This document is for education providers and administrators of school grades Kindergarten to Grade 12 (K-12). It provides an overview of recommended control measures to help reduce the risk of COVID-19 spread in schools. It can also help workers (i.e., all faculty, staff, and volunteers), students, parents/guardians, visitors, and others to understand how to protect themselves and others from the spread of COVID-19 when at the school.
Understand that risk levels, recommendations, and measures may change or vary depending on local circumstances (e.g., local COVID-19 epidemiology, low vaccine coverage in the school and surrounding community), as well as the students age and their abilities. In some circumstances, regional/local PHAs may recommend, or schools may choose to implement core and additional Public Health Measures (PHMs) when the local community or school are at higher risk for COVID-19 spread. For more detailed guidance, refer to PHAC Adjusting public health measures in the context of COVID-19 vaccination.
Consider the Risks
Each workplace is unique. Schools need to perform a COVID-19 risk assessment for their specific workplace, student population, job roles, activities (routine tasks and in-person interactions), and local circumstances. Involve the workplace health and safety committee or representative, OHS coordinator or manager, and union (if applicable) in the risk assessment process.
Close proximity (less than 2 metres) and interactions with people from outside of the immediate household, including close-range conversations.
Direct contact (e.g., shaking hands, hugging, kissing).
Longer and more frequent in-person interactions.
Crowded places and large gatherings, both indoors and outdoors.
Generation of respiratory droplets and aerosols (e.g., when speaking, coughing, sneezing, singing, shouting, and during strenuous activities such as exercise).
Poor ventilation in closed spaces (e.g., accumulation of virus particles in the air).
Inadequate personal hygiene practices or facilities.
Contaminated high-touch surfaces and shared objects (fomites).
Use of shared or public transportation (e.g., buses, etc.)
High levels of COVID-19 cases in the local community.
Low levels of COVID-19 vaccination in the school and/or local community.
Inter-regional travel, including from areas with COVID-19 Variants of Concern (VOCs).
Risk of transmission increases further when several of these risk factors occur at the same time.
Here are example questions that can be asked to help you identify COVID-19 risk factors and appropriate control measures for your workplace:
What are the main work and learning areas, job roles, and routine activities?
Where and when do people interact with each other in the setting?
How close are the interactions? Are there tasks where persons must be close? (i.e., note when and where physical distancing is not possible)
How often and how long are the in-person interactions and activities?
How crowded is the workplace?
What transportation methods are being used by workers and students?
Do school activities include day trips or outings?
Do activities involve intense physical effort with increased or forceful breathing, and/or loud verbal instructions and music (shouting, yelling, singing)?
Do staff and students mostly stay in one classroom, or do they move throughout the indoor school facilities and outdoor grounds during the day?
Are people from one geographical region, or from several (e.g., inter-regional and international staff and students)?
Are buildings ventilated passively (by opening windows and doors) or mechanically (by ventilation systems)? Is indoor ventilation sufficient?
Is there easy access to personal hygiene facilities and supplies (e.g., running water, soap, paper towels, and hand sanitizer)?
How are equipment, tools, and learning materials used? Are they shared between people?
How often and by which method are surfaces and objects cleaned and disinfected? How effective are the disinfectant products against coronaviruses? What are the potential chemical hazards to workers, students, and the environment?
Do people have the knowledge and resources they need to protect themselves and others against COVID-19?
Could language barriers, comprehension level, or disability impact the ability of people to understand the risks and follow the control measures?
Are there personal factors that could make control measures more difficult to implement and follow (e.g., based on their health, physical ability, age and maturity, or other socio-economic and demographic circumstances)? Is additional supervision required?
Are you able to assess if a person may be sick or have been exposed to COVID-19, and rapidly take appropriate actions?
Are sick leave policies and the business continuity plan adequate to support isolation and quarantine of workers?
Are there flexible attendance policies and alternative methods to attend classes (e.g., online/remote learning)?
When the risks of COVID-19 spread have been identified and evaluated, the school can implement multiple COVID-19 control measures in a layered approach, including individual and community-based PHMs. The occupational health and safety hierarchy of controls (i.e., elimination, substitution, engineering, administrative, and personal protective equipment) can be used as a tool to evaluate how effective a control will be, from most to least effective. No single control measure is completely effective on its own, so it is important to layer several at the same time.
A workplace COVID-19 safety plan documents the control measures put in place to protect workers and students from the COVID-19 transmission risks. A written plan may be required to be posted and available upon request from PHA and OHS regulatory inspectors. Reach out to your regional/local authorities for details on what must be included in the plan.
