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NEA provides guidance and resources for returning to classrooms safely, and with an emphasis on racial and social justice.
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Safe and Healthy School Operations, Contingency Plans, and Communications Plans

Is your school returning to in-person instruction? Follow these 10 guidelines.
Two female teachers sterilize a classroom
Published: 07/10/2020


Goals: Ensure that schools minimize the transmission of the novel coronavirus and relieve anxiety about its transmission by establishing appropriate social-distancing requirements. Ensure that social-distancing measures are implemented without discrimination on the basis of actual or perceived race, ethnicity, or national origin. For students with disabilities, ensure that social-distancing measures are implemented without discrimination and consistent with students’ IEPs.

Considerations: The social distancing that is necessary to operate schools safely during the pandemic requires broadly rethinking how students get to school, when they arrive, where they receive instruction, and where they recreate and eat. How crowded are your schools now? What do the hallways look like at arrival and dismissal? How many students arrive by bus? How many come early for breakfast or stay late for after care? Do students move between classes while instructors stay put? If the answers are that classes are now overcrowded, hallways are filled wall to wall with students between classes and at arrival and dismissal, and the playground is crowded at recess and before and after school, you and your employers will need to do some hard thinking as to how to ensure students and staff remain six feet apart throughout the school day. Among the issues that should be addressed are:

  • Adjusting school schedules to accommodate social distancing. Protocols could include staggering school start times, when students return to school, or alternating in-person instructional days with distance-learning days. For example, some school districts are considering having elementary students return to in-person instruction before middle and high school students to allow them to spread out across the district’s school buildings so that social distancing requirements can be observed;
  • Establishing rules, guidelines, and procedures for maintaining physical distance between students, staff members, and visitors;
  • Reducing class sizes and ensuring physical distance in classrooms, along with all necessary changes to facilities and furnishings (e.g., moving students to different classrooms or buildings for temporary classrooms, removing desks or other furnishings) and schedules (e.g., split or staggered class schedules);
  • Considering how best to modify larger classes—such as music, art, and physical education—to allow them to continue but with appropriate social distancing;
  • Minimizing mixing between and among students and staff by, for instance, keeping particular groups of students together and in the same classroom or specific area of a school as much as possible for the duration of the school day;
  • Regulating the flow of student and staff traffic within and among school buildings, including by using floor arrows and other signs to direct traffic and establish different points of entry and exit. Consider having different groups of students arrive and leave school from different doors in order to avoid large crowds of students and to help students and staff maintain physical distance when students are entering and exiting school grounds and navigating school buildings;
  • Restructuring where and when school meals are served to maintain social distancing by scheduling more lunches so that students can be spread out in the cafeteria or by having students eat in their classrooms. Determine how food will be delivered to classrooms if the latter option is chosen, what food will be delivered, how to make necessary accommodations for individuals with allergies, and how the consequences for staff working conditions will be addressed if the latter option is chosen. Prevent food sharing and eliminate the taking of trays, plates, cups, utensils, condiments, and napkins from communal stacks or bins;
  • Restricting access to school buildings and grounds to staff, students, and essential visitors, such as delivery, medical, and public safety personnel (as to parents and guardians, see the next bullet point below);
  • Limiting visits from parents, guardians, and other visitors to strictly necessary cases, while ensuring that association representatives have reasonable access to carry out representational activities. Use remote conferencing tools whenever possible and encourage increased parental participation in schools by allowing remote participation, not just for parent-teacher conferences, but in specific class activities. If in-person meetings are necessary, conduct visits in designated locations and ensure that strict cleaning and disinfecting takes place after each use;
  • Coordinating the adjusted schedules of students in the same family;
  • Deploying staff to monitor and regulate the flow of traffic in hallways and other common areas at key times, such as when classes let out (see below);
  • Establishing protocols to prevent or minimize the sharing of personal items and to separately store students’ coats and personal items;
  • Ensuring safe school transportation. Social distancing will require decreasing the number of students on school buses, while also likely requiring staggered instructional hours for students. These changes will in turn raise issues as to work schedules for drivers and whether the employer has enough drivers and vehicles to run the increased number of trips that will be necessary. Address whether bus drivers will be responsible for screening students, preventing sick students from boarding, or enforcing appropriate seating on buses; if they have these responsibilities, procedures will be needed for ensuring the safety of students who are denied transportation. Determine who will clean buses between routes and with what supplies and training. Consider how student drop-off areas should be reconfigured to ensure appropriate social distancing and how new transportation related procedures could affect travel times and delays;
  • Determining which events—athletic and other extra-curricular offerings—and off-campus activities must be cancelled to ensure appropriate social distancing;
  • Considering access to library and other research resources and how to ensure that students can use them, particularly if students need assisted-learning devices or other accommodations. Online requests and touchless delivery and return of some library materials may be possible, but materials needing on-site access would need additional safeguards before being made available to students;
  • Determining whether and under what conditions outside areas such as playgrounds can be used by students while maintaining social distancing; and
  • Determining how dormitories, cafeterias, and other food-service facilities at colleges and universities will have to be reconfigured.



