Navigating unprecedented change requires holistic thinking.

Here’s a look at what we’re doing—and why.

― A Response to Real Concerns

In April 2020, we surveyed schools in the U.S. and Canada to better understand their most pressing concerns. 

1 %
Do not have a school nurse on site every day.
1 %
Are concerned about social distancing when schools reopen.
1 %
Are concerned about providing social, emotional, or mental health support.
1 %
Are concerned about adequate cleaning and disinfecting.

Based on those survey responses, we knew schools needed holistic guidance for returning to the classroom.

The safety needs and considerations of schools are vast and nuanced. The strategies and resources we’ve compiled on this site provide a comprehensive approach for both the return to school and the continuation of school over the course of the academic year. Please note that this information should not replace federal, state, or local guidance, but instead help organize, understand, and implement steps needed for repopulation and ongoing operations of school buildings this fall. The conditions around this virus are likely to change frequently; for up-to-date guidance, please visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.   

Due to the biological and social challenges caused by this pandemic, this guidance aims to reduce COVID-19 transmission, support learning and teaching, and ensure the social and emotional well-being of the students.

― Our Conceptual Framework

This holistic, solutions-oriented approach promotes health and safety without compromising students’ learning potential.

We address the most critical issues affecting schools through three lenses: Educational Adaptation, Health Promotion, and Risk Mitigation

Risk Mitigation

It is essential to understand the transmission and survival of Sars-CoV-2 before we can mitigate risk in our K-12 facilities. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has developed a hierarchical framework for controlling exposures to workplace hazards that can be applied to COVID-19 in schools. The Hierarchy of Controls informs a national initiative called Prevention through Design (PtD), which we apply to the identification and organization of strategies in this road map. Schools will have to implement a combination of levels of control to limit exposures to COVID-19 at various scales (schoolwide, room-specific, and individual). 

The following levels of control decrease in effectiveness as schools try to keep occupants safe: 

Elimination means the risk of COVID-19 transmission in schools has been removed.  

Substitution provides an alternative environment with lower or no risk of COVID-19 transmission (e.g. virtual learning). 

Engineering Protocols are designed to remove COVID-19 particles before they come in contact with school occupants (e.g. air filtration).

Administrative Controls are relatively inexpensive to implement but require building occupants to carefully abide by these strategies (e.g. social distancing). 

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) keeps the individual safe as long as the PPE is worn properly (e.g. face masks and gloves) and not damaged.

Hierarchy of Controls

Kansas City, MO Survey Response 

“[We need] a fair and equitable plan that considers science and does not discriminate against older teachers.”

Educational Adaptation

Optimizing Flexibility

The ability to pivot—say, from one classroom space to another, or from one way of teaching and learning to another—is key to effective education. The Universal Design for Learning guidelines are useful because they improve and optimize the educational experience for all people, and are based on the science of how people learn. Other critical factors include limiting classroom disruption, promoting learning, and fostering community without socioeconomic barriers.

Reimagining the Classroom

Until we have adequate screening and a viable vaccine, classrooms must be reimagined to mitigate disease transmission. Examples include staggering class start times to reduce viral transmission in common spaces and corridors; prioritizing the return of younger students who require more in-person support; and strategic use of virtual learning platforms. Design adaptations may include repurposing other facilities within the school (gyms, auditoriums, cafeterias) for academic instruction.  

Adapting the Curriculum

Schools may even consider adapting the curriculum to cover the pandemic itself. If students are going to follow new rules, they should understand why. If educators who teach history, math, and English can provide opportunities to understand the significance of COVID (not to mention the science behind it), we may have better compliance from students who will better understand the need for reducing risk. 

Occupational Safety

Also, it’s not just about student safety, but occupational safety for teachers. One in five of U.S. educators is over 55 and therefore at a higher risk of severe symptoms from COVID-19. Surveying staff and faculty about work-from-home preferences, returning to work, and commuting (e.g. by personal vehicle or public transit) is necessary to accurately model new classroom capacity and alleviate faculty and staff concerns. Schools are not going to go back to pre-COVID-19 operations. Education adaptation will be necessary for continuity of learning and teaching under new restrictions. It will also increase schools’ resilience in the event of future challenges and closures.

Universal Design for Learning Framework

Affective Networks: The why of learning


For purposeful, motivated learners, stimulate interest and motivation for learning.

Recognition Networks: The what of learning


For resourceful, knowledgeable learners, present content and information in different ways.

Strategic Networks: The how of learning

Action and Expression

For strategic, goal-directed learners, differentiate the ways that students can express what they know.

Kansas City, MO Survey Response  

“I’m concerned about stresses facing families due to economic issues—[the] ability to acquire food, housing, and adequate medical care. Students must feel ‘safe’ and have their basic needs met or they will not be able to function well at school.”

Health Promotion

Beyond preventing COVID-19 transmission, we aim to support the holistic health of students, teachers, and staff. Using the “Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child” model from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), we identify a range of strategies to ensure optimal well-being for everyone in the school community. After all, schools are not just learning environments; they’re also work sites, community centers, food distribution hubs, and physical and psychological health service providers. With that said, school closures in the spring of 2020 may have transformed the way school buildings serve their population. Here are a few considerations:

Drinking Water: Water can stagnate and corrode pipes during long building closures. Lead and copper levels can increase with low water usage and result into irreversible corrosion. Mold and Legionella are microbial hazards after prolonged building closures.

Students: Economic instability is predicted to increase the number of students who are housing and food insecure. Increasing social services and access to basic facilities (showers, wash machines) may be necessary. 

Custodial and Facilities Staff: Budget cuts may have diminished the resources to clean the building effectively and thoroughly. Providing additional support (more staff, PPE, green cleaning) will help keep this essential population safe. 

― The Takeaway

Organizing the planned reopening of schools around these three key componentsrisk mitigation, educational adaptation, and health promotionwill help schools meet the challenges ahead. School reopening teams should include stakeholders who represent the school community, including parents, educators, school nurses, facilities directors, athletic coaches, and custodial staff. 

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The guidance provided on this site is based on the available information as of the date of publication and does not replace federal, state, or local public health recommendations but aggregates best practices and innovative solutions at the intersection of buildings and school health. We encourage schools to reach out and seek expert advice on their unique circumstances.