Safely return children with disabilities to
in-person school during COVID-19

In the spring of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic caused most U.S. schools to switch from in-person to virtual learning. Now, many schools are preparing to resume in-person learning or have already done so. This website summarizes the recommended best practices for returning safely to school, based on information from the Washington University Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center working with staff at the Special School District of St. Louis County, Missouri through the COMPASS-T project.

Who is this information for?


Learn about changes you can make to keep staff and students safe


Learn safety measures you can take to keep staff and students safe 

Families and students

Find out what we have learned about safely having in-person school during COVID-19

What can schools do to keep students and staff safe during COVID-19?

Have students and staff wear face masks 

Mask wearing is vital to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and keep students and staff safe. 

Tips for staff to get students to wear masks correctly:

Students have done much better than expected with correct masking. To encourage correct masking, staff should:  

  • Model correct mask wearing 
  • Check often and remind students to keep their masks over their noses – with practice they get better. Staff can use a visual cue to remind students to pull up their mask, such as pointing at the tip of their nose.
  • Praise and reinforce good mask wearers, such as with extra breaks or computer time  
  • Keep working on mask wearing – do not give up on students who have trouble
Tips for students who have trouble wearing a mask:

For students who cannot mask correctly, such as students with severe autism, consider other options: 

  • Have these students wear face shields 
  • Have staff wear face shields or goggles to protect their eyes
  • Use hand wipes often
  • Have good ventilation 

When students can’t wear masks or social distancing is not possible, such as when helping students during meals or personal care, staff should wear face shields or goggles with their masks.

Practice safe social distancing 

Limit contact between students and put as much space as possible between people – keep at least 3 feet of space.

Tips to help with social distancing:
  • Move some students to new spaces to lower the number within classrooms and make it easier to maintain space
  • Group students into pods and keep them in one classroom except for gym and recess

Stay home when feeling ill

Students or staff with any COVID-19
symptoms should stay home from school.
Educate teachers, staff, and
parents/guardians so they know the
symptoms of COVID-19.

Symptoms to look out for:
  • Fever (a temperature of 100.4° F or higher) or chills
  • Cough, shortness of breath, or trouble breathing
  • Fatigue, muscle or body aches, or headache
  • Sore throat, congestion, or runny nose
  • New loss of taste or smell
  • Nausea, diarrhea, or vomiting

If anyone begins to show symptoms while at school, send them home. School nurses should help isolate students or staff who show symptoms while they wait to go home, such as while waiting for a ride home.

Keep hands clean

Encourage students and staff to wash their hands or use hand sanitizer often, especially after breaks and before eating.

Tips to easily keep clean hands:
  • Place hand sanitizer at school entries, in classrooms, and throughout the hallways
  • Have hand wipes to help students who cannot wash their hands

Clean, disinfect, and ventilate rooms

It is vital to clean and disinfect classrooms and other shared spaces in between uses by different groups and at the end of the school day.

Tips to clean, disinfect, and ventilate:
  • Clean between having students in shared spaces such as therapy rooms
  • Allow extra time in the schedule for rooms to be cleaned and disinfected
  • Use a sanitizing schedule for all common areas to coordinate cleaning
  • Whenever possible, open windows to allow for better ventilation

Have enough Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for staff

Provide sufficient PPE to staff before starting in-person teaching.

Types of PPE that all staff should have access to:
  • Masks
  • Face shields
  • Goggles
  • Gloves

Start with a hybrid model

Start with a hybrid model to help staff and students become comfortable with in-person school and to learn how to improve your prevention strategies.

One way to use a hybrid model:
  • Group 1: In-person at school Mondays and Tuesdays, and virtual Thursdays and Fridays
  • Group 2: Virtual on Mondays and Tuesdays, and in-person at school on Thursdays and Fridays
  • Both groups: Virtual on Wednesdays to allow for classroom cleaning

Encourage testing 

Testing can help identify cases of COVID-19 in staff and students and prevent spread. 

Ways to encourage testing:
  • Provide access to testing for anyone with COVID-19 symptoms
  • For schools with sufficient resources, consider routine testing (testing for everyone weekly, including people who show no symptoms)
  • Add nursing staff to respond to students who test positive (have COVID-19) and trace their contacts

Commit to safety school-wide

At the highest level, administrators should commit to safety in all their actions and communications. Make it clear that school is going to look different. 

Ways to promote safety school-wide:
  • All staff and teachers should lead by example with mask wearing, social distancing, and hand washing
  • Cancel activities that do not comply with safety guidelines, such as school assemblies or potluck lunches
  • Set up a webpage to allow the school community to see the number of cases identified at the school