The CDC Updates Social Distancing Guidelines
Revised physical distancing recommendations to reflect at least 3 feet between students in classrooms and provide clearer guidance when a greater distance (such as 6 feet) is recommended.
Clarified that ventilation is a component of strategies to clean and maintain healthy facilities.
Removed recommendation for physical barriers.
Clarified the role of community transmission levels in decision-making.
- Added guidance on interventions when clusters occur.
Essential Elements of Safe K–12 School Operations for In-Person Learning
Schools are an important part of the infrastructure of communities, as they provide safe and supportive learning environments for students, employ teachers and other staff, and enable parents, guardians, and caregivers to work. Many students, staff, and caregivers are either missing or have had interruptions in services due to school building closures and virtual and hybrid learning. Evidence suggests that many K–12 schools that have strictly implemented prevention strategies have been able to safely open for in-person instruction and remain open.1
CDC’s Science Brief on Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in K–12 Schools summarizes evidence on COVID-19 among children and adolescents and what is known about preventing transmission in schools.
CDC has developed guidance for prevention strategies that K–12 school administrators can use to help protect students, teachers, and staff, and slow the spread of COVID-19. If prevention strategies are strictly adhered to, K–12 schools can safely open for in-person instruction and remain open.1 This document provides an operational strategy for safe delivery of in-person instruction in K–12 schools through the integration of a package of prevention and control components:
- Consistent implementation of layered prevention strategies to reduce SARS-CoV-2 transmission in schools
- Consideration of indicators of community transmission to reflect levels of community risk
- Phased prevention strategies based on levels of community transmission
The following public health efforts provide additional layers of COVID-19 protection in schools:
- Testing to identify individuals with a SARS-CoV-2 infection to limit transmission and outbreaks
- Vaccination for teachers and staff as soon as possible
Health Equity Considerations
Long-standing systemic health and social inequities have put many racial and ethnic minority groups at increased risk of getting sick and dying from COVID-19. People who identify as American Indian/Alaska Native, Black, and Hispanic are disproportionately affected by COVID-19; these disparities have also emerged among children.1 The absence of in-person educational options might disadvantage children from all backgrounds, particularly children in low-resourced communities who might be at an educational disadvantage. These students might be less likely to have access to technology to facilitate virtual learning and more likely to rely on key school-supported resources such as school meal programs, special education and related services, counseling, and after-school programs. Some parents and caregivers might have less-flexible jobs that do not permit staying at home to provide childcare and aid with virtual learning if schools are closed to in-person instruction. On the other hand, certain racial and ethnic groups have borne a disproportionate burden of illness and serious outcomes from COVID-19. These health disparities are evident even among school-aged children,1 suggesting that in-person instruction might pose a greater risk of COVID-19 to disproportionately affected populations. For these reasons, health equity considerations related to in-person instruction are an integral part of this complex decision-making. To enable in-person learning in schools that serve racial and ethnic groups disproportionately affected by COVID-19, school administrators and public health officials can work together to help schools plan and implement comprehensive prevention strategies, engage community partners, and assist with referrals to medical care. It is important that these schools have the resources and technical assistance needed to adopt and diligently implement actions to slow the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19 among people inside the school and out in the community. Schools play a critical role in promoting equity in education and health for groups disproportionately affected by COVID-19.
Engagement with educators, families, and the school community
A successful and equitable school reopening strategy requires engaging the entire school community to establish a safe environment for all educators, school staff, and students and promote trust and confidence. School reopening planning should include:
- Student and parent representatives
- Specialized instructional support personnel (such as school counselors, school social workers, school psychologists, and nurses)
- Facilities managers and custodial staff
- Transportation personnel, school nutrition professionals, and family services representatives.
Consistent with health equity considerations, schools and school districts should conduct active and specific outreach to underserved families – including parents/guardians of students of color, students from low-income backgrounds, students with disabilities, English learners, students experiencing homelessness, and students in foster care. This communication should be conducted in families’ home languages or mode of communication and in alternate formats as needed to facilitate effective communication for individuals with disabilities and, where appropriate, in partnership with trusted community-based organizations.
Prevention Strategies to Reduce Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in Schools
Regardless of the level of community transmission, it is critical that schools use and layer prevention strategies. Five key prevention strategies are essential to safe delivery of in-person instruction and help to prevent COVID-19 transmission in schools:
- Universal and correct use of masks
- Physical distancing
- Handwashing and respiratory etiquette
- Cleaning and maintaining healthy facilities
- Contact tracing in combination with isolation and quarantine
Schools providing in-person instruction should prioritize two prevention strategies:
- Universal and correct use of masks should be required
- Physical distancing should be maximized to the greatest extent possible.
All prevention strategies provide some level of protection, and layered strategies implemented at the same time provide the greatest level of protection. Schools should adopt prevention strategies to the largest extent practical—a layered approach is essential.
