How to Prioritize the Health and Safety of Students, School Personnel, and Families

Return to School Roadmap -- U.S. Department of Education

How to Prioritize the Health and Safety of Students, School Personnel, and Families

Every student across America deserves a high-quality education in a healthy and safe learning environment. Amid our country’s continued recovery and reemergence from the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s more important than ever for schools and communities to prioritize the health and safety of students, staff, and families. Thanks to increased access to COVID-19 vaccines for adults and students ages 12 years and older, scientifically proven virus prevention strategies, and vital federal resources—including those from the American Rescue Plan, schools across the nation can continue to safely reopen for in-person learning.

The American Rescue Plan includes $122 billion for the Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief Fund to help schools prevent the spread of COVID-19 and address the needs of students. To promote health and safety, among many other additional uses, these funds can be used to:

  • Invest resources to implement health and safety guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to keep students and educators safe;
  • Improve ventilation in schools, purchase personal protective equipment, and obtain additional physical space (e.g., mobile classroom units) to promote physical distancing in classrooms;
  • Hire additional school personnel, including nurses and custodial staff, to help schools provide healthy environments for learning;
  • Implement strategies to meet the social, emotional, mental health, and academic needs of students hit hardest by the pandemic, including through evidence-based interventions and critical services; and
  • Provide for physical distancing and safety protocols on school buses.

Educators and school leaders across the country already are demonstrating that students can safely learn and thrive inside their classrooms, and that, as a nation, we can provide supports students need and deliver on the promise of an excellent and equitable education for every child.

As communities prepare for safe in-person learning and welcome students back to physical classrooms for the 2021-2022 academic year, there are key steps that all school leaders can take to help school communities remain safe and healthy during the return to school and beyond:

Read on for more information!

Everyone Ages 12 Years and Older: Get Vaccinated Before School Begins

Vaccination is currently the leading public health strategy to end the COVID-19 pandemic. Promoting vaccination in your community can help schools safely return to in-person learning as well as extracurricular activities and sports. The good news is that everyone 12 years of age and older can receive a COVID-19 vaccine. If you haven’t already, make a plan to get fully vaccinated and encourage all eligible students and families in your school community to do the same—especially before the new school year begins.

  • Where can I get information on where to get a COVID-19 vaccination?

    • Go to vaccines.gov, text your ZIP code to 438829, or call 1-800-232-0233 to find where vaccines are available in your local community.
    • Check out your state health department’s website to find additional information about vaccinations and providers in your area.
    • Encourage parents and families in your school community to call their child’s healthcare provider to find out if they are offering vaccinations.
  • What else [PDF, 159KB] can I do to get my school community vaccinated?

    There are three important steps that school leaders and educators can take:

    1. Launch pop-up, school-based vaccine clinics for adolescents and their families: Partners are available through the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program to handle all aspects of clinic administration (including on-site set-up, appointment scheduling where needed, clinical and administrative staffing, and administering vaccines).
    2. Build confidence in vaccines among students and their parents: Launch locally-driven campaigns to get students vaccinated, including through creative initiatives and incentives. Partner with local medical leaders (e.g., pediatricians, school based health providers, or Chief Medical Officers for local hospital networks) to hold town halls, answer questions from parents and students, and address myths about the virus and vaccines.
    3. Organize events to promote vaccination in your community this summer, in the lead-up to school reopening, and during the school year: Partner with community- or faith-based organizations, local businesses, and others to encourage students and their families to get vaccinated. Collaborate with students to build a student-led effort that results in increased youth vaccination rates.

Make a Plan to Prevent COVID-19 from Spreading at School

As students return to in-person learning, it’s essential that schools use layered strategies to prevent the spread of the virus. Layered strategies recommended by CDC have proven to offer the greatest protection (e.g. using multiple prevention strategies together and safely transition learning environments out of COVID-19 pandemic precautions as community transmission of COVID-19 reaches low levels or stop). Schools should continue to take multiple measures this fall to ensure the health and safety of teachers, staff, and students, especially those who are not fully vaccinated. Schools and districts should monitor community transmission, vaccination coverage, screening testing, and the occurrence of outbreaks to guide decisions on layered prevention strategies.

In addition to promoting vaccinations, see below for strategies that are part of a layered approach to health and safety.

Wearing Masks

  • CDC recommends universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status. Consistent and correct mask use is particularly important indoors and when physical distancing cannot be maintained. When teachers, staff, and students (ages 2 years and older) consistently and correctly wear a mask, they protect others as well as themselves.

Physical Distancing

  • CDC recommends that schools maintain at least three feet of physical distance between students within classrooms, combined with indoor mask wearing, to reduce the transmission of COVID-19. When it is not possible to maintain a physical distance of at least 3 feet, such as when schools cannot fully re-open while maintaining these distances, it is important to layer multiple other prevention strategies, such as indoor masking. The CDC has underscored the importance of students returning to in-person learning to support the social, emotional, and academic development of students and improve life outcomes.
  • School leaders should keep in mind that they should not exclude students from in-person learning to keep a minimum distance requirement. Learn more about strategies for physical distancing.

