is to offer interdisciplinary team block schedules in which teachers from two or more courses share a common group of students—such as a combined math and science course taught by one teacher alongside a combined English language arts and social studies course taught by another teacher. In these cases, the 2 teachers each see no more than 2 groups in a semester. These courses are co-planned with teachers who offer additional disciplinary expertise.
- Electives can be offered virtually or organized so that no group of students takes more than one elective in a term and the elective teachers do not work outside a single team or pod.
- Pods could switch at the quarter, trimester or another term that supports students getting additional classes without cohorts mixing.
- CDPH’s Guidance for Small Cohorts/Groups of Children and Youth
- California For All’s Providing Targeted, Specialized Support and Services at School
- Learning Policy Institute’s Restarting and Reinventing School
Exposure to people outside the school cohort will exponentially increase exposure to the virus for all children and staff. Cohorts are only effective if the people within them are vigilant about not mixing with other people, so cohorts can remain stable.
Prevent interactions between cohorts, including interactions between staff assigned to different cohorts.
- Staff Assignments: Supervising adults should be assigned to one cohort and must work solely with that cohort. Avoid changing staff assignments to the extent practicable.
- Limit the Crossing-over of Staff: Consider ways to keep teachers and paraprofessionals with one group of students for the whole day. It is important to minimize the number of cohorts other staff members (e.g., administrators, counselors, nurses, or specialist teachers) come into contact with, as they can transmit the virus from one cohort to another, thus greatly increasing the number of contacts for any given case.
- Substitutes: Substitute providers who are covering for short‐term staff absences are allowed but should only work with one cohort of children per day.
- Move Teachers Instead of Students: Have teachers rotate among classrooms, instead of moving groups of students, when feasible.
- Think Beyond the Classroom When Creating Cohorts: Assign children who live together or carpool together to the same cohort, if possible.
- Moving Children Between Cohorts: Avoid moving children from one cohort to another, unless needed for a child’s overall safety and wellness.
- Special Activities: Keep cohorts separate from one another for special activities such as art and exercise. Stagger playground time and other activities so that no two cohorts are in the same place at the same time. (Consider also visiting the Non Allowable Activities section for more information.)
- Separate Spaces: Each cohort must be in a separate room or space.
- Extend Cohorts to After-School: If offering after (or before) school services, consider extending cohorts to include after-school programs to minimize inter-cohort exposure. [#41 implied on list of programs to be “podded” but not text easy to grab]
- External/Additional Pods: External or additional pods created by parents, camps, child care arrangements, or the school that are outside of the core classroom cohort will create exponential risk to all children in all cohorts. If each child is part of one additional group beyond the classroom cohort, it introduces risk and exposes all people in any given pod.
- Communicate with Parents: Make sure families understand the impact of pods and camp groups beyond the school day.
To serve student with greater needs in counties where schools are not yet eligible to reopen for full in-person instruction, LEAs may choose to utilize small-group targeted support cohorts to provide specialized services to students with disabilities, English learners, students at higher risk of further learning loss or not participating in distance learning, students at risk of abuse or neglect, foster youth and students experiencing homelessness.
In addition to all considerations that apply to cohorts in K12 settings cleared for in-person instruction, small-group targeted support cohorts taking place in schools that have not yet met the eligibility requirements for full in-person instruction must also abide by additional size requirements to maintain the focus on health and safety.
What Are Small-Group Targeted Instruction Cohorts?
A small-group limited instruction and targeted support cohort is a stable group of students with no more than 16 individuals who are meeting for targeted supports and intervention services, under the direction of the LEA, while the school is closed to in person instruction and in addition to distance learning.
What Are One-to-One Specialized Services?
One-to-one specialized services can be provided to a child or youth by a support service provider that is not part of the child or youth’s cohort. Specialized service includes but not limited to occupational therapy services, speech and language services, and other medical, behavioral services, or educational support services as part of a targeted intervention strategy.
The determination as to who will attend small-group in-person support and targeted services groups is made at the LEA- and school-level based on the needs of students. Students with disabilities should be prioritized by the LEA and school for receiving targeted supports and services. In addition, English learners, students at higher risk of further learning loss or not participating in distance learning, students at risk of abuse or neglect, foster youth and students experiencing homelessness may also be prioritized.
Reduced Number of Targeted Support Cohorts: The number of cohorts will depend on the school’s enrollment size and available building capacity. Local school officials – in collaboration with local health departments and school-based staff – should determine the number of cohorts that can be safely established to avoid interactions between cohorts. In general, given the need for physical distancing and separation of cohorts, the number of students on a given school site should generally not exceed 25% of the school’s enrollment size or available building capacity.