Goals: Identify pre-opening-preparations that must be taken to prepare facilities, equipment, and staff.

Considerations: The challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic to school operations will require extensive preparation of school facilities prior to opening and will affect virtually every task performed by educators. Among the more important facilities preparation measures that will have to be addressed are:

  • Deep cleaning and disinfecting of facilities and equipment, including school buses and other school vehicles;
  • Adequate ventilation in school buildings;
  • Posting of signs and marking of floors to help ensure that physical distance is maintained;
  • Establishing safe procedures for returning library books and students’ items left behind;
  • Reducing and re-arranging furniture in classrooms, dining areas, break rooms, employee lounges, kitchens, etc. to facilitate social distancing.
  • Determining if physical barriers—like sneeze guards, semi-permanent partitions, and plastic flexible screens—will be needed in classrooms, bathrooms, cafeterias, and other spaces;
  • Regulating the entry, exit, and flow of students and staff consistent with social distancing requirements;
  • Establishing handwashing and hand-sanitizer stations and protocols for their use by students and staff, and ensuring that sufficient quantities of soap and hand sanitizer are available;
  • Establishing requirements for PPE use and ensuring that sufficient quantities of PPE be available for students and staff, with careful attention to the communication needs of those who are hearing- or vision-impaired. Consider whether staff can be provided masks that will identify them in some way and allow students to recognize them.

There are also key staff and training needs that need to be addressed, including:

  • Determining how the health needs of students at school will be met, particularly for schools that do not have a dedicated school nurse. Establish health protocols for visits to the school nurse and a protocol and location for isolating students or staff who show symptoms associated with COVID-19 and cannot immediately leave the school;
  • Educating staff on the new requirements and how to enforce them appropriately, in compliance with social distancing requirements and without discrimination against anyone. Among other training needed, make sure the relevant staff receive training on: (i) the safe and appropriate use and storage of cleaning and sanitizing materials; (ii) the safe and appropriate use of masks, gloves, and other safety materials; and (iii) how to clean vehicles and high-touch surfaces;
  • Ensuring that substitutes and other personnel who are not regularly on school property also have proper training on the new health and safety protocols; and
  • Establishing the health and safety protocols necessary for staff who are required to do home visits, such as those who provide in-home services under infants-and-toddlers programs.



Goals: Ensure that screening, testing, and monitoring designed to protect against transmission of the novel coronavirus comply with medical best practices and guidance from public health experts; are clear, consistently applied, and clearly communicated to minimize confusion, disruption, and discord; and are implemented without discrimination and in a manner that protects individual privacy.

Considerations: Important considerations with respect to screening, testing, and monitoring include:

