How can schools reduce the risk of COVID transmission if they open in fall?

Every parent and teacher is wondering what school will look like in the fall. The answer is complicated. The right decision will depend on the local situation and how school administrators apply CDC guidance. Important factors that affect school plans for the fall are what phase of reopening an area is in and whether or not an area is a hotspot. This means that controlling COVID infections overall is the best way to make a return to school safe.

Opening schools potentially puts many people at risk for COVID. It’s clear that kids of all ages can get sick with COVID, though their risk of serious illness seems lower than adults. If you, a family member, or your child has a medical condition that puts you at risk of getting very sick with COVID, call your doctor to figure out what’s right for you and your family. Teachers and staff (bus drivers, custodians, and food service workers) are also at risk. And the larger community (including parents, other family members, and their friends) will face increased risk, too.

These risks must be weighed against the many benefits to having kids in school full time. Benefits include supporting education, social and emotional development, and mental health. Schools are also important for helping kids with special needs, making sure children are fed, and enabling parents to return to work.

What can schools do to reduce risk? The CDC recommends social distancing and mask wearing in school. Due to space constraints, schools might use staggered schedules or a mix of online and in-person classes. Schools will have to find ways to spread kids out on buses. Here are some additional options recommended by CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics:

  1. Virtual learning for everyone when there are many sick people in the community
  2. Virtual learning options for high-risk students, regardless of whether there are many cases in the community
  3. Distancing of 3-6 feet for students and staff
  4. Use of cloth face coverings 
  5. Temperature and symptom screening upon arrival at school
  6. Staggered arrival and departure
  7. Reduced capacity in buses
  8. Rotating or staggered scheduling for smaller class sizes
  9. Keeping students in the same groups
  10. Increased handwashing and access to hand sanitizer
  11. Increased cleaning and disinfection 
  12. Discouraged use of shared items
  13. Improved ventilation in classrooms or circulation of outdoor air by opening windows or use of outdoor spaces
  14. Installing physical barriers such as partitions where distancing is difficult
  15. Providing guides and markings in hallways to create one way flow in hallways
  16. Reduce food service to prepackaged meals and eating in classrooms
  17. Limit outdoor visitors to the school
  18. Discontinue field trips

There are differences between younger and older kids in terms of COVID (older kids are more likely to transmit the virus based on early data) and in terms of what we might reasonably expect from them (young children are less able to maintain distancing protocols). So, schools probably need different plans for elementary, middle, and high school age students.  This might mean prioritizing cohort approaches to allow more relaxed precautions for spacing and mask wearing for elementary students. 

There is no “one size fits all” answer to this question right now. You can prepare for the upcoming school year using the checklist provided by CDC. Parents should also remember to make sure that kids are up to date on all vaccines before the start of the school year. Teachers and school staff should also be up to date on vaccinations and consult with their physician about any health issues that might make returning to school higher risk. And consider backup child care plans and ways to set up virtual learning environments at home, just in case!


Last update:  July 15, 2020 11:30 am ET
Science review: JAB, ERS