As the U.S. enters its third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, schools and colleges throughout the country continue to grapple with challenges – especially as the omicron variant causes a spike in infections.
The omicron variant replaced the delta variant as the dominant strain in December 2021. In fact, it’s responsible for over 95% of new COVID-19 cases.1 Officials have said the omicron variant will spread easier than both the delta variant and original strain of COVID-19. In January 2022, the U.S. recorded a single-day record of over 1 million positive cases.2
School officials are trying to provide the best experience to students, but they have to balance that with following public health guidelines and recommendations. From regular testing and contact tracing to vaccines, quarantining and isolation, keeping schools safe takes a multi-faceted approach.
With an uptick in cases, some schools and colleges are returning to remote learning to keep staff and students safe.3
“We know the persistence of this pandemic continues to put a strain on schools, but it’s imperative that education institution administrators remain vigilant and keep current with health and safety guidelines to keep their students and staff safe,” said Heather Savino, underwriting officer and Education practice leader at The Hartford.
There are ways for school officials to continue being proactive during the pandemic and actions they can take to keep students and staff safe, according to Dr. Adam L. Seidner, The Hartford’s chief medical officer.
“One of the most important things you can do is to monitor and track metrics. You have to rely on situational awareness, and you need to understand what’s being observed in the data and in the metrics,” he explained. “There are internal and external metrics to pay attention to, like hospitalizations, ICU rates, case fatality rates and the clinical spectrum of cases.”
Here are six things you can do to help keep your campus and students safe during the pandemic.
1. Follow Health Guidelines and Encourage Healthy Behaviors on Campus
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has several recommendations on how schools and colleges can protect students from COVID-19 cases. From vaccinations to social distancing, following the health guidelines can keep students and staff safe.
Social Distancing Guidelines for Schools
Getting students to follow social distancing guidelines and policies can be hard, but it’s important. These safety procedures help to enforce healthy behaviors to limit the spread of infection. To help keep students healthy, offer supplies they can use that will benefit personal hygiene. Esto puede incluir:
- Soap or hand sanitizer made with at least 60% alcohol
- Paper towels
- Disinfectant wipes
- Covered trashcans that can open with a foot pedal
It’s also a good idea to discourage any sharing between students. This can include food, electronic devices and books. During in-person learning, make sure students have access to their own supplies, lab equipment or computers. If sharing does have to happen, limit it to one group of students at a time and make sure to clean and disinfect between uses.
Schools can also post signs with visual cues and simple, clear language in high-traffic areas. These signs should help students and staff understand how to take protective measures to prevent COVID-19.
“There’s administrative controls that schools can use to keep their students safe,” Seidner said. “There’s signage they can post. They can limit the size of classrooms, have a staggered presence or hold some courses virtually. All of that needs to be looked at and kept in mind as the pandemic continues.”
Wearing the Right Type of Mask
Because COVID-19 variants are becoming more contagious, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people wear the right type of mask to prevent the spread of infection.
With the original strain of COVID-19 and the delta variant, many people wore cloth masks or surgical masks. Seidner cautioned that they may not be enough, but that any mask is better than no mask. He recommends wearing masks which offer a higher level of protection, such as a N95 or KN95. If those options aren't available, double masking can offer better protection than a single cloth or surgical mask.
When it comes to masking, be sure to:
- Check the fit: Make sure masks have a close fit. Ensure the mask goes over your nose and there aren't gaps around the nose or around the sides of your face.
- Dispose masks when needed: Check guidelines or recommendations on how often you can reuse a mask. If it's dirty or wet, throw it away and use a new one.
- Check airflow: Air shouldn't flow at the top of the mask under your eyes or through the sides of the mask. Get as close of a fit to your face as possible.
How Do Schools Know if a Student Has COVID-19?
Schools will know if a student has COVID-19 through testing. Testing should be one piece of a comprehensive strategy to prevent COVID-19 in schools and colleges, according to the CDC.4
Seidner said it’s not uncommon for some schools to conduct COVID-19 testing multiple times a week, but that the amount of testing will vary between schools and campuses.
“A lot of schools are testing and the number of tests depend on a student’s cohort and where they live,” he said. “It’s not uncommon for sports teams to get tested three times a week.”
