Reopening schools while maintaining health and safety
- By Nancy Islas
- August 01, 2021
The recent COVID-19 pandemic
forced millions of children to transition
to a remote learning environment
– far too quickly for many districts
to make adequate preparations.
While some schools may have been less than
fully prepared for this particular pandemic,
advance crisis planning helped other schools
manage the necessary transition more
smoothly. Going forward, strong and effective
planning for the reopening of schools
need not be a surprise, and careful planning
and execution can avoid any decrease in student
and staff health and safety during the
upcoming opening process.
On a positive note, the government is currently
enacting a pandemic relief package
that includes a significant funding allocation
for K-12 schools nationwide in the coming
months. If the proposal is implemented, this
funding could supply up to $128 billion for
all school districts, which comes nearly to
$2,500 per student nationwide, and can be
used to help school health and safety systems
not only for the present reopening needs, but
also for longer-term improvement projects.
In the sections below, we discuss the three
distinct phases of reopening and provide
suggestions on how to maximize the effectiveness
of each phase. The three phases are:
Preparing for Reopening, Enforce during
Reopening, and Maintaining Health After
Reopening. As school districts across the
United States consider how to safely re-open
for in-person learning and activities, school
administrators can pay particular attention
to mitigation strategies that can be used to
help protect students, teachers, and staff prevent
the spread of contagions, including the
Preparing for Reopening
Identifying reopening benefits versus risks.
The first step in preparing for reopening is to
clearly identify the benefits of reopening
their facilities for in-person learning and
assess these benefits against the risks of
Even though it’s commonly believed the
risks of COVID-19 to students themselves is
relatively low, reopening schools will also
expose teachers who may be at greater risk
(especially those who are older or compromised).
These risks can also transition and
contribute to higher risk for the broader
Districts can weigh levels of community
transmission and their capacity to implement
appropriate mitigation measures in
schools to protect students, teachers, administrators,
and other staff.
The CDC provides administrators with
valuable resources. One example is their
Indicators for Dynamic Decision-Making
tool, available on the cdc.gov website.
Implement actions for spread prevention.
The COVID-19 virus is mainly spread
between people when they talk, cough,
sneeze or breathe around others. Districts
will need to enforce guidelines that will promote
a healthy environment across all of
Adopting actions to slow the spread of
COVID-19 inside the school and out in the
community can help schools reopen as safely
and as quickly as possible for in-person learning.
Review, update and execute EOPs. It is
highly recommended that school administrators
prepare and put together an updated
Emergency Operations Plan (EOP) that aligns
with current CDC COVID-19 standards.
To best prepare, schools should expect
that students, teachers or staff may become
sick with or been exposed to someone with
COVID-19. Every school should have a
response plan in place for providing a clear
procedure to follow when an individual tests
positive for the virus.
This plan should be developed in collaboration
with the guidelines set by state and
local public health departments. It’s important
that schools prioritize components of
these guidelines that address infectious disease
outbreaks and their consequences.
For more tools and resources that can be
used when reviewing and revising your
plans, make sure to visit The Readiness and
Emergency Management for Schools (REMS)
Technical Assistance Center.
Suggestions for EOPs
Emergency Operations Plans can be complex
documents, but in the case of an emergency, the effort spent creating, updating and clarifying
these plans can deliver an important
payoff – a rapid, coordinated response.
While reviewing and updating your EOP,
here are some tips that administrators have
found to be helpful:
- Develop a protocol for monitoring local
COVID-19 data in your community to
keep track of the level of community transmission
- Develop and test systems to be used when
sharing information with the school community
(ex: school-to-parent email or texting
protocols, periodic virtual meetings
with parents/teachers, etc.)
- Adopt defense strategies to promote healthy
behaviors that reduce the spread of
- Examine the accessibility of information
and resources to reduce the spread of
COVID-19 - are they relevant, in plain language,
and available in appropriate and
- Establish clear criteria for when the school
will suspend in-person learning to stop or
slow the spread of COVID-19 and when it
Enforce During Reopening
During the reopening process, students and
staff alike will have lots of questions, and will
be adjusting their previously familiar routines.
