Supporting Students During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Maximizing In-Person Learning and Implementing Effective Practices for Students in Quarantine and Isolation

Supporting Students During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Maximizing In-Person Learning and Implementing Effective Practices for Students in Quarantine and Isolation

As the new school year begins, we must provide every student—from every community and background—the opportunity to safely learn in-person full-time. Abrupt shifts to remote learning over the past two school years have affected students, negatively impacting their social, emotional, and mental well-being and academic achievement. They have also exacerbated racial, socioeconomic, and other educational inequities. 1

Data collected before and during the COVID-19 pandemic have shown that in-person learning, on the whole, leads to better academic outcomes, greater levels of student engagement, higher rates of attendance, and better social and emotional well-being, and ensures access to critical school services and extracurricular activities when compared to remote learning. The U.S. Department of Education (Department) is committed to supporting states and school districts in offering in-person learning to all families and doing so safely by adopting science-based strategies for preventing the spread of COVID-19 that are aligned with the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

CDC guidance makes clear that K-12 schools should prioritize in-person learning, and that schools can safely operate in-person by implementing layered prevention strategies (using multiple strategies together consistently) in alignment with CDC recommendations. Studies show that schools that consistently implemented layered prevention strategies showed lower or similar levels of transmission than the communities in which they are located. This includes helping everyone eligible to get vaccinated, universal and correct indoor masking regardless of vaccination status 2, using contact tracing in combination with isolation and quarantine, improving ventilation, and maintaining physical distance to the maximum extent possible. It is important to emphasize that schools should take all deliberate action to prevent transmission and limit exposure within schools by implementing layered prevention strategies; doing so will help to prevent outbreaks and avoid interruptions to in-person learning in the first place. More information on how to protect the health and safety of students, educators, staff, and school communities can be found in the Department's Return to School Roadmap.

Nevertheless, there may be situations when an individual or multiple members of a school community may need to isolate or quarantine due to positive COVID-19 cases. Isolation is a strategy used to separate people who have COVID-19 or symptoms of COVID-19 from those who are not infected or showing symptoms in order to prevent transmission of COVID-19. Quarantine is a strategy used to prevent transmission of COVID-19 by ensuring that unvaccinated people who have been in close contact with someone with COVID-19 stay apart from others. The decisions to isolate or quarantine should be made in coordination with guidance from state and local health officials in order to keep school communities safe and prevent the spread of COVID-19 in schools. It is important that students who are temporarily not attending school in-person due to isolation or quarantine (as well as students with other current health needs such as immunocompromised students and families) remain engaged and connected to learning with their peers and teachers in learning from home. Fortunately, there have been some examples over the past year that have shown promise for students and families, which can help inform strategies and best practices for other schools and districts.

This document is intended to support states, school districts, and schools to maximize safe in-person learning opportunities by maintaining safe school operations and to implement effective practices that address students' social, emotional, mental health, and academic needs when students are temporarily not attending school in-person due to COVID-19 cases.

Part 1: Maximizing In-Person Learning for All Students

Schools are an important part of the infrastructure of communities, and safely returning to and remaining in in-person instruction should be a top priority for all communities. Schools provide safe and supportive learning environments for students that support social and emotional development, provide access to critical services, and improve life outcomes. They also employ people, and enable parents, guardians, and caregivers to work. Though COVID-19 outbreaks have occurred in school settings, as noted above, multiple studies have shown that transmission rates within school settings, when multiple prevention strategies are in place, are typically lower than or similar to community transmission levels. As CDC's science brief on Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in K-12 Schools and Early Care and Education Programs shows, schools can reduce transmission by consistently implementing layered prevention strategies; this in turn will help students stay where they belong: safely learning in-person in the classroom.