When implementing COVID-19 control measures, assess the potential impacts to existing infrastructure, activities, as well as worker and student safety. Make sure you do not create new workplace hazards. Update existing policies and procedures as needed to incorporate COVID-19 control measures, including emergency response. Perform regular inspections, continue to evaluate how effective the controls are, and make changes if needed.
The sections below provide tips on how to apply COVID-19 control measures in schools. Select the ones that are appropriate for your particular school setting.
Communication and Training
Effective communication and training is essential to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. For general recommendations on how and what to communicate about COVID-19, refer to CCOHS COVID-19 Communication and Training.
Workers, students, and their parents/guardians require up-to-date information and reassurance about what actions are being taken by the school, and what is required of them. Provide frequent communications, and opportunities for questions and concerns to be addressed.
Communications for K-12 students should:
be age appropriate and inclusive,
present COVID-19 in engaging ways (e.g., reminders, stories, videos),
teach PHMs that are within their abilities to do, and
be provided in accessible language(s) and formats.
Communications for parents/guardians should:
include references to the regional/local PHA,
use plain language,
provide instructions for what to do if their child is ill, has tested positive for or are showing symptoms of COVID-19,
inform them how and where to access available supports, and
accommodate those with disabilities, first languages other than English or French, or less access to online communication tools.
Communication and training for workers should additionally include:
potential workplace hazards and how to control them (i.e., workers ‘Right to Know’), including COVID-19 (how it spreads, risk of exposure, infection control practices) and safe use of cleaning and disinfection chemicals,
instructions to stay home if they are ill, have tested positive for or are showing symptoms of COVID-19, and
flexible polices that allow them to take time off without negative consequences, while respecting their privacy, and protecting them from stigma.
It is also important to promote mental health services for workers, students, and their parents/guardians. Children and youth have experienced an unprecedented duration of school closures in many jurisdictions, which have had impacts on their mental health. This has contributed to negative behavioral outcomes in children (e.g., conduct and emotional problems, etc.), as well as anxiety and depressive symptoms, increased substance use, and social isolation among adolescents. Given the significant impacts of K-12 school closures, your regional/local PHA may encourage prioritization of in-person education. For additional information refer to the following resources:
Encourage all those who are accessing the setting and who are eligible, to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
Acknowledge that some individuals are not eligible to receive the vaccine due to their age or valid medical exemptions.
Some eligible workers and students may choose not to be vaccinated. These individuals may be subject to additional control measures (e.g. frequent rapid testing or being restricted to telework/remote learning).
Some jurisdictions may require mandatory vaccination of educational workers as a condition of employment, and/or of students as a condition of in-person attendance (unless they have a medical exemption). The PHA, employer, health and safety committee or representative, and union should discuss any concerns surrounding mandatory COVID-19 vaccination requirements, including any need for accommodation.
Work with appropriate authorities (e.g., regional/local PHAs, immunization services, etc.) to offer on-site vaccination clinics to increase vaccination coverage (with parental/guardian consent) among the eligible school population.
Provide accommodations, such as flexibility around absences for students/staff and financial support for staff to attend local vaccination clinic appointments, if these occur during work hours.
Support immunization activities by assisting with transport of students to immunization clinics, consent forms, and promoting immunization.
Encourage people to continue to follow COVID-19 precautions both at the workplace and elsewhere, even if fully vaccinated.
Create your own list of questions, use a generic checklist form, or use one provided by your regional/local PHA.
During drop-off by parent/guardian, ask them to wait until their child has completed the screening process and is allowed to enter the school, before departing.
If a designated worker is screening individuals in person, the screener should maintain the greatest physical distance possible (i.e. at least 2 metres) and wear personal protective equipment (gloves, masks, facial or eye protection, etc.) as appropriate.
Self-assessment screening methods may also be used by individuals, such as a questionnaire form provided by the school, or an online self-assessment tool from the jurisdictional public health authority.
Encourage people to stay home if they are sick or might be sick.
Signage should also be posted at points of entry reminding people to not enter the school if they do not pass the listed self-screening criteria.
Active testing methods (e.g., PCR, rapid test kits, and self-tests), can help to rapidly identify and contain COVID-19 spread, particularly during a local outbreak. The school should follow their regional/local PHAs advice on appropriate test methods and strategies.
If there is an outbreak, the school may be asked to provide contact tracing information to the regional/local PHA. Ensure that contact information for all persons entering the school is collected, updated, accurate, privacy-protected, and available if/when needed. Be prepared to identify the location(s) where individuals were present, and who they may have come into contact with before the onset of any symptoms or a COVID-19 test. For additional information, refer to the CCOHS COVID-19: Contact Tracing for how to further prepare for and support contact tracing efforts.
For general physical distancing recommendations, refer to CCOHS COVID-19 and Physical Distancing.
An appropriate physical distance is at least 2 metres in all directions.
