COVID-19 and schools

Disclaimer: At UPMC HealthBeat, we strive to provide the most up-to-date facts in our stories when we publish them. We also make updates to our content as information changes. However, education about COVID-19 can shift quickly based on new data, emerging variants, or other factors. The information in this story was accurate as of its publish date. We also encourage you to visit other reliable websites for updated information, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and your state and local governments. 

Updated November 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic led to a virtual ending of the 2019-20 school year.

With the disease spreading across the country, most schools stopped in-person classes and turned to a virtual learning model. In Pennsylvania, officials temporarily shut down in-person learning in March 2020, and the order became permanent in early April.

During the 2020-21 school year, many schools took different approaches. They offered in-person learning, virtual learning, or a combination of the two. They incorporated safeguards to lower the risk of COVID-19 spread.

On March 19, 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated its guidelines for safe operation in K-12 schools. The new CDC guidelines include recommendations for physical distancing, mask-wearing, and more.

COVID-19 Risk in Schools

According to available evidence, COVID-19 appears to affect children less severely than adults. The numbers of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are low in children.

However, adult teachers and staff are at a greater risk of infection than students.

Teachers and staff who are in high-risk groups (such as older adults, people with underlying health conditions, or people who are immunocompromised) may be especially vulnerable.

Also, when children are infected, they are often asymptomatic. They could unknowingly spread COVID-19 to teachers, staff, and their own family members after returning home from school.

However, by following prevention protocols like mask-wearing, distancing, and handwashing, schools can limit the risk of COVID-19 spread. A March 2021 pilot study conducted by the CDC, Washington University (Mo.), and Saint Louis University found school transmission of COVID-19 is rare if schools follow protocols like masking, social distancing, and contact tracing.

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How Can Parents Prepare Their Children for School Amid COVID-19?

School districts across Pennsylvania are implementing back-to-school plans that aim to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spread. Parents should review the plans for their children’s schools.

Parents also can talk to their children as they prepare for returning to school about what might be different.

“This has been a stressful time for everyone — kids, too,” says Megan Freeman, MD, senior fellow, Pediatric Infectious Diseases at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. “And even if they might be going back to school, it’s going to look and feel differently than normal. It’s important to talk through what’s happening. Get some masks that appeal to the child, if possible. Answer their questions about getting sick or staying safe.”

According to Dr. Freeman, the top safety tips for children to know include:

Wearing a mask over their nose and mouth to keep their friends safe from infection.

Washing their hands for 20 seconds with soap and water, or using alcohol hand gel, before eating or touching their mask or face.

Maintaining appropriate physical distance from other students, teachers, and adults, as defined by CDC, state, and local recommendations.

While children may generally be at lower risk for severe illness, children with underlying health conditions may have more risk. Dr. Freeman says if your child has an underlying condition, you should talk to your child’s pediatrician.

“If schools are implementing maximal distancing practices, it still may be reasonable for this child to go to school,” Dr. Freeman says. “We have not seen that children with pre-existing conditions fare much worse than other children with COVID, but each family will have to weigh the risks and benefits of sending that child to school.”

Dr. Freeman says if your children are worried, you should emphasize to them that you and their teachers are taking every step to keep them safe.

“It’s important for everyone to remember that all of us humans weigh risks in our normal life every day,” says John Williams, MD, chief, Pediatric Infectious Diseases at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.

“We drive in cars, we go to school, we travel, we go out into the world. Going to school during a pandemic is no different. People need to do their best to make smart choices they are comfortable with and do what they can to reduce risk.”

How Can Schools Limit COVID-19 Risk?

The state of Pennsylvania has released guidance for K-12 schools reopening amid COVID-19.

The guidelines are set by the state and are aimed at limiting the risk of COVID-19 spread to students, teachers, staff, and the greater community. They cover areas such as social distancing, face coverings, hand hygiene, and cleaning and sanitizing.

While guidelines are intended at lowering the risk of COVID-19 spread in schools, the risk cannot be entirely eliminated. Also, the guidelines may continue to evolve as knowledge about COVID-19 increases.

“The biggest challenges for schools will be to strike a balance between maintaining physical distancing while also having the space to accommodate,” Dr. Freeman says. “They will also need to be highly adaptable and responsive to new data in case the risk level in the area or exposures at their school change.”

Social distancing in schools

Schools should aim to follow social distancing protocols and avoid large congregations of people whenever possible.

The CDC updated its social distancing recommendations for schools on March 19, 2021. The updated guidelines include:

  • Elementary school students should keep at least 3 feet of distance from other students.
  • Middle school and high school students should keep at least 3 feet of distance from other students in communities with low or moderate COVID-19 transmission and at least 6 feet of distance from other students in communities with high COVID-19 transmission.
  • Adults (i.e. teachers and staff) should keep at least 6 feet of physical distance from each other, and from students.
  • Students should keep at least 6 feet of distance from each other when masks can’t be worn (i.e., during meals), during activities with increased exhalation (i.e. singing or exercise), and in common areas like lobbies or auditoriums.

