The reopening of schools—either to virtual or on-campus learning—is a critical, global issue. A new document, Planning for on-campus K-12 education during COVID-19, developed by the COVID-19 Healthcare Coalition, provides clarifications, interpretations, and estimates that can be used as a resource by school leaders to develop and implement plans for returning to on-campus learning.

Based on what is known to date about the COVID-19 pandemic, the Coaltion proposes school districts consider the following criteria when making decisions about returning to on-campus learning:

1. Ensure local COVID-19 community spread is controlled, as indicated by less than one new case per day per 100,000 people (10 new cases per day per million people). This threshold is consistent with the levels of community spread in countries where schools have successfully reopened without subsequent surges in COVID-19. 

2. Require universal cloth facemask use; implement and enforce social distancing (in schools and on buses); reduce or eliminate indoor congregation; enhance hand hygiene; and support Testing, Tracing, and Supported Isolation (TTSI) in the schools being reopened. Of note, these strategies should be implemented in the community at large to effectively control spread of the virus.

3. When local COVID-19 conditions permit, return to on-campus learning in stages, beginning with grades K-5; measure results and impact at each stage to inform decision making. Using locally selected public health indicators of COVID-19 transmission, stages of on-campus return should be defined in partnership with community stakeholders. Consider further prioritization based on:  

  • Socioeconomic factors: e.g., children who rely on schools for meals, healthcare, or mental health services 
  • Ease of virtual learning: e.g., children with special needs, children that lack access to tools/ connectivity needed for virtual learning, or children who are English-language learners
  • Family situations: e.g., children of essential workers, single-parent households

Conversely, children with preexisting medical conditions may be more likely to develop serious illness and therefore might not be prioritized for on-campus learning, says the organization. As such, consideration should also be given to children who live with family members who may have risk factors for serious COVID-19 illness. A staged reopening plan is recommended because it allows 1) students who benefit most from in-person learning to return to campus; 2) parents and guardians to return to work; and 3) physical distancing in schools, without major changes to the built environment. A staged approach is applicable only after a community has controlled local COVID-19 transmission to an acceptable threshold.

These criteria derive from a set of guiding principles, reflect guidance from multiple responsible agencies and expert organizations, and support evidence-based data-driven decision making, notes the Coalition. Additionally, school districts should leverage current data and guidance from reputable sources to drive decision making regarding returning to on-campus learning. Innovative approaches to TTSI can mitigate COVID-19 risks and should be considered in conjunction with guidance from public health experts. When developing plans, funding for acquiring and replenishing protective and sanitizing equipment is critical. Careful thought and advanced planning from decision makers can support a safer learning environment for both students and staff, under the right local conditions.

For the full guide, please visit