Learn about new considerations and best practices for returning students to school after COVID-19’s impact!

You’ll learn about:

  • The essentials of contact tracing in schools
  • Gain insight on practicing social distance in schools
  • Helpful tips to best prevent the spread of COVID-19
  • Best practices for managing student infections
  • Tips for effectively cleaning and disinfecting your school
  • How to safely reopen your school and more

Admin Prep Guide to Safely Returning Students to School

A great deal of uncertainty surrounds the 2020-2021 school year: Will students be required to attend classes in person? If so, how often will they engage in face-to-face settings? If students do come to campus, what measures will be necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19?

As administrators continue to make plans for the new school year, there are many decisions to make to ensure that you’re safely returning students to school.

First, you need to evaluate the level of risk at which you’re planning to operate. Next, consider how you’ll implement methods for preventing risk, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and other organizations. You’ll also need to decide how to monitor if students are not only attending school, either virtually or in person, but are also learning as much as they would in any other school year.

The administrative decisions you’ll have to make this year will be complex and challenging. This guide aims to compile and simplify information about making your school safe and productive in the upcoming school year. It has step-by-step advice for safely returning students to school while still creating the accountability and structure that students need to be successful.

At What Level of Risk Will I Operate?

Different administrators will have differing comfort levels at which they’re willing to operate. Depending on rates of infection in your area, along with other factors, you may choose a riskier or a safer operation plan.

According to the CDC, operational risk is defined as follows:

  • Lowest risk schools operate entirely online. They don’t provide any face-to-face components, including in-person extracurricular activities or support services.
  • More risk schools have an operational plan that staggers student attendance so they are never on campus in mass numbers. This lowered attendance may involve developing online learning that supplements face-to-face classes. It may also mean staggering student schedules so they come to campus for only part of the day. Furthermore, students always stay with the same group. All these different strategies are implemented so students can stay six feet apart at all times.
  • Highest risk schools don’t make any modifications to account for the pandemic. Class sizes remain the same; larger classes don’t allow for students to properly socially distance. Class demographics shift as students move from class to class.

Methods for Preventing Risk

Reopening in Phases

Just like for restaurants, hair salons, and other businesses, most guidelines for schools have a timeline that schools should use to reopen. At present, the recommendation is to wait for twenty-eight days of declining COVID-19 diagnoses before opening schools. If diagnoses start to increase, then your reopening plans may need to be postponed or your school may need to close again. Flexibility is key.

Limiting Class Sizes

The United States has many international models to look to when considering when and how to reopen. Schools in China, Denmark, Norway, Singapore, and Taiwan have already reopened with modifications that American administrators can use to create their own plans. Most of these countries have limited their class sizes, meaning that fewer students are in a classroom at a given time.

The United States has many international models to look to when considering when and how to reopen. Schools in China, Denmark, Norway, Singapore, and Taiwan have already reopened with modifications that American administrators can use to create their own plans. Most of these countries have limited their class sizes, meaning that fewer students are in a classroom at a given time.

Supporting Socially-Distanced Classrooms

The reason behind these lowered numbers is that in addition to limiting class sizes, international schools have created methods for ensuring distance between students. This includes breaking up desks that were once together; some schools have even used physical dividers to accomplish this goal. Other schools have experimented with moving classes to non-traditional spaces, like the gym or the lawn. 

Managing Attendance

Many countries around the world have opted for staggered attendance, where they allow fewer students into a classroom or common area at one time. This scheduling allows for adequate social distancing. For instance, one group of students attends in the morning and leaves by noon. Then, a cleaning crew prepares your campus for the afternoon students. Groups that are not on campus can complete assignments or activities at home.

The biggest challenge for staggered scheduling is logistical. How do you know if students have left the campus in time for the next group to arrive? How can you prevent students from entering spaces where they’re not supposed to be?

ScholarChip’s One Card and Secure Door Access tools can make creating staggered schedules for hundreds or thousands of students possible. At the beginning of the school year, each student will receive a card with their own unique ID. This card unlocks the Secure Door Access portals posted at the front door, classroom doors, and other common spaces.

When students are supposed to be on campus, they can use the card to enter the areas they’re supposed to be—it only gives them access at a specific time. Students can also tap their cards when they leave the building. This way, you can check which students have exited and track down those who haven’t.

This kind of tracking technology is more necessary now than ever.

Developing Remote Learning Opportunities

Even if you have a foolproof plan for safely returning students to school in the fall, you may not be able to stick to it for one reason or another. The American Academy of Pediatrics says that until there is a vaccine for COVID-19, there is no guarantee that schools will be able to remain open.

Along with this recommendation, the organization suggests that students should be able to opt into distance learning during periods of closure. Another health recommendation is to give teachers the option to teach online if they choose to do so.

If you plan to have staggered times for students to attend school in person, they’ll need to continue studying at home as well. Teachers might record their afternoon classes for students at home to watch. Alternately, students may read or complete activities at home, rather than in the classroom.

In most reopening scenarios, online learning will continue to play a significant role.

Daily Practices to Limit Infections

Building Healthy Habits

In order to have the best results possible, all students, even young ones, will need to be involved in monitoring themselves and their health. The National Association of School Nurses recommends teaching students how to:

  • Wash their hands for twenty seconds.
  • Cover their mouths when they cough or sneeze.
  • Avoid touching their eyes, mouths, and noses.
  • Tell their parents or an adult when they aren’t feeling well.

Students play a crucial role in communicating about their illnesses, as well as taking measures to mitigate the spread of disease.