There are many ways schools can provide for appropriate social distancing. Those include:

  • Staggering arrival and departure times and class starting and ending times.
  • Marking appropriate distance between desks, cafeteria seating, and other seating areas.
  • Using one-way walking patterns in hallways.
  • Limiting the number of people in common areas like playgrounds, hallways, gymnasiums, classrooms, cafeterias, and buses.
  • Using large spaces where social distance can be maintained (gymnasiums, auditoriums, outdoors, etc.) to hold classes.
  • Holding classes, extracurricular activities, staff meetings, and teacher/parent conferences virtually, if possible.
  • Avoiding large gatherings. Consider having meals in classrooms. If meals are held in a cafeteria, students should sit 6 feet apart.
  • Serving individually packaged meals and avoiding buffet-style or family-style meals. Students should not share food.

Dr. Freeman says it may be difficult to maintain consistent social distance, but there are ways for schools to try.

“Especially for younger kids, we’ve got to be able to keep it fun,” Dr. Freeman says. “Think about low-risk games to play at recess that involve distance and minimal shared objects. Mark the hallways with colorful tape and direct one-way traffic.”

Dr. Freeman recommends that schools use the outdoors for learning when possible and consider shifts or alternative virtual/in-person days in some cases.

Schools will also need to be understanding of teachers, students, and staff who may be ill and need to stay home. This includes virtual participation options when students may be awaiting a COVID-19 test result but are well enough to take part in their classes.

Facemasks for students and teachers

Students and staff must wear cloth face coverings at school and on the bus, as required by the state of Pennsylvania. Students and staff can remove their masks in order to eat.

Because the coronavirus spreads through respiratory droplets, facemasks can limit the risk of COVID-19 spread. They protect both the wearer and people around them.

COVID-19 screening in schools

Teachers, staff, and students should screen themselves for COVID-19 symptoms before leaving for school. Parents or caregivers can screen students, too.

Anyone with a temperature of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, or anyone with symptoms of COVID-19, should not come to school.

Hand hygiene

To prevent COVID-19 spread, schools should promote frequent handwashing with soap and water or with hand sanitizer.

Proper handwashing techniques should be emphasized. People should use soap and water and scrub for at least 20 seconds before rinsing.

Hand sanitizer should be readily available in the school, including common areas like hallways and classrooms. The hand sanitizer should contain at least 60 percent alcohol.

“Mask, hand hygiene, and distance are key and need to become habit,” Dr. Williams says. “We should teach this in school just like we teach stop, drop, and roll.”

Cleaning and sanitizing

Schools should frequently clean and disinfect areas and surfaces that are frequently used and frequently touched. This includes door handles, sink handles, drinking fountains, classroom equipment, and playground equipment.

Buses should be cleaned and disinfected after each run.

Bathrooms should be cleaned and disinfected frequently.

Spaces should be cleaned and sanitized after each use by a different group of students.

Equipment such as computers should be shared as little as possible. If equipment is shared, it should be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected between each use. Students should wash their hands or use hand sanitizer before and after using equipment.

Improving ventilation

Schools also should improve ventilation as much as possible, according to the CDC.

Increasing the circulation of outdoor air and the delivery of clean air can reduce the risk of COVID-19 spread. Schools can do this

  • Opening windows in classrooms, in common areas, and on buses
  • Using exhaust fans in restrooms and kitchens
  • Ensuring that heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems are maximizing ventilation
  • Holding classes and activities outdoors, if possible

COVID-19 Vaccines and Schools

Three COVID-19 vaccines are currently being distributed in the United States. Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson/Janssen (J&J) developed the vaccines.

All Americans 5 and older are currently eligible for the Pfizer vaccine. The Moderna and J&J vaccines are authorized only for Americans 18 and older. Vaccine eligibility may continue to expand for children in the coming months.

On March 3, 2021, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf announced a plan to use the single-dose J&J vaccine for teachers, administrators, bus drivers, and other school staff.

What Happens If Someone Gets Sick in School Amid COVID-19?

Students and staff should be monitored for possible COVID-19 symptoms throughout the day.

Schools should identify an area in the facility where people can be taken to isolate if they begin to show COVID-19 symptoms.

If anyone begins to show symptoms of COVID-19 during the day, that person should be taken to the isolation area until he or she can leave. The school should contact the parents or guardians of students who begin to show symptoms.

If a student or staff member tests positive for COVID-19, the Pennsylvania Department of Health or a local health department will contact the school. Health officials will help the school with risk assessment, including ways to limit potential spread of COVID-19 after a positive test. That may include recommendations for isolation, quarantine, and facility sanitizing.

For more information on recommendations for schools, visit the Pennsylvania Department of Health. For more information on COVID-19, visit

About Pediatrics

From nutrition to illnesses, from athletics to school, children will face many challenges growing up. Parents often will make important health care decisions for them. We hope to help guide both of you in that journey. UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh is a national leader in pediatric care, ranking consistently on U.S. News & World Report’s Best Children’s Hospitals Honor Roll. We provide expert treatment for pediatric diseases, along well-child visits, urgent care, and more. With locations across Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia, you can find world-class care close to home. We also work closely with UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital, a national leader in care for newborns and their mothers. Our goal is to provide the best care for your children, from birth to adulthood and beyond. Visit our website to find a doctor near you.