Screening Testing to Promptly Identify Cases, Clusters, and Outbreaks

  • Screening testing identifies people infected with COVID-19, including those with or without symptoms, who may be contagious.
  • In K-12 schools, screening testing can promptly identify and isolate cases, help quarantine those who may have been exposed to COVID-19 who are not fully vaccinated, and identify clusters where the virus exists.
  • People who are fully vaccinated don’t need to participate in screening testing and don’t need to quarantine unless they have symptoms.
  • CDC recommends that fully vaccinated people get tested 3-5 days following a known exposure to someone with suspected or confirmed COVID-19.

Improving Ventilation

  • Improved ventilation inside school buildings can reduce the number of virus particles in the air.
  • Some ventilation strategies that you can consider for your school include: bringing fresh outdoor air into the building by opening multiple doors and windows (when this doesn’t present a safety hazard), using child-safe fans to increase the effectiveness of open windows, and making changes to the HVAC or air filtration systems.
  • See our fact sheet on ventilation, and check out additional resources from CDC.

Good Handwashing and Respiratory Etiquette

  • Covering coughs and sneezes can help keep educators, staff, and students from getting and spreading COVID-19 and other infectious illnesses.
  • Educators and school leaders can reinforce good etiquette in school by: encouraging adults and students to wash their hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds; reminding everyone in school to wash their hands frequently and to assist young children with handwashing; and, when handwashing isn’t possible, providing hand sanitizer containing at least 60 percent alcohol for all adults and students who can safely use it.

Staying Home When Sick and Getting Tested

  • School leaders play an important role in educating teachers, staff, families, and students about when they should stay home and when they can return to school. Amid the recovery from the pandemic, it’s essential to keep children home if they are showing signs and symptoms of infectious illness, including COVID-19, and to get them tested.
  • Encouraging everyone in your school community to get tested when symptoms are compatible with COVID-19 will help with rapid contact tracing and prevent the spread of COVID-19 at school.

Contact Tracing, in Combination with Isolation and Quarantine

  • School leaders should continue to collaborate with state and local health departments, to the extent allowable by privacy laws, such as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and other applicable laws, to confidentially provide information about people diagnosed with or exposed to COVID-19 in their school communities. Doing so makes it possible to identify which students, teachers, and staff with positive COVID-19 test results should isolate, and which close contacts should quarantine.
  • School leaders should report, again, to the extent allowable by applicable privacy laws, new diagnoses of COVID-19 to their state or local health department as soon as they are informed. School leaders also should notify, to the extent allowable, the teachers, staff, and families of students who were close contacts as soon as possible after they are notified that someone in the school has tested positive (within the same day if you can).
  • Remember that fully vaccinated people who were in close contact with someone who has COVID-19 but do NOT have COVID-19 symptoms do not need to quarantine but should be tested 3-5 days after exposure.

Cleaning and Disinfection

  • Encourage cleaning at least once a day to sufficiently remove any germs that may be on surfaces. Check out the list of disinfectants on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency COVID-19 list.
  • If your school building has had someone who tested positive for COVID-19 within the last 24 hours, it’s important to clean and disinfect the space. Check out more details on cleaning and disinfecting your school building.

Connect Students and Families to Nutritious School Meals

Nutritious eating is important for children’s healthy growth and development and positive academic outcomes. As schools reopen, food distribution will continue to be critical to meet students’ basic needs and ensure that they are nutritionally supported to learn and grow. The U.S. Department of Agriculture will continue reimbursing schools and childcare centers for free meals to all students regardless of their income through the 2021-2022 school year.

  • Does my school have protocols for safely providing meals both in school and, in instances where distance or hybrid learning is offered or a necessity, away from school?

    • CDC offers guidance on maximizing physical distance around meal times in school. For more information about how schools can provide healthy school meals, regardless of education setting, check out Volume 2 of the U.S. Department of Education’s COVID-19 handbook [PDF, 5.3MB].

Help Students and Families Access Safe Transportation to School

It’s vitally important that families are provided with healthy and safe schools; and it is equally important that children’s school transportation is healthy and safe. There are a number of protocols that can promote safety on public transportation to and from school.

  • What are the steps that my district is taking to ensure that school buses are safe for students and for transportation personnel?

    • Wearing masks on school buses is mandatory, per CDC.
    • Schools can assist in the effort to promote safe school transportation by staggering the schedules for school arrival and drop-off times or locations by cohort, or by putting in place other protocols to encourage physical distancing.

Legal disclaimer:
Other than statutory and regulatory requirements included in the document, the contents of this guidance do not have the force and effect of law and are not meant to bind the public. This document is intended only to provide clarity to the public regarding existing requirements under the law or agency policies.

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