  • Decide who will be subject to screening, testing, and/or monitoring;
  • Establish guidelines for screening, testing, and monitoring that address, among other things, how the confidentiality of such screening will be maintained and how any necessary isolation of individuals who test positive will be ensured;
  • Inform parents before school reopens how screening will be done and that students with certain symptoms or exposures to possible or confirmed cases of COVID-19 should stay home. Inform staff and other workers that they too should stay home if they have certain symptoms or exposures. Make sure that the information is clearly communicated with graphics and in languages that students, parents/guardians, and staff can understand;
  • Decide if temperature screening will be done for staff or students and, if so, where and how it will occur while maintaining social distancing and heeding the general advice that such screening occur outside the school building;
  • Decide what constitutes a fever and what happens when a fever is confirmed. The CDC has advised that a fever of 101.4 or higher is cause for concern and that two readings should be taken five minutes apart to confirm the accuracy of the reading. Because a fever may result from many causes, consider what happens if a student or staff has a confirmed fever, under what circumstances COVID-19 testing will be required, and who will pay for the test;
  • If a COVID-19 test is positive, determine what medical clearance will be required before the student or staff member returns to school;
  • Make sure that any screening, testing, and monitoring is administered in a manner that does not discriminate on the basis of actual or perceived race, ethnicity, or national origin; ensure that procedures include reasonable accommodations for any students or staff who have disabilities; and make sure that sufficient, trained, and appropriately equipped staff are consistently available to carry out the screening and to assist and isolate any students or staff who need to return home.



Goals: Ensure that materials and equipment necessary for appropriate hygiene are broadly available and safely stored and that both staff and students understand how to use them and do use them.

Considerations: To ensure that students and staff wash hands frequently to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, schools must have handwashing locations and supplies in place, and staff and students need to know how to use them. They must also have the time and space to use them appropriately. Ensure that PPE requirements are met. Establish protocols for the appropriate disposal of PPE and of disposable cleaning items. Ensure that students and staff are provided with clear guidelines.

Staff also will need to model appropriate social distancing, hygiene, and PPE practices, including but not limited to the wearing of masks or face shields. Communications plans will need to be developed and implemented to disseminate this information most effectively throughout the student body. Particularly with regard to wearing of masks, make sure that all guidelines, policies, and penalties for noncompliance are administered in a manner that does not discriminate on the basis of actual or perceived race, ethnicity, or national origin. Ensure that procedures include reasonable accommodations for any students or staff who have disabilities.

Consider closing water fountains and establish alternative plans for how students will get water during the day. Consider disabling hand blow driers in restrooms to prevent widespread circulation of germs. Consider letting students “check out” basic supplies that they will need to complete their distance learning and to avoid students sharing equipment and supplies at school.


Goals: Ongoing cleaning and disinfecting are crucial components of ensuring that schools, colleges, and universities are able to remain safely open. In addition, cleaning and disinfecting will help reduce anxiety over COVID-19.

Considerations: Establish requirements and protocols for cleaning and disinfecting buildings, desks, electronic devices, vehicles, and high-touch surfaces such as door handles and grab bars. Some cleaning can be done after hours, 

but significant amounts of cleaning of bathrooms and other high-touch surfaces will need to occur throughout the school day of bathrooms and other high-touch surfaces.

Make sure there are sufficient trained custodial staff to do the necessary cleaning and that they have both appropriate cleaning materials and sufficient personal protective equipment to do their jobs safely. Make sure that all schools, including those that are under-resourced, have adequate supplies, staff, and resources for safe cleaning and disinfecting.

Create an inventory system for tracking the supply of and for ordering essential products, such as soap and sanitizer, cleaning and disinfectant solutions, paper towels, tissues, gloves, disinfectant wipes, face coverings, no-touch/foot-pedal trash cans, etc. Determine if you can put in place a back-up system for ordering essential products if your main suppliers are unable to fill orders.

Inspect ventilation systems to ensure they are operating properly and water systems and features (sink faucets and drinking fountains) to be certain they are safe to use after a prolonged facility shutdown.


Goal: Adopt special protections and accommodations for at-risk individuals and those living with or caring for at-risk individuals.

Considerations: The risk of severe COVID-19 infection increases for those with underlying health conditions (such as asthma, diabetes, heart conditions, and those with compromised immune systems) as well as with age, with those who are over age 65 facing significantly higher risks. Protections and accommodations could include:

  • Remote work or after-hours work for at-risk staff members and those who live with individuals at higher risk;
  • Extended sick-leave benefits and disability accommodations for at-risk staff who cannot work remotely;
  • Extended family leave benefits for staff who live with at-risk individuals;
  • Distance-learning opportunities for at-risk students as long as they can be provided equitably, bridging any digital-divide problems if necessary; and
  • Remote conferencing opportunities for parents or guardians.