Interactions with people from outside of the immediate household should be from the greatest distance possible.
Keep in-person interactions as few and brief as possible.
Limiting class size and preventing crowded spaces contributes to physical distancing. Ways to determine maximum building occupancy and class sizes may include calculating a percentage of your jurisdictional occupancy limits, faculty to student ratios, or by respecting maximum headcount limits.
Separate classroom desks and seating areas in the cafeteria, library, and other shared spaces.
Manage how individuals will use or travel through shared spaces, such as hallways and washrooms. Mark one-way routes, and use floor markings, signs, and other visual cues.
Have children face the same way for as many activities as possible.
Consider blended teaching methods using both online/remote learning and face-to-face instruction where appropriate.
Hold lessons and recess outdoors, if possible, and as weather permits.
Where possible, stagger the beginning and end of the school day, class schedules, recess, breaks and lunch to reduce groups of people from gathering.
Consider using libraries, gyms, outdoors, portables, and other locations as additional classroom space.
For younger students when physical distancing is more difficult, consider keeping the students in smaller groups or cohorts, and maintain at least 2 metres between the cohorts.
For older students, consider having teachers rotate to classrooms instead of the students (e.g., have students remain as a cohort in one classroom for the day).
Limit the number of users in common areas at the same time, such as the washrooms, gym, library, or cafeteria.
Postpone or cancel assemblies or other large gatherings where physical distancing cannot be maintained.
Avoid sharing sports equipment, climbing structures, swings, slides, and other equipment where physical distancing cannot be maintained. Consider limiting the apparatus to a single user, with cleaning and disinfection between each use.
Restrict non-essential visitors from entering buildings, as appropriate.
Allow administrative staff to work from home, if/when possible.
Consider creating additional break areas, including outdoors, for staff
If appropriate, install physical barriers when close interactions are unavoidable, (e.g., at cafeteria service or payment counters). Refer to the CCOHS document “COVID-19 Tip Sheet: Physical Barriers” for detailed information on use and installation (dimensions, materials) of physical barriers.
Make sure that any heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems are properly designed, maintained, and functioning. If possible, consult an HVAC professional before making changes to ventilation system settings.
Hold activities in a better ventilated space (e.g., outdoors, or a larger space).
Open exterior windows and doors when it is safe to do so (e.g., during and/or between classes).
Avoid blowing or circulating air from one person to another using powerful portable cooling fans as it may increase the spread of COVID-19.
Keep rooms cool by turning off heat generating equipment when not in use, or closing window blinds to create shade.
Consider using portable high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filtration units. However, these units should not be used as a replacement for proper indoor ventilation.
Note that portable or ceiling fans and single unit air conditioners circulate the air without exchanging it or improving ventilation.
Read and follow manufacturer’s instructions or Safety Data Sheet (SDS) for safe use of cleaning and disinfection products (e.g., wear gloves, use in well-ventilated area, allow enough contact time for disinfectant to kill germs based on the product being used).
Provide custodians with adequate supplies, training on cleaning protocols, and personal protective equipment as needed.
Follow the mask wearing requirements of your regional/local PHA and jurisdiction, including for children and masks. Mask wearing may be an additional measure when there is higher risk for COVID-19 spread (e.g., low vaccination coverage, increased community spread, variants of concern), or when physical distancing is not possible.
Masks should not be worn by anyone who is unable to remove the mask without assistance (e.g., due to their age, ability or developmental status). Masks should be well constructed and well fitting, covering the nose, mouth, and chin.
Encourage people not to touch their face or mask with unwashed hands.
Be aware that non-medical masks have limitations, and improper mask use and disposal can increase the risk of infection.
For some children, not being able to see an adults’ face and mouth clearly may cause difficulties (e.g., hard of hearing, using lip-reading, needing to see facial expressions). Consider using a clear mask.
Staff may also wish to use eye protection (such as safety glasses, goggles, or face shield) in addition to a mask, when in close physical contact with children. Note that face shields do not offer equivalent protection to masks.
Do not allow the mask to be a hazard to other activities, such as getting caught on moving machinery or playground equipment, or exposure to open flames or sparks (e.g., lab bunsen burners, shop class).
Implement or update the workplace heat-stress program, as mask wearing may increase physiological stress during high-exertion tasks.
While non-medical masks are useful in reducing the spread of COVID-19, they are not considered Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) as they do not meet regulated testing and certification standards.
PPE is wearable protection that must meet regulated testing and certification standards.
PPE includes such items as fit-tested respirators and surgical masks, eye protection (e.g., goggles, face shield), gowns, gloves, and safety footwear.
Continue to use PPE for existing occupational safety hazards and emergencies as directed by applicable laws. COVID-19 PPE policies must not interfere when a higher level of protection is needed for the task.
