NEWS | June 9, 2020

How schools might reopen safely amid coronavirus pandemic


School districts nationwide are discussing ways to safely reopen this fall during the COVID-19 pandemic. We asked Dean Blumberg, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at UC Davis Children’s Hospital, about some health and safety measures that K-12 schools should consider when navigating reopenings.

Classrooms will likely look very different during the coronavirus pandemic. Classrooms will likely look very different during the coronavirus pandemic.

Q: What do we currently know about the novel coronavirus, how COVID-19 is spread and how might that impact schools as they consider reopening?  

A: As of right now, we know that coronavirus transmission is primarily via the respiratory route – droplets -- that stay in the air for up to six feet. COVID-19 transmission via touching contaminated surfaces seems to be less important. The vast majority of the population is susceptible to COVID-19 since this is a novel virus with very little population immunity from past infection. In addition, there is currently no vaccine for the novel coronavirus.

Children who are infected generally have a mild disease, compared to adults. However, COVID-19 transmission can still come from symptomatic students, as well as those who are asymptomatic or presymptomatic, but still infectious.

Q: What are some basic principles that schools should adopt to safely reopen during COVID-19?

A: I would recommend that schools follow current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance, as well as state and local guidance and school district leadership. The CDC has recently released a flow chart to help provide some guidance on reopening amid the novel coronavirus.

Some common-sense approaches would be:

  • Stay home if you are sick.
  • Disinfect frequently touched surfaces (doorknobs, light switches, countertops).
  • Wear cloth face coverings, as feasible.
  • Promote hand hygiene. Cover your cough. Schedule routine handwashing.
  • And use social distancing.

Q: How should schools follow social distancing guidelines?

A: Some of the basics would be:

  • No large gatherings for events or sports (and that schools seek state and local guidance on what those limits look like).
  • No activities with close contact (P.E., choir, music).
  • Ensure spaces between desks (minimum of six feet), all facing the same direction.
  • Minimize interactions in common areas (e.g. eat lunch in the classroom rather than a lunchroom).
  • Reduce class sizes. This could be achieved by splitting classes into a.m. and p.m. groups, or by having students attend school on alternate days or weeks.
  • Stagger lunchtimes, recesses and breaks. Stagger arrival and dismissal times.
  • For children in junior high and high school who rotate to different rooms, classes of students could stay together in one classroom while teachers rotate to them.

Q: What else should school communities be prepared for?

A: Schools should be prepared for change based on community spread of coronavirus. Expect school dismissals if there is an upsurge in COVID-19 cases in the community, possibly for short periods of time, in addition to further restrictions. Also, be prepared for school employees to miss work when they’re sick, since adults with COVID-19 are more likely to have symotoms compared to children.

Other resources

COVID-19 Planning Considerations: Return to In-person Education in Schools

Childcare, Schools, and Youth Programs: Plan, Prepare and Respond

Cleaning and Disinfection for Community Facilities

AAP guidance on school reopening addresses physical and mental health, instructional time

EPA Disinfectants for Use Against SARS-CoV-2

Complex health considerations make reopening California schools a challenge