Guidance for COVID-19 Prevention in K-12 Schools

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued updated guidance for COVID-19 Prevention in Kindergarten (K)-12 Schools on July 9, 2021.  The State of Illinois has adopted the CDC guidance, which can be found here: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/schools-childcare/k-12-guidance.html. Schools should work with local public health officials to determine the prevention strategies needed in their area by monitoring levels of community transmission (i.e., low, moderate, substantial, or high) and local vaccine coverage, and use of screening testing to detect cases in K-12 schools.

Key Takeaways

  • Students benefit from in-person learning, and safely returning to in-person instruction in the fall 2021 is a priority.
  • Vaccination is currently the leading public health prevention strategy to end the COVID-19 pandemic.  Promoting vaccination can help schools safely return to in-person learning as well as extracurricular activities and sports.
  • Masks should be worn indoors by all individuals (age 2 and older) who are not fully vaccinated. Consistent and correct mask use by people who are not fully vaccinated is especially important indoors and in crowded settings, when physical distancing cannot be maintained.
  • CDC recommends schools maintain at least 3 feet of physical distance between students within classrooms, combined with indoor mask wearing by people who are not fully vaccinated, to reduce transmission risk. 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 especially important to layer multiple other prevention strategies, such as indoor masking.
  • Screening testing, ventilation, handwashing and respiratory etiquette, staying home when sick and getting tested, contact tracing in combination with quarantine and isolation, and cleaning and disinfection are also important layers of prevention to keep schools safe.
  • Students, teachers, and staff should stay home when they have signs of any infectious illness and be referred to their healthcare provider for testing and care.
  • Many schools serve children under the age of 12 who are not eligible for vaccination at this time. Therefore, this guidance emphasizes implementing layered prevention strategies (e.g., using multiple prevention strategies together consistently) to protect people who are not fully vaccinated, including students, teachers, staff, and other members of their households.
  • COVID-19 prevention strategies remain critical to protect people, including students, teachers, and staff, who are not fully vaccinated, especially in areas of moderate-to-high community transmission levels.
  • Localities should monitor community transmission, vaccination coverage, screening testing, and occurrence of outbreaks to guide decisions on the level of layered prevention strategies (e.g., physical distancing, screening testing). Vaccination data by county can be found here https://www.dph.illinois.gov/covid19/vaccinedata

Considerations for Reopening Schools   

As noted by the CDC, schools are an essential part of the infrastructure of communities, as they provide safe, supportive learning environments for students, employ teachers and other staff, and enable parents, guardians, and caregivers to go to work. Schools also provide critical services that help to mitigate health disparities, such as school meal programs, social, physical, behavioral, and mental health services.  In order to safely operate schools, CDC has issued mitigation strategies that K-12 school administrators along with state and local public health officials can use to help protect students, teachers, and staff and slow the spread of COVID-19.  The following  precautions are recommended by public health officials to protect the health, safety, and wellbeing of students, teachers, staff, their families, and communities:

  • Wearing a cloth face covering especially when other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.
  • Maintaining a distance of at least 6 feet from other adults, and from students when feasible.
  • Washing hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not readily available, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. Cover all surfaces of your hands and rub them together until they feel dry.
  • Covering coughs and sneezes with a tissue or inside of elbow, throwing the tissue away, and then washing hands.
  • Avoiding touching one’s eyes, nose, mouth, and cloth face covering.
  • Cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces, including tables, doorknobs, light switches, countertops, handles, desks, phones, keyboards, toilets, faucets, and sinks.
  • Staying home when sick, or after being in close contact with a person with COVID-19.
  • Limiting use of shared objects (e.g., gym or physical education equipment, art supplies, games) when possible, and cleaning and disinfecting these objects frequently.

Additionally, stay aware of local coronavirus conditions and follow your local health department’s recommendations.  Communities should make every effort to support the reopening of and maintaining open schools safely.

Protecting staff and students from getting sick with COVID-19 while attending school.

Schools should maintain a focus on the safety of staff and students at all times.  In addition to implementing basic control measures previously listed, there are some actions schools can take to help prevent COVID-19 transmission.  These include:

  • Reopening plan for learning.  Districts may decide to have in-person instruction, remote learning, or a hybrid of the two strategies.  The school may open with in-person learning but should have a plan to change to all or partial remote learning in the event of COVID-19 cases or outbreaks occurring in the school.  More information on these plans is available at : (ISBE link)
  • Cohorting of students and staff.  This means groups of the same students, and sometimes teachers or staff, stay together throughout the school day to minimize exposure for students, teachers, and staff across the school environment.  Individuals who are in the same group of people will have fewer opportunities to be exposed to or transmit the virus to others, can be isolated or quarantined as a small group rather than requiring school-wide closure, and simplifies contact tracing in the event of a positive case.  Schools can determine how to cohort, depending on many factors specific to the staff, students, and type of learning plan implemented.
  • Alternating schedules.  This means students rotate when they will physically attend school.  Depending on the district’s plan, they may implement this kind of schedule and, for example, have some grades attend certain days of the week and other grades on different days.  This decreases opportunities for exposure and allows for thorough cleaning and disinfection protocols of empty classrooms and alternating days.  CDC indicates more research is needed as to the effectiveness of this strategy.
  • Education on prevention measures.  Schools should educate staff and families about when they or their child(ren) should stay home and when they can return to school, while actively encouraging employees and students who are sick or who have recently had close contact with a person with COVID-19 to stay home. Schools can teach and reinforce handwashing practices among all students, teachers, and staff.
  • Physical distancing.  Schools should consider the use of physical guides, such as tape on floors or sidewalks, one-way routes in hallways, and signs on walls to help students, teachers, and staff remain at least 6 feet apart. Use seating charts for buses, cafeteria, and classrooms.
  • Appropriate and consistent use of cloth face masks.  See Cloth Face Masks in Schools and Executive Order 2020-47
  • Flexible sick leave for students and staff.  Students who are ill and/or have undergone COVID-19 testing and are waiting for results should stay home, and schools will need to prepare for possible increased absences due to the non-specific symptoms of COVID-19 and similarity to other conditions and illnesses.  Schools should determine how to develop and implement flexible sick leave policies and practices that enable staff to stay home when they are sick, have been exposed, or are caring for someone who is sick. 
  • Ongoing monitoring for illness in students and staff.  Parents/guardians and students and staff should daily screen for illness and should stay home if ill.  If a household member is ill and is undergoing COVID-19 testing, other household close contacts should stay home until testing results are back, and if positive should quarantine as directed by the local health department.   If symptoms develop when the individual is at school, this should be promptly reported to the school nurse or designated staff member and managed as per direction provided here: http://www.dph.illinois.gov/covid19/community-guidance/guidance-pre-k-12-schools-and-day-care-programs-addressing-covid-19.  Prompt identification and separation of ill persons will help decrease exposures and spread of COVID-19.
  • Also see the Illinois State Board of Education guidance at https://www.isbe.net/Pages/covid19.aspx

Additional CDC Links

CDC’s guidance for schools is available at: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/schools-childcare/index.html

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