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.
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
About the research:
This information was developed by researchers at the Washington University Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center, the University of Missouri-Kansas City Institute of Human Development, and the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Maryland, with funding from the National Institutes of Health, in collaboration with the Special School District of St. Louis County, Missouri.
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.
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
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Face shields
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.
- 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
Testing can help identify cases of COVID-19 in staff and students and prevent spread.
- 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.
- 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