Communicating with Students and Parents

Students, faculty, staff, and parents need to work together to ensure that schools can safely reopen after COVID-19. Everyone needs to communicate effectively about the importance of sanitation and social-distancing policies. For instance, teachers should model appropriate habits for their students. School campaigns should answer any questions that students have about why these changes are necessary. 

Taking Temperatures

Nearly all the schools that opened gave students temperature checks when they arrived on campus. Some did temperature checks multiple times a day.

Creating Hand-washing Stations

Create handwashing stations and provide sanitation supplies. Students and staff need to wash their hands often, so soap-and-water handwashing stations should be plentiful, and sanitizer should be placed near campus and classroom entrances, exits, bathrooms, and lunchrooms.

Contact Tracing

Contact tracing has been and will continue to be one of the most effective methods for flattening the curve of COVID-19. What does this actually entail?

Contact tracing in schools involves a trained team that interviews individuals who have COVID-19 to see where they’ve gone and with whom they’ve been in contact. Then, the team notifies everyone whom this person has been around and warns them about their increased risk of contracting the disease.

According to the Yale School of Public Health, “Contact tracing is labor-intensive and often emotionally draining. It requires phone calls (lots of them), strong interviewing skills, diplomacy, and the ability to ask the right questions. Volunteers also need to stay abreast of the latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about symptoms and recommendations to self-isolate.”

Contact tracing in schools is not a new phenomenon. In the past, for instance, it was often used to track tuberculosis cases. All the best practices discovered in monitoring the spread of other types of diseases can be used for COVID-19.

Creating a contact tracing team is an essential step in returning a certain amount of normalcy to K-12 schools. Here, we’ll discuss three necessary steps for developing a contact-tracing program at your school.

Appointing a Leader

Contract tracing is an involved process and needs strong leadership to be successful. The first step in developing this process is finding someone who can hire and train personnel. This leader needs to be able to train their team on how to interview infected persons effectively and connect with potentially infected subjects.

Training a Team

Your contact tracing team has a complicated job. First, if a student, faculty, or staff member is diagnosed with COVID-19, the team will interview that individual to see when and for how long they were on campus. They’re particularly interested in contacts that were closer than six feet from the infected person for more than ten minutes.

After the interview, the team will then get in touch with every person who may have been in contact with the infected person. The team will need to use decorum to interact with subjects who will be hearing bad news.

In preparing a contact-tracing team, you may want to direct your supervisor to the CDC’s contact-tracing training resources.

Using Technology to Track Movement

Interviewing has long been part of the contact-tracing process. However, infected people may not know exactly where they’ve gone or how long they’ve been there. This is particularly true for young students.

In addition to interviews, it’s useful to incorporate tracking technology to simplify contact tracing. According to the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, “[T]echnology really helps when public health workers need to look for contacts in places that may be more crowded, or when the identified person doesn’t know the people they came into contact with. Say you go to the grocery store, and you’ve been within 6 feet of a number of people but you don’t know who those people are.”

ScholarChip’s OneCard and Smart Card Readers can make this process more straightforward. If students use their OneCards to check in when they get to school and every time they enter a new classroom, contact tracers will know where they went and who was there with them. Tapping the card on a screen reader eliminates any guesswork in the contact-tracing interview process.

Building Student Success Despite Uncertainty

Collecting Data to Modify Your Plans

While you can create what you believe to be an unimpeachable opening plan for the new school year, you are still likely to run into hurdles. For instance, your attendance plan may not be as effective for certain demographics or students. Perhaps students are struggling with part-time attendance expectations and would do better with an altered plan.

You won’t be able to tell if students are having difficulties with your reopening plan without recording attendance data. In connection with the OneCard and Secure Door Access readers, ScholarChip’s Admin Portals give you access to real-time information that can help you make more-informed alterations to your reopening plan. This data can also be given to state and federal agencies that may be monitoring effectiveness.

Recording Interactions between Students and Teachers

Even if you have decided that students will return to campus, it’s still likely that they’ll spend at least some of their time completing at-home, online activities. Due to this decreased face-to-face time, faculty and staff will need even more tools for tracking their engagement with students.

Before the pandemic, ScholarChip’s ABE Behavior Management was already used as an encouragement tool for struggling students. Teachers can keep track of their interventions with students and monitor what other staff have recorded. The tool creates progress reports for students, so teachers can be reminded of what has been tried in the past.

ABE is also particularly useful in giving teachers backup in promoting positive learning behaviors. With so many changes, teachers may struggle to modify students’ tardiness or truancy habits. Based on teacher recommendations, ABE suggests particular activities for students of all ages and behavior issues. Then, if and when teachers have face-to-face time together with students, they won’t spend all of it disciplining students.


The 2020-2021 school year will have more ambiguity than any in recent memory. In order to ensure that your upcoming year includes both safe operations and student progress, it’s important to take steps to make your campus safer, teach students and parents about preventing disease, and implement a contact-tracing program on your campus. These are a few key ways to keep students safe on campus.

Next, you’ll want to consider procedures that can promote students’ development, no matter where they’re learning. These can include technologies that allow for easy data collection and let instructors log interactions with students.

Even if you’re preparing for the unknown in safely returning students to school, it’s still important to create plans that allow for flexibility, while also fostering peace of mind for parents, students, and teachers.

ScholarChip is an all-in-one platform dedicated to the safety of students, staff, and the entire school community. We work to improve student safety, solve chronic absenteeism, and prevent school violence.

To learn more about how ScholarChip can help you prepare for when your students are back on campus and what that new reality might look like, feel free to request a 1-on-1 call with one of our strategists today!