Employers should conduct a hazard assessment and make sure that workers have the correct PPE for the tasks and activities they are performing.
Workers may need PPE if they are:
performing tasks that require them to be less than 2 metres from another person without a physical barrier (e.g., helping a child with an activity or task),
using cleaning and disinfecting products (refer to the manufacturers’ safe handling instructions),
cleaning blood or bodily fluids (e.g., runny nose, vomit, stool, urine), or
providing emergency first-aid.
Workers also need to be trained on how to properly use and care for their PPE.
School Activities and Services
Choose activities where physical distancing can be maintained or that can take place outdoors.
High-contact or team sports can be considered when the local community or school are at lower risk of COVID-19 spread.
Stagger the time between each group to minimize interactions between groups of people, for indoor gym and locker room air exchange, and for cleaning and disinfecting.
Consider creating dirty/clean or colour-coded signs to clearly indicate equipment status.
Music, Band, Theatre, and Choir:
Singing in indoor settings is a risk when one of the participants has COVID-19, as the forceful breaths can spread infectious respiratory droplets and aerosols for long distances. The risk is greater when singing takes place in a closed space, with poor ventilation, or a crowded space.
Performers that are members of the same household would be at less risk and could sing or play music together while being physically distanced from others.
The choir or band should be organized so individuals are not facing each other directly or standing directly (less than 2 meters) behind each other.
Playing wind or brass instruments may increase the risk of COVID-19 spread by infectious respiratory droplets and aerosols being expelled, or by direct contact with shared instruments. Additional precautions should be taken.
Consider the length of the instrument and direction of airflow as an extension of the individual, which should be included when determining the spacing between musicians.
Students and staff should not share equipment (e.g., mouthpieces, reeds, harmonicas, music stands, microphones, musical instruments, accessories, etc.), song books, sheet music or devices with electronic sheet music. Any shared items should be cleaned and disinfected between users.
Do not share props or items between members unless the item can be cleaned and disinfected between each use.
Wash hands promptly if a shared item must be touched.
Click here for more information on singing, music and theatre.
Cafeteria and food services:
Continue to maintain the greatest physical distancing possible. Limit the number of people in the cafeteria at any given time.
Spread people out as much as possible, consider allowing students to eat meals in classrooms or outdoors, if appropriate.
Increase staff-served options. Do not use self-serve or buffet style options.
Ask students to bring their own lunches and snacks, if possible.
Discourage food and beverage sharing.
Remove shared food items, condiments, and utensil stations.
Use touchless payment options, if possible.
Consider how meals will be provided to those students participating in meal programs, including during school closures or reduced programming.
Click here for more information on restaurants and food services.
Schools should work closely with their local transportation services and PHAs to make sure that appropriate COVID-19 controls are in place on student transportation. Shared transportation, such as buses, can increase the risk of spreading the virus.
Encourage alternative modes of transportation for those who have other options, such as parent/guardian drop off, or walking (if safe and within close distance) to limit the number of people needing to use public transportation and school buses.
Do not allow students who have failed COVID-19 screening to board the bus.
Parents/guardians should remain in their vehicles during drop-offs and pickups.
Stagger bus arrival and departure times to avoid congestion.
Designate multiple pick up and drop off areas at the school to assist with physical distancing.
Have staff greet students as they arrive where needed or add bus monitors to provide assistance.
Limit the number of people allowed on a bus.
Control how passengers enter and exit to maintain physical distancing.
Maintain the greatest distance possible between passengers when using public transportation and school buses.
Students from the same household may sit together if space is limited.
Assign or mark seats where people can sit to maintain physical distancing.
Consider installing physical barriers (e.g., plexiglass) for the bus driver when maintaining physical distancing is not possible.
Use of non-medical masks may be requested or required.
Have passengers use hand sanitizer when entering the bus.
Open windows, if possible and safe to do so and air out the bus between groups of riders.
Clean and disinfect group transportation vehicles between groups of users (e.g., keys, steering wheel, gearshift, controls, vents, belts, seats, interior and exterior door handles, etc.).
It is important that mental health resources and support are provided to all workers, including access to an employee assistance program, if available.
Note that this guidance is just some of the adjustments organizations can make during a pandemic. Adapt this list by adding your own good practices and policies to meet your organization’s specific needs.
Disclaimer: As public and occupational health and safety information is changing rapidly, local public health authorities should be consulted for specific, regional guidance. This information is not intended to replace medical advice or legislated health and safety obligations. Although every effort is made to ensure the accuracy, currency and completeness of the information, CCOHS does not guarantee, warrant, represent or undertake that the information provided is correct, accurate or current. CCOHS is not liable for any loss, claim, or demand arising directly or indirectly from any use or reliance upon the information.