Strategies for Protecting K-12 School Staff from COVID-19
Circulated: May 18, 2021
The information in this discussion provides an expanded focus on the health and safety of K-12 school staff. These strategies also provide workplace safety and health information for administrators related to protecting teachers, substitute teachers, paraprofessionals, janitorial/maintenance staff, office staff, school nutrition staff, school nurses/health professionals, school bus drivers, and bus aides, coaching staff, and athletic trainers, and music, choir, and performing arts teachers. This list is not exhaustive and addresses only some of the many jobs in schools.
These strategies are meant to supplement and not replace previous guidelines for Operating schools during COVID-19: CDC’s Considerations, and any federal, state, local, territorial, or tribal health and safety laws, rules, and regulations with which schools must comply. It is important to keep in mind that these strategies apply whether staff and students have returned to in-person learning, the staff is assigned to work in school buildings to support virtual learning, or the school implements hybrid models (combined in-person and virtual instruction). Certain aspects of these strategies apply to non-school buildings operated by K-12 school systems (e.g., office workers in district administration buildings, transportation hubs, and maintenance shops).
Who is this information for?
These strategies are intended for K-12 school administrators preparing for school programs for staff and students during the COVID-19 pandemic. Administrators oversee the daily operations of K-12 schools. These strategies are also intended for other groups, including school district superintendents, school principals, and assistant principals, who share responsibilities for safely operating school buildings. Finally, this information may also be useful to boards of education, state and local policymakers, unions/labor groups, school employees, including teachers, paraprofessionals, other support staff, and parents, families, and students.
All K-12 school workplaces developing plans to continue operations while COVID-19 outbreaks occur among teachers, staff, and students, or in the surrounding community, should:
- Work directly with appropriate state, tribal, local, and territorial public health officials and occupational safety and health professionals;
- Incorporate relevant aspects of CDC guidance, including, but not limited to, CDC’s Schools and Childcare Programs: Plan, Prepare, and Respond and Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers;
- Incorporate guidance from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and other federal and state regulatory agencies, as needed; and
- Communicate regularly with families, staff, and other partners about important COVID-19 information.
Guiding Principles to Keep in Mind
The risk for COVID-19 spread rises with increased close contact with others. The more people who teachers and staff interact with, and the longer those interactions last, the higher the risk of COVID-19 spread. While not exhaustive, Operating schools during COVID-19: CDC’s Considerations provides a stratification that attempts to characterize the risks of spread among students, teachers, and staff across this continuum.
Exposure Risk among K-12 Staff
The risk of occupational spread of COVID-19 depends on several factors. Some of these factors are described in the joint publication by the U.S. Department of Labor and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services titled OSHA Guidance on Mitigating and Preventing the Spread of COVID-19 in the Workplace. Distinctive factors that affect risk for exposure to COVID-19 for teachers and staff in school settings include:
- Distance between staff and others: In addition to their primary job functions and interaction with students, school staff may also be near (within 6 feet) one another at times, such as when arriving at school and during breaks. Shared spaces (e.g., break rooms, entrances/exits, restrooms) and shared transportation to and from the school (e.g., personal or public transportation, carpooling, ride-sharing) may increase their risk. These can be mitigated or minimized with good practices.
- Duration of contact: Extended contact with potentially infectious individuals increases the risk of COVID-19 spread.
- Type of contact: Current evidence indicates that COVID-19 spreads primarily through respiratory droplets and short-range aerosols produced when an infected person coughs sneezes, or talks in close proximity to other people. At this time, the long-range airborne transmission does not appear to be a primary way COVID-19 spreads. There is not yet clear evidence that ventilation systems spread the virus from space to space causing exposures. Studies indicate that people who are not showing symptoms (i.e., asymptomatic) can still spread the virus. COVID-19 exposure may also occur from touching one’s mouth, nose, or possibly eyes after contact with contaminated surfaces or objects, such as office equipment, workstations, or break room tables.
More information on what is known about the signs and symptoms, burden, and transmission of SARS-CoV-2 among children can be found in Preparing K-12 School Administrators for a Safe Return to School in Fall 2020.
Persons at Higher Risk for Illness
Staff at increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19 include older adults and people of any age with certain underlying medical conditions. Policies and procedures addressing issues related to teachers and other staff at higher risk of serious illness should be made in consultation with occupational medicine and human resource professionals, keeping in mind Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) concerns.
Create a COVID-19 Hazard Assessment Plan
Every school should have a plan in place to protect staff, children, and their families from the spread of COVID-19, and a response plan in place for if/when a student, teacher, or staff member tests positive for COVID-19. For information on developing and implementing an Emergency Operations Plan (EOP), please refer to the Operating schools during COVID-19: CDC’s Considerations website.
An important part of a school’s EOP is to develop a plan for conducting initial and periodic hazard assessments of the school to identify COVID-19 risks, prevention strategies (e.g., engineering and administrative controls and personal protective equipment (PPE)), and to identify new or recurring hazards.
To create a hazard assessment plan:
- Refer to the OSHA website to learn more about how to develop a hazard assessment plan.
- Engage with staff across the full range of jobs associated with schools (e.g., classroom instructors, school healthcare professionals, school nutrition staff, custodial staff, office staff, and others) to learn the specific hazards and exposures associated with each position.
- Create small working groups or teams that can assess group-specific hazards and report back to the larger assessment team.
- Assemble health and safety working groups with employee and management representatives, from both the district and school levels, to assist with developing, implementing, and evaluating a health and safety plan and adjusting accordingly.
- Work closely with occupational health and safety and/or occupational medical professionals, when possible.
- Include representatives of authorized unions, if applicable.
- Conduct a thorough hazard assessment to determine if workplace hazards are present, or are likely to be present, and determine what type of controls or PPE are needed for specific job duties. For more information on conducting a hazard assessment, please refer to the Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers Responding to Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)
- Collect information regularly through a variety of channels (e.g., email, electronic surveys, virtual meetings, focus groups) to reach a wider cross-section of staff, and elicit deeper, more informative responses.
See the OSHA COVID-19 webpage for more information on how to protect workers from potential COVID-19 exposures. Guidance may also be available from state, local, or professional technical organizations. For example, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) has published the Reopening Guide for Schools and Universities [PDF] which includes useful plans and checklists to prepare buildings for occupancy and check on equipment and systems, as well as maintenance plans and checks during the academic year.