Additional Cohort Size Limitations for In-Person Targeted Instruction Groups:
- Cohorts for in-person targeted instruction are limited to no more than 14 students, with no more than 2 supervising adults, or a configuration of no more than 16 individuals total (children and youth or adults) in a supervised environment.
- Cohorts can be divided, as needed, into subgroups of children and youth from the same cohort, as long as there are no more than 16 individuals total (children and youth or adults).
- The maximum cohort size applies to all children and youth in the cohort, even when all children are not participating at the same time. For example:
- A cohort may not include 6 children or youth who attend full‐time, 6 children on Mon/Wed/Fri, and 6 children on Tue/Thu (total of 18).
- A cohort may not include 8 children or youth who attend for the entire day, 4 who attend mornings only, and 4 who attend afternoons only (total of 16).
Additional Space Limitations: Groups must be no larger than can be accommodated by the space available in the facility to provide at least 6 feet of distance between each person, including staff, but in no instance larger than 14 students and 2 supervising adults or 16 individuals total.
To ensure students are safe and learning, the use of space and time will be ever more critical. Schedule guidelines allow teachers to plan learning experiences with prioritized goals in mind; set clear expectations and communicate them to students and families; and, most importantly, build continuity, routine, and connection for students in a time of uncertainty. Picking a scheduling model that works for your school will be key to a successful year.
- Learn More About Different Models: Learn more about different models in CCEE’s Continuity of Learning Playbook (“Create Schedules” section) or visit ACSA’s School Reopening Report May 2020 for their pros and cons.
Pick a Scheduling Model: Picking a model for your students will depend on your staffing, available space, and community needs, but here are a few considerations as you choose your model:
- Facilities. How many rooms do you have available? Can you make other spaces available in new and creative ways (e.g., moving some activities outside, using classrooms previously used for storage or testing)?
- Staffing. How can teacher schedules change? What training is needed to prepare them for potentially new roles? How will you ensure staff members have adequate time for planning and dealing with the extra preparation required for remote learning?
- Transportation. What are families’ transportation needs given your new schedule? Can buses transport fewer students to comply with social distancing requirements?
- Health and safety. Time and funding will need to be allotted to comply with the mandated screenings, cleaning, and distancing guidelines. Consider these as you plan:
- Build time for health screenings into the schedule. A staggered start time is recommended.
- Maintaining physical distancing through the school day (from arrival through departure) will require creating structures for all previously unstructured transitions and settings. This will create additional demands on employees and may feel very restrictive to students and staff.
- Consider physical distancing requirements and limiting movement when possible. Consider making hallways one-directional and releasing classes in staggered ways.
- Ensure that students’ nutritional needs are met. This may mean that lunch or recess may need to take place in the classroom or with new rules.
- Limiting cross-contamination/exposure will require dividing students into cohorts when possible.
- Cleaning time, needs, and costs will change. This means allotting time for cleaning, purchasing equipment, and possibly reallocating maintenance staff. Consider opening campuses on different days of the week so cleaning teams can be shared across campuses.
- Schedule for Access and Inclusion: Schedules can also increase or decrease equity across your campus, so test for access and inclusion of your most vulnerable or historically underserved populations, as you implement health and safety guidance. (Refer to CCEE’s Equity and Continuity of Learning one-pager for more equity considerations.)
- Schedules as Tools for Physical Distancing: To the extent possible, schools should think about how to reconfigure the use of bell schedules to streamline foot traffic and maintain practicable physical distancing. Create staggered passing times when students cannot stay in one room to minimize congregated movement through hallways as much as is practicable.
- Restructure Electives: Elective teachers who move in and out of cohorts become points of exponential exposure for themselves and the students they are with. Some hybrid models have made elective teachers part of high school pods, or used them only on remote-instruction days.
- Technology Tools and Access: If students are off-site for multiple days or some students do not attend classes on campus for long periods of time, your team may have to address internet and device access limitations at home and on campus through a robust plan to ensure equity. Visit our Technology Considerations section for more information.
- CCEE’s Equity and Continuity of Learning one-pager with tips and tools for LEAs.
- Find more tools and resources on the “Create Schedule” section of CCEE’s Continuity of Learning Playbook.
- Read more about the pros and cons of each scheduling model on ACSA’s School Reopening Report May 2020
- Visit the Technology Considerations section of this guidebook for more info on technology planning.