Goals: Adopt policies for responding in the event that a student or staff member becomes ill with COVID-19 symptoms or has a positive COVID-19 diagnostic test.

Considerations: Encourage both staff and students to self-monitor and self-quarantine if they have COVID-19 symptoms. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that schools “[a]ctively encourage employees and students who are sick or who have recently had close contact with a person with COVID-19 to stay home” and “[d]evelop policies that encourage sick employees and students to stay at home without fear of reprisal, and ensure employees, students, and students’ families are aware of these policies.” Ensure as well that schools and districts are not penalized as a result of absences due to COVID-19.

If a staff member or student falls ill with COVID-19 symptoms at school, or tests positive for the disease, a procedure should be in place for isolating the student or staff member; ensuring their safe transportation home or to a hospital; and temporarily closing and disinfecting the areas of the school where the individual was present, or if that is not possible, the entire school; reporting the possible case to local health authorities; and informing all those who had contact with the student or staff member of their possible exposure. Such procedures must ensure the confidentiality of individual health information, address what type of medical clearance to return to school will be necessary, and put in place a plan for communicating with the school community and staff.


Goals: Adopt robust mental health support services for students and employees. Train staff in trauma-informed practices to monitor and support students upon their return to school for signs of food and housing insecurity and exposure to domestic violence or abuse at home. Provide mental health resources and support for students and staff for the anxiety, grief, panic and depression widely triggered by the pandemic. Ensure that Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) are robust and easy to access, including benefits related to mental health and substance-use disorders. Promote behavioral telehealth in employer-sponsored health programs.

Considerations: The pandemic is a trying time for all students, staff members, and their families, and it has been devastating for some who have had to cope with the illness or loss of loved ones and/or the loss of a parent’s job. At the same time, the pandemic has disproportionately impacted low-income communities and communities of color, such that students from these communities are most likely to have lost a family member due to the pandemic, most likely to experience food and housing insecurity and other economic harms arising from a parent’s or guardian’s job loss, and the least likely to have had access to distance learning offered this spring. In addition, students who are or are perceived to be from Asian backgrounds are at significant risk of bullying and harassment by reason or their actual or perceived race, ethnicity, or national origin. Reopening plans should address how best to support these student populations so as to allow them to move forward with their education.


Given how infectious COVID-19 is and that any effective vaccines or treatments are likely to be unavailable before schools would reopen in the fall, every school that reopens for in-person learning must have in place a contingency plan detailing under what circumstances it will close, in whole or in part, due to an increase in COVID-19 infections that make its operations no longer safe. The contingency plan should address both when such closures will occur and how learning will continue through distance learning in the event of such closures.

Your decisions about how best to address the factors above will influence your contingency plan. For example, if you determine to segment the student body into cohorts and limit each cohort to a particular area within the school building supported by a particular group of educators, your contingency plan may limit closures just to the affected cohort in the event a student or staff member falls ill with COVID-19.


In light of the entirely natural fears and anxieties that the current public health and economic crises are causing students, their families and guardians, school employees, and our broader communities—and the disruptions and changes that have been and will continue to be necessary to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus—educational institutions need to have clear and comprehensive communications plans for informing members, parents, and the community. Consider pre-opening virtual orientations for students and their families, particularly for those who will be attending a new school in the upcoming year.

For members, consider using the engagement processes in Section I of this document to ensure that members are heard and listened to in the development of the reopening plan.

For parents, guardians, and the wider school community, the association should, on its own and/or in collaboration with educational institutions, develop a comprehensive communications plan (and, to the extent possible, a communications team),to ensure that stakeholders understand the process and considerations that underlie the reopening plan—including explanations as to why the steps in the plan are needed and how the steps will protect students in schools. Communications regarding the necessary new school policies and procedures must be timely, clear, and factual while also being framed empathetically, with an understanding of those fears and anxieties and their effect on how communications will be received.

Associations should make every effort to ensure that communications are available in languages that students, parents, guardians, and staff can understand and to assess the number, frequency, and prioritization of communications to avoid overwhelming and confusing recipients.

NEA provides guidance and resources for returning to classrooms safely, and with an emphasis on racial and social justice.

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The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.