Here's What States, School Districts, and Schools Should Do to Maximize In-Person Learning for All Students:

States, school districts, and schools working to safely reopen schools and maintain in-person instruction should include the following strategies in local operations plans consistent with health and safety guidelines. All of these strategies can be supported with funding from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARP Act). The ARP Act provided states and school districts with nearly $122 billion in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds 3 — flexible resources that, among other uses, may be used to implement public health protocols and policies in line with guidance from the CDC for the reopening and operation of school facilities to effectively maintain the health and safety of students and staff:

  1. Avoid Outbreaks by Using Layered Prevention Strategies: Consistent with CDC guidance, prioritize offering in-person learning to all students by implementing layered prevention strategies from the very start of the school year. This includes helping everyone eligible to get vaccinated, universal and correct indoor masking, improving ventilation, physical distancing to the maximum extent possible (see below), implementing screening testing programs, contact tracing in combination with isolation and quarantine (see below), and more. Vaccination is the leading public health prevention strategy to end the COVID-19 pandemic. Promoting vaccination can help schools safely return to and sustain in-person learning as well as extracurricular activities and sports. CDC guidance includes strategies for promoting vaccination.

  2. Effectively Perform Contact Tracing, in Combination with Isolation and Quarantine, in Alignment with CDC Guidance: Decisions about when and which students should quarantine or isolate should be consistent with CDC guidance. The CDC guidance on contact tracing reinforces how universal masking policies benefit students, and that use of layered mitigation strategies helps prevent transmission in the first place to keep school communities safe and keep students learning in-person. It is also important to note that funds under the ARP Act may be used to support contact tracing efforts. CDC's latest toolkit will help schools effectively implement contact tracing, isolation, and quarantine.

  3. Use Cohorting, Seating Charts, and Other Strategies to Maintain Distancing and Minimize Spread Within School Buildings: Based on studies from the 2020-2021 school year, the CDC recommends schools maintain at least 3 feet of physical distance between students within classrooms, combined with indoor mask wearing to reduce transmission risk. When it is not possible to maintain a physical distance of at least 3 feet, such as when schools cannot fully reopen while maintaining these distances, it is especially important to layer multiple other prevention strategies, such as universal masking, screening testing, cohorting, improved ventilation, handwashing and covering coughs and sneezes, staying home when sick with symptoms of infectious illness including COVID-19, and regular cleaning to help reduce transmission risk. To the maximum extent possible, schools should cohort their students—meaning that they should keep people together in a small group and have each group stay together throughout an entire day to the extent possible. Cohorting can be used to limit the number of students, teachers, and staff who come in contact with each other, especially when it is challenging to maintain physical distancing, such as among young children, and particularly in areas of moderate-to-high transmission levels. Cohorts should not group students by perceived ability or in ways that perpetuate tracking. The use of cohorting can limit the spread of COVID-19 between cohorts but should not replace other prevention measures within each group. Seating charts can also help to effectively contact trace and understand which students were situated next to whom, especially in grades or circumstances where cohorts are not able to be maintained throughout the day (including in the cafeteria). Also, using additional spaces outside of the cafeteria for mealtime seating, such as the gymnasium or outdoor seating, can help facilitate distancing and reduce transmission during eating.

Part 2: Strategies for Effective Learning When Students Are Temporarily Unable to Attend In-Person

When students are temporarily unable to attend school in-person because of COVID-19 cases and remote learning is therefore temporarily implemented, it is essential that states, school districts, and schools put in place policies to ensure that students continue to access high-quality and rigorous learning, that students' basic needs are addressed, and that their social, emotional, and mental health needs are met. These policies should specifically address the specific needs of students most impacted by the pandemic—who are often the same students who have been underserved prior to COVID-19—and ensure that delivery of instruction and other critical services are as high-quality as they would be when delivered in person.

States, school districts, and schools should pay particular attention to the many students—including English learners, students with disabilities, students of color, students in rural or tribal communities, students experiencing homelessness, and students from low-income backgrounds—who disproportionately lack access to the internet and digital devices. These students—and all students—should receive high-quality, technology-enabled learning experiences focused on inquiry, collaboration, and content creation. Funding under the ARP Act and prior Federal pandemic recovery funds may be used right now to address technology needs, including for devices, access to high-speed internet, high-quality remote learning platforms, and more.