Seidner added that schools are using other methods to try to identify and control COVID-19 infections on their campuses, like:
- Asking screening questions
- Taking temperatures
- Checking for symptoms
Guidelines for Students
Fully vaccinated people can:
- Participate in many activities they did before the pandemic
- Resume domestic travel and not have to test or self-quarantine after traveling
- Refrain from testing before leaving the U.S. for international travel, unless required
- Stop routine screening testing if feasible
The CDC also recommends schools and campuses that are fully vaccinated to have universal masking indoors in public areas of substantial or high transmission.5
At campuses with a mix of fully- and non-vaccinated people, the CDC recommends following prevention strategies to reduce infection spread, such as:6
- Social distancing
- Contact tracing
- Increased ventilation and cleaning
- Regular communication with students and staff
- Offering and promoting the vaccine
The CDC recommends that campuses with a mix of fully- and non-vaccinated students and staff should have a universal masking mandate for all unvaccinated people.7
Be aware that the CDC also recommends eligible students and staff receive a COVID-19 booster. The longer it’s been since a person received their last dose of a COVID-19 vaccine puts them at a higher risk of infection from omicron. In fact, unvaccinated people were more than three-times more likely to test positive for infection than those who were vaccinated. And they were more than nine-times more likely to test positive than those who were boosted.8
2. Monitor COVID-19 Metrics and Trends
Knowing what’s going on in the community around a school can help officials make decisions to keep schools, campuses and the local community safe, Seidner noted.
Outbreaks on a college campus can put surrounding communities at risk. A recent study found that college campuses are at high risk of being super-spreaders of COVID-19.9 Researchers found that a spike in infections during the first two weeks of college rapidly spread across counties, triggering a peak in new infections throughout neighboring communities.10
Schools should create a Health and Safety Committee that includes all stakeholders, including:
- Education staff
- Operations staff
- Local health care providers
This committee should regularly review public health data for the community surrounding the campus to keep track of the current spread of COVID-19. Seidner suggested some key metrics that schools can track:
- Positive cases in the past two weeks
- Number of deaths due to COVID-19
- Number of positives related to amount of testing
If the trend of positive cases goes down and vaccinations increase, Seidner suggested that it could be a sign that schools can gradually ease up on their policies. He emphasized that even though positive cases have dropped, it’s not the time to stop tracking data.
“If a school notices there’s a slight increase in positive cases again,” Seidner explained, “they may have to put policies and protocols back in effect to try to keep the campus safe.”
Equally important is tracking the number of positive cases due to variant strains of COVID-19. The omicron variant quickly overtook the delta variant as the dominant strain in December 2021. And there is always the chance of a new variant on the horizon.
The severity of variant strains is why Seidner emphasizes the importance of monitoring and data tracking.
“It’s going to make a big difference and has to be taken into account,” Seidner said of COVID-19 variants. “Schools need to know that once a particular strain causes 50% of the positive cases in an area, that’s ripe for a peak to occur. We’re already seeing that.”
If a school knows a variant is the reason behind a spike in positive cases, it can work with the local Department of Health to understand what measures to put in place.
3. Educate and Offer COVID-19 Vaccinations and Boosters to School Students and Staff
Vaccination is the leading prevention strategy to protect people from COVID-19, according to the CDC. While people have different reasons for not getting vaccinated, the agency recommends providing education and resources to students and staff to show that the vaccine is safe and effective. This can be through educational messaging or asking student organizations to help build confidence.
“Early studies have shown a vaccine and a booster, if it’s necessary, provide better protection against COVID-19 and the omicron variant, compared to those not vaccinated or if it’s been longer than five months since a person’s last dose,” Seidner emphasized.
Equally important to building vaccine trust are having policies and programs that make it easy for students and staff to get vaccinated. The CDC recommends:9
- Providing on-site vaccination in campus facilities or through a local partnership
- Considering hosting a mass vaccination clinic or setting up smaller vaccine venues on campus
- Offering multiple locations and vaccination times to accommodate different schedules
- Helping facilitate access to off-site vaccination sites, like pharmacies or mobile clinics
- Providing flexible leave or absence options
4. Know How To Respond to Positive COVID-19 Cases at School
If a student tests positive for COVID-19, report that they’ve received a positive test result or are identified as a close contact, it’s essential to take immediate action.
Knowing whether to quarantine or isolate and for how long is an important part of keeping cases low and preventing an outbreak. Your school should also have a process for contact tracing. This means school officials will notify people or contacts of potential exposure to COVID-19.
“Contact tracing is an effective way to monitor and prevent further spread of COVID-19 on campus,” Seidner emphasized.
It’s important that students’ meal plans continue. Coordinate with your food service staff to make sure meals get delivered in a safe way. You can also work with local public health officials to develop a strategy for providing meals to students living on campus who are sick with COVID-19.