Here are some suggestions to maximize
the effectiveness of this phase.
Promote healthy behavior. To protect our
well-being and prevent schools from suspending
in-person learning, students and
teachers should always be practicing good
hygiene upon their return. Schools can help
with educational reinforcements as well as
stepped-up enforcement measures to help
everyone strengthen their healthy habits.
Encourage sick people to stay home.
Schools can take extra steps to educate both
staff and families about when they should
stay home and when it’s appropriate to return
to campus. Actively encourage staff and students
who are sick or who have been exposed
to someone with COVID-19 to stay home
and get tested. Reinforce that anyone who
has confirmed positive test results, symptoms
of COVID-19, or who has been in close
contact with someone who has it should stay
home and follow CDC recommendations.
Reinforce hand cleanliness and mask etiquette.
School districts are in a good position
to promote healthy practices. For example,
staff can reinforce instructions by asking
students to cover coughs and sneezes with a
tissue, rather than their hands or just not
covering up. Staff can also remind students
to wash their hands frequently, while being
good examples themselves. Every classroom
can also provide hand sanitizer (which contains
approximately 60-70% alcohol) as a
supplemental measure to disrupt transmission
between hand washings.
Enforce mask usage at all times. One
important recommendation from the CDC
regarding the current pandemic is to make
sure students, teachers, and staff are
consistently wearing masks that effectively
cover their nose and mouth. Clear masks are
available – or fabric masks with clear panels
over the mouth area – if they are needed to
help accommodate anyone with a hearing
deficiency that relies on lip reading to aid
understanding. Staff can improve mask
effectiveness by reminding students (and
other staff) to avoid touching their face
covering or mask as much as possible. And
as a backup measure, schools should have
extra disposable masks available – as almost
certainly they will sometimes be forgotten or
may fail in some way.
Display signs and messages. Posting signs
in highly-visible locations that promote
everyday protective measures and describe how to stop the spread of germs is a great way
to reinforce healthy practices. If there is a
regular system for making announcements,
such as through the school’s PA system or
through home room teachers, this system can
also be used to remind everyone on the simple
steps to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
Maintaining health after reopening. As
students and teachers do their part, it’s crucial
that school officials provide them with a
clean environment that meets the highest
standards. Tbese suggested changes are recommended
for administrators to follow so
they can further enhance the health and
safety of their students, staff and community.
Implement cleaning and disinfecting
policies. Clearly, it is critical that school districts
clean and disinfect frequently touched
surfaces within the school and on school
buses regularly. Many districts are developing
a routine schedule for increased cleaning
to be enforced for faculty members to follow.
Restrict sharing of objects. While
COVID-19 is known to spread when people
talk, cough, and sneeze, it is believed that
contaminated objects can also be a cause of
spread, as they are for other contagions. For
this reason, the use of shared objects should
be limited when possible, and in particular,
schools should discourage sharing items that
are difficult to clean. Many schools provide
separate storage areas for each student’s
belongings, either in the form of lockers or
cubbies, or in individually labeled containers.
Execute social distancing. CDC is continuing
to recommend social distancing as an
important factor to combat disease spread.
Schools can arrange classroom desks so they
are at least 6 feet apart and facing in the same
direction to minimize the chance of spread. In
areas where it is difficult for person to remain
at least 6 feet apart, districts may need to consider
installing physical barriers.
Improve ventilation systems. Current recommendations
make it clear that merely opening
a window will not be sufficient to ensure
indoor air quality. Districts will need to review
their HVAC systems to make sure the ventilation
systems are operating properly and are
providing acceptable indoor air quality.
Is your school district ready to reopen for inperson
learning? Do your schools have operational
strategies in place that will mitigate the risk
of COVID-19, and support safe and healthy practices?
We hope these suggestions will help guide
you into preparing an effective reopening plan
that adheres to the latest CDC guidelines.
This article originally appeared in the July / August 2021 issue of Campus Security & Life Safety.