Health equity considerations in prevention strategies
- Federal and state disability laws, to the extent applicable, require an individualized approach for students with disabilities consistent with the student’s IEP or Section 504 plan. Educators and school leaders must remain aware of their obligations under federal and state disability laws and should also consider adaptations and alternatives to prevention strategies, while maintaining efforts to protect students, teachers, and staff from COVID-19.
- CDC’s K–12 Schools COVID-19 Prevention Toolkitpdf icon includes resources, tools, and checklists to help school administrators and school officials prepare schools to open for in-person instruction and to manage ongoing operations. These tools and resources include considerations for addressing health equity, such as class sizes, internet connectivity, access to public transportation, etc.
Universal and correct use of masks
Core principle for masks: Require consistent and correct use of well-fitting face masks with proper filtration by all students, teachers, and staff to prevent SARS-CoV-2 transmission through respiratory droplets. Masks should be worn at all times, by all people in school facilities, with certain exceptions for certain people, or for certain settings or activities, such as while eating or drinking. Masks should be required in all classroom and non-classroom settings, including hallways, school offices, restrooms, gyms, auditoriums, etc.
- Mask policies for all students, teachers, and staff set the expectation that people will use masks throughout the school.
- The most effective fabrics for cloth masks are tightly woven, such as cotton and cotton blends, breathable, and in two or three fabric layers. Masks with exhalation valves or vents, those that use loosely woven fabrics, and those that do not fit properly are not recommended.
- Most students, including those with disabilities, can tolerate and safely wear a mask. However, a narrow subset of students with disabilities might not be able to wear a mask or cannot safely wear a mask. Those who cannot safely wear a mask—for example, a person with a disability who, for reasons related to the disability, would be physically unable to remove a mask without assistance if breathing becomes obstructed—should not be required to wear one. For the remaining portion of the subset, schools should make individualized determinations as required by Federal disability laws in order to determine if an exception to the mask requirement is necessary and appropriate for a particular student. If a child with a disability cannot wear a mask, maintain physical distance, or adhere to other public health requirements, the student is still entitled to an appropriate education, which in some circumstances may need to be provided virtually.
- Mask use should be required on school buses and other public transportation; school systems should take appropriate steps to ensure compliance with this requirement by students, staff, and others.
- If visitors are permitted in school, they should be required to wear masks at all times and should maintain physical distance from others.
- Schools should encourage modeling of correct and consistent mask use by school leaders, local leaders, and others respected in the community.
Core principle for physical distancing: Establish school policies and implement structural interventions to promote physical distance between people.
- Between students in classrooms
- In elementary schools, students should be at least 3 feet apart.1
- In middle schools and high schools, students should be at least 3 feet apart in areas of low, moderate, or substantial community transmission. In areas of high community transmission, middle and high school students should be 6 feet apart if cohorting is not possible.1,2, 4-6
- Maintain 6 feet of distance in the following settings:
- Between adults (teachers and staff), and between adults and students, at all times in the school building. Several studies have found that transmission between staff is more common than transmission between students and staff, and among students, in schools.1
- When masks cannot be worn, such as when eating.
- During activities when increased exhalation occurs, such as singing, shouting, band, or sports and exercise. Move these activities outdoors or to large, well-ventilated space, when possible.
- In common areas such as school lobbies and auditoriums.
- Use cohorting, and maintain 6 feet of distance between cohorts where possible. Limit contact between cohorts. In areas of substantial (orange) and high (red) levels of community transmission, schools that use less than 6 feet between students in classrooms, cohorting is recommended, with at least 6 feet maintained between cohorts.
- Remove nonessential furniture and make other changes to classroom layouts to maximize distance between students.
- Face desks in the same direction, where possible.
- Eliminate or decrease nonessential in-person interactions among teachers and staff during meetings, lunches, and other situations that could lead to adult-to-adult transmission.
- Visitors: Limit any nonessential visitors, volunteers, and activities involving external groups or organizations as much as possible—especially with people who are not from the local geographic area (for example, not from the same community, town, city, county). Require all visitors to wear masks and physically distance from others.
- Transportation: Create distance between children on school buses (for example, seat children one child per row, skip rows), when possible. Masks are required by federal order on school buses and other forms of public transportation in the United States. Open windows to improve ventilation when it does not create a safety hazard. More information about school transportation and prevention is available.
Additional suggestions for physical distancing:
- Staggered scheduling: Stagger school arrival and drop-off times or locations by cohort, or put in place other protocols to limit contact between cohorts, as well as direct contact with parents.
- Alternate schedules with fixed cohorts of students and staff to decrease class size and promote physical distancing.
Handwashing and respiratory etiquette
Core principle for handwashing and respiratory etiquette: Through ongoing health education units and lessons, teach children proper handwashing and reinforce behaviors, and provide adequate supplies. Ensure that teachers and staff use proper handwashing and respiratory etiquette.
- Teach and reinforce handwashing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds and increase monitoring to ensure adherence among students, teachers, and staff. If handwashing is not possible, hand sanitizer containing at least 60% alcohol should be used.