Should Students Return to School While in COVID-19 Quarantine?
If a student is in quarantine off campus or away from school, whether they can return depends on:
- Vaccination status
- Whether they have symptoms
- How long they’ve been quarantining or isolating
In December 2021, the CDC revised its recommendations on quarantine and isolation durations. It’s a good idea to use these recommendations to guide your school’s quarantine and isolation process.
For people who are exposed to COVID-19 but are up to date on their vaccines, they don’t have to quarantine.9 They should get tested at least five days after the last exposure to COVID-19 and continue to monitor for symptoms until 10 days after exposure.10
People exposed to COVID-19 and not up to date on their vaccine should quarantine for at least five days.11 They should also get a test five days after the last known exposure and monitor for symptoms until 10 days after the last contact.
If a person tests positive for COVID-19 or has symptoms, they should stay home and isolate for five days.12 CDC guidance says isolation can end after five full days if the person is fever-free for 24 hours and symptoms improve. Those severely ill from COVID-19 should isolate for at least 10 days.
Be aware that these recommendations can change frequently. Visit the CDC’s website for the most up-to-date information on quarantine and isolation.
5. Avoid Sending Sick Students Home
Because of how easily and quickly COVID-19 infections can spread from a campus through the nearby community, Seidner recommends not sending sick students home. If it’s possible, have students complete their quarantine or isolation period on campus.
To help with students quarantining or isolating, many schools converted dorm rooms or other facilities into spaces meant for these purposes.
The CDC recommends schools have a plan that’s communicated to students and staff so they know what actions to take if someone gets sick with COVID-19. In addition, the agency encourages school officials to promptly report cases to the local health department.
6. Provide Support to School Students and Staff
One of the many reasons that students decide to live on campus is for the college experience. However, living away from home and having to follow strict protocols during a pandemic can have a significant impact on the mental health of students.
“We’re seeing that the pandemic is having just as much of an impact on student mental health as working professionals,” said Dr. Michael Lacroix, a medical director at The Hartford. “Giving students access to programs and services and the support they need to cope is paramount to their success.”
With constant news being shared about the pandemic and the fluctuating number of COVID-19 cases in the U.S., it’s not surprising students can feel stressed, anxious or overwhelmed. Encourage them to take breaks from the news and social media while also promoting healthy behaviors. Esto puede incluir:
- Getting enough sleep
- Finding time to unwind
It’s important for schools to communicate with the student body about what mental health support services are available. Signage can also be posted around campus that provides details on our national distress hotlines.
Don’t forget about your school staff, either. Students aren’t the only ones who are facing a difficult time. You may want to offer an employee assistance program (EAP) for faculty and staff to get counseling if they need it.
Taking Care of Your Campus: A Top Priority
From social distancing and frequent testing to masking and vaccinating, these health and safety measures can help keep your students and campus safe. The goal is to prevent COVID-19 cases at your school and to maintain a low positivity rate to keep both students and the community safe.
“The policies may change throughout the year and there’s a lot of things to look at and consider, even as vaccines and boosters roll out,” Seidner said. “But knowing what the trends in the area look like and how to appropriately respond to a spike in positive cases can ultimately help keep the broader school, campus and surrounding community safe.”
1 CNN, “January 4 Coronavirus Pandemic and Omicron Variant News”
2 CNBC, “Omicron Makes Up 95% of Sequenced COVID Cases in U.S. as Infections Hit Pandemic Record”
3 Inside Higher Ed, “Colleges Extend Remote Instruction”
4,5,6,7 U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Opening of Large Institutions of Higher Education and County-Level COVID-19 Incidence”
8 U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Stay Up to Date With Your Vaccines”
9,10,11,12 U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “COVID-19”
La información proporcionada en estos materiales brinda información general y de asesoría. It shall not be considered legal advice. The Hartford does not warrant that the implementation of any view or recommendation contained herein will: (i) result in the elimination of any unsafe conditions at your business locations or with respect to your business operations; or (ii) will be an appropriate legal or business practice. The Hartford assumes no responsibility for the control or correction of hazards or legal compliance with respect to your business practices, and the views and recommendations contained herein shall not constitute our undertaking, on your behalf or for the benefit of others, to determine or warrant that your business premises, locations or operations are safe or healthful, or are in compliance with any law, rule or regulation. Readers seeking to resolve specific safety, legal or business issues or concerns related to the information provided in these materials should consult their safety consultant, attorney or business advisors. All information and representations herein are as of February 2022.