School districts must ensure that multilingual learners and students with disabilities have equitable access to content provided via the school's technology or as part of the school's educational program. Federal disability laws require that students with disabilities be afforded an opportunity to participate in, and benefit from, educational technology aids, benefits, and services that is equal to the opportunity afforded to others. Given the possibility of isolation or quarantine due to the COVID-19 pandemic, students with disabilities eligible under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) should have individualized education programs (IEPs) that include contingent learning plans for those circumstances. In addition, in all contexts, IEP Teams must also consider whether children need assistive technology devices and services.

Here's What States, School Districts, and Schools Should Do to Provide Effective Learning to Students Who Are Temporarily Unable to Attend In-Person:

States, school districts, and schools working to reopen schools and maintain in-person instruction should consider the following strategies and best practices to ensure all students remain engaged and connected to learning if they are temporarily unable to attend in-person due to COVID-19 cases. These strategies apply regardless of the length of time that a student is unable to attend in-person, including students who may be learning remotely for longer periods of time due to their health status or those of their family members (e.g., immunocompromised students and families). It is important that school districts plan ahead to avoid disruptions in learning and make the student learning experience as seamless as possible, using the preparation measures and strategies outlined below. All of these strategies may be supported with funding from the ARP Act through the ESSER funds described above and many are outlined in greater detail, with examples and resources, in Volume 2 of the Department's COVID-19 Handbook.

  1. Have a Plan in Advance and Communicate It with Students, Families, and Staff: Before any changes to instructional modality take place, school districts and schools should engage educators, staff, and families in a proactive, accessible, and ongoing planning, implementation, and continuous improvement process that includes frequent communications about what roles and responsibilities everyone will play in preventing transmission and—if necessary—how students will learn if they are temporarily unable to attend school in-person. School districts and schools should communicate their plans regularly and adjust as needed. Planning should include ensuring adequate staffing to meet the social, emotional, mental health, and academic needs of all students regardless of where they are learning. Schools can increase their staff capacity using funds from the ARP Act, including by hiring additional teachers, engaging parent coordinators and community liaisons to communicate with families before and during any periods when students are temporarily unable to attend school in-person due to COVID-19 cases, and implementing the strategies listed throughout this document and the Department's other resources (linked below).

  2. Ensure Rigorous and Rich Content for All Students: Provide rigorous instructional materials, including online content, that appropriately meet students where they are (whether ahead or behind) in order to meaningfully engage, enrich, challenge, and support them in effectively continuing their academic progress toward proficiency and beyond. These materials must provide appropriate language services and supports to multilingual learners, including ensuring that the rigorous online curricular content provided to other students is likewise available, on devices in multiple languages, to multilingual learners. To support students with disabilities, schools should ensure all material is accessible and must facilitate access to instruction and content, such as by ensuring websites and materials are compatible with screen reader software and providing accurate captioning and sign language interpreting for video content and video instruction. In addition, the professional development strategies described below can help schools use technology in ways that support students who are performing at different levels, such as by leveraging technology to support one-on-one or small group work with students and by using student-centered learning models.

  3. Address Technology Access: Be prepared in advance to ensure technology access so that instruction can begin immediately if a student is temporarily unable to attend school in-person due to COVID-19 cases, including ensuring access to individual devices for each student in the household, assistive technology (as needed), high-speed internet access, and technical support (including technical support for educators and staff). The ARP Act's ESSER funds may support all of these efforts. Laptops, tablets, and home internet access for students can also be purchased using funds received from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Emergency Connectivity Fund. Conduct ongoing needs assessments, including through the use of student surveys, to determine the extent to which students have access to high-speed internet and devices and the quality of access. Additional resources are available from the Department's Office of Educational Technology. Schools can also support families in accessing discounted broadband and devices through the FCC's Emergency Broadband Benefit Program. All families with a child who is currently receiving or has received free or reduced-price school meal program benefits in the last two years qualify.

