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, and the order became permanent in early April.

With states beginning to reopen and the 2020-21 school year looming, many schools are preparing to reopen, too. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and state officials are releasing guidelines about how schools can limit the risk of COVID-19 spread.

Here’s what we know about the risks of COVID-19 in schools, and what schools can do to operate as safely as possible.

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COVID-19 Risk in Schools: Keeping Kids Safe

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.

RELATED: Is It Safe to Send My Child to Daycare?

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.
  • Staying 6 feet apart from people who don’t live with them.

While children in general may be at lower risk for severe illness, children with underlying health conditions may be at risk. Dr. Freeman says if your child has an underlying condition, you should take 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.”

RELATED: How Does COVID-19 Affect Kids?

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, allowing for at least 6 feet of space between people in the building and avoiding large congregations of people when possible. This includes:

  • Staggering arrival and departure times and class starting and ending times.
  • Marking off 6 feet of 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. I’ve heard of schools putting 6-foot-long dinosaurs on the walls and staying one dino apart.”

RELATED: How to Talk to Children About COVID-19

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, including virtual participation options when students may be awaiting a COVID-19 test result but are well enough to take part in class.

Facemasks for students

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 primarily through respiratory droplets, facemasks can limit the risk of COVID-19 spread.

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.

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

Also, students or staff who have been in close contact with someone with COVID-19 — such as someone in their home — should stay home until cleared.

Hand hygiene

COVID-19 can spread if someone touches an infected surface and then touches their eyes, nose, or mouth without washing their hands. 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, including 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.

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 UPMC.com/COVID19.

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 ranks No. 8 on U.S. News & World Report’s Best Children’s Hospitals Honor Roll. All 10 of our specialties rank nationally. UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital is a longtime national leader for women and their newborns. We aim to provide the best care for your children, from birth to adulthood and beyond.