- Encourage students and staff to cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue when not wearing a mask and immediately wash their hands after blowing their nose, coughing, or sneezing.
- Some students with disabilities might need assistance with handwashing and respiratory etiquette behaviors.
- Adequate supplies: Support healthy hygiene behaviors by providing adequate supplies, including soap, a way to dry hands, tissues, face masks (as feasible), and no-touch/foot-pedal trash cans. If soap and water are not readily available, schools can provide alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol (for staff and older children who can safely use hand sanitizer).
Cleaning and maintaining healthy facilities
Core principle for cleaning and maintaining healthy facilities: Make changes to physical spaces to maintain a healthy environment and facilities, including improving ventilation. Routinely and consistently clean high-touch surfaces (such as doorknobs and light switches).
- Ventilation: Improve ventilation to the extent possible to increase circulation of outdoor air, increase the delivery of clean air, and dilute potential contaminants. This can be achieved through several actions.
- Bring in as much outdoor air as possible.
- Ensure Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning (HVAC) settings are maximizing ventilation.
- Filter and/or clean the air in the school by improving the level of filtration as much as possible.
- Use exhaust fans in restrooms and kitchens.
- Open windows in buses and other transportation, if doing so does not pose a safety risk. Even just cracking windows open a few inches improves air circulation.
- Modified layouts: Adjust physical layouts in classrooms and other settings to maximize physical space, such as by turning desks to face in the same direction.
- Cleaning: Regularly clean frequently touched surfaces (for example, playground equipment, door handles, sink handles, toilets, drinking fountains) within the school and on school buses at least daily or between use as much as possible.
- Communal spaces: Close communal use of shared spaces, such as cafeterias, if possible; otherwise, stagger use and clean between use. Consider use of larger spaces such as cafeterias, libraries, gyms for academic instruction, to maximize physical distancing.
- Food service: Avoid offering any self-serve food or drink options such as hot and cold food bars, salad or condiment bars, and drink stations.
- Shared objects: Discourage sharing items, particularly those that are difficult to clean.
- Water systems: Take steps to ensure that all water systems and features (for example, sink faucets, decorative fountains) are safe to use after a prolonged facility shutdown.
Contact tracing in combination with isolation and quarantine
Core principle for contact tracing: Schools should collaborate with the health department, to the extent allowable by privacy laws and other applicable laws, to confidentially provide information about people diagnosed with or exposed to COVID-19. Students, teachers, and staff with positive test results should isolate, and close contacts should quarantine. Schools should report positive cases to the health department as soon as they are informed. School officials should notify families of close contacts as soon as possible after they are notified that someone in the school has tested positive (within the same school day).
- Staying home when appropriate: Educate teachers, staff and families about when they and their children should stay home and when they can return to school. Students, teachers, and staff who have symptoms should stay home and be referred to their healthcare provider for testing and care. Schools may need to consider flexible sick leave policies and practices that enable teachers and staff to stay home when they are sick, have been exposed, or are caring for someone who is sick. School systems should recruit and train sufficient substitute educators to ensure that teachers can stay home when they are sick or have been exposed to someone who is confirmed or suspected of having COVID-19.
- Isolation should be used to separate people diagnosed with COVID-19 from those who are not infected. Students, teachers, and staff who are in isolation should stay home and follow the direction of the local public health authority about when it is safe for them to be around others.
- Case investigation and contact tracing: Schools should work with the local health department to facilitate, to the extent allowable by applicable laws,systematic case investigation and contact tracing of infected students, teachers, and staff, and consistent isolation of cases and quarantine of close contacts. Schools can prepare and provide information and records to aid in the identification of potential contacts and exposure sites, consistent with applicable laws, including those related to privacy and confidentiality. Collaboration between the health department and K-12 school administration to obtain contact information of other individuals in shared rooms, class schedules, shared meals, or extracurricular activities will expedite contact tracing. For schools to remain open, health departments should ensure they have enough contact tracers to complete case investigation and notify contacts within 48 hours of a positive test result. Prompt identification, quarantine, and monitoring of those contacts exposed to SARS-CoV-2 can effectively break the chain of transmission and prevent further spread of the virus.
- The definition of a close contact is someone who was within 6 feet of a person diagnosed with COVID-19 for a total of 15 minutes or more over a 24 hour period. The definition of a close contact applies regardless of whether either person was wearing a mask.
- For schools that use less than 6 feet between students in classrooms, the definition of close contacts should not change. Students sitting less than 6 feet next to another student or person diagnosed with COVID-19 for a total of 15 minutes or more should quarantine at home and be referred for testing.
- Quarantine should be used for students, teachers, and staff who might have been exposed to COVID-19. Close contacts, identified through contact tracing, should quarantine unless they are fully vaccinated, or have tested positive in the last 3 months, and do not have any symptoms. Students, teachers, and staff who are in quarantine should stay home and follow the direction of the local public health department about when it is safe for them to be around others. If a child with a disability is required to quarantine, the school is required to provide services consistent with federal disability laws.