  4. Meet Basic Needs and Provide Intensive Virtual Support: Provide access to food and nutritional support, including through school meal programs and the Pandemic EBT program, during periods when students are unable to access school buildings to ensure that families' basic needs are met. Supported by flexibility from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, important food distribution models include curbside distribution, home delivery, school bus route delivery, and delivery to accessible community locations (such as library parking lots) that parents can access during periods when students are temporarily unable to attend school in-person due to COVID-19 cases. Funds under the ARP Act may be used, among other purposes, to increase staff capacity and cover additional labor costs associated with school meal service equipment and supplies, meal packaging, and transportation services in order to ensure meal access and enhance distribution. In addition, states, school districts, and schools should ensure that school counselors, nurses, and other school personnel provide intensive virtual support to students and families to meet their heightened needs.

  5. Engage Families: Prioritize ongoing student and family engagement throughout any periods when students are temporarily unable to attend school in-person due to COVID-19 cases to ensure a personal touch point between the school and families each day. By involving a range of school professionals in this outreach (so that teachers alone do not bear the responsibility), students can more seamlessly return to in-person instruction and families will have resources to support their children's learning. Provide support, such as tutorials, on the use of devices, tools, and platforms made available by the school. Information must be communicated to limited English proficient parents in a language they can understand, and schools should effectively and accessibly communicate all information to parents with disabilities. Robust family engagement should also include preparing high school seniors to successfully transition to college and the workforce, including through support for FAFSA completion.

  6. Prioritize Live Teacher and Peer Interaction: High-quality learning while students are temporarily unable to attend school in-person includes both daily live interaction between students and their teachers and daily and frequent live interaction between students and their peers in order to support student well-being and maintain strong school communities and relationships. Schools should maximize the amount of live instruction offered to their students and should develop plans to ensure daily touch points with their students in live sessions, one-on-one, or in small groups, and in other ways where students are receiving education and direct outreach from a caring adult daily. Schools should adopt consistent teaching strategies that maximize student participation and collaboration and support social-emotional learning across learning modalities. Whenever possible, plans should avoid situations where teachers are expected to address both students in-person and those who are temporarily unable to attend school in-person due to COVID-19 cases simultaneously, and ARP Act funds can be used to expand staff to support students in all learning modalities.

  7. Support Educators: Provide extensive ongoing professional development, starting in advance, including opportunities for collaboration—such as through common planning time, instructional coaching, and professional learning communities—and supports for all relevant staff to ensure ongoing readiness and effectiveness. Professional learning opportunities can empower educators to effectively use technology to support student learning. Recent studies have found that teacher professional learning in technology is the most significant predictor of the type and quality of classroom technology use by students. In addition, professional development should prioritize trauma-informed care and teaching practices and help educators build more equitable and inclusive approaches to school climate, especially as they work to reengage students in the safe return to school. Teachers should also be supported to provide instruction that is flexible in case one or more students are temporarily unable to attend school in-person.

  8. Support Social, Emotional, and Mental Health: Implement strategies that explicitly address students' social, emotional, and mental health needs and encourage common planning time among educators and staff. Schools should explicitly teach critical social, emotional, and academic skills and promote safe and supportive learning environments through intentionally inclusive practices, among other evidence-based strategies. In addition, while a schoolwide approach benefits all students, school-based mental health professionals such as counselors, social workers, and psychologists might need to provide additional and more intensive support to students with the most urgent needs that have been caused or exacerbated by the pandemic. This could include addressing the disproportionate impact of social isolation on communities including LGBTQ+ students and students experiencing homelessness. A multi-tiered system of supports (MTSS) framework, like positive behavioral interventions and supports, relies on a continuum of evidence-based practices matched to student needs. School districts and schools should also support the social, emotional, and mental health needs of all staff.

Links to Resources

Department resources to support implementation of these strategies can be found here:

1 Other than statutory and regulatory requirements included in the document, the contents of this guidance do not have the force and effect of law and are not meant to bind the public. This document is intended only to provide clarity to the public regarding existing requirements under the law or agency policies.

2 Under Federal disability laws, exceptions can be made on an individual basis for a person who cannot wear a mask or cannot safely wear a mask because of a disability as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (42 U.S.C. 12101, et seq.). See

3 Districts and schools may use funding under the ARP Act to prevent, prepare for, or respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, consistent with ARP Act requirements and the Uniform Guidance in 2 CFR Part 200. For more information on allowable uses of funds under ESSER, see FAQs.