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A New Priority for Teachers in the Classroom This Fall: Staying Healthy

teacher and student wearing masks in a classroom

Eyecrave / Getty Images 

Key Takeaways

  • As schools reopen in the midst of a pandemic, teachers face the daunting task of protecting their students and themselves.
  • Risk increases when teachers have no way to track which students were exposed to the virus outside of the classroom.
  • Experts recommend wearing masks, repeatedly sanitizing surfaces, not touching their faces, and being vigilant about sending students home who may show signs of contagion. 

As the school year fast approaches for some states and has already begun in others, teachers are being forced to navigate their roles as educators through the lens of the coronavirus pandemic.

Being back in a crowded classroom for six hours a day, even on a hybrid schedule, poses numerous risks to public health. Thus, teachers must go to great lengths to uphold all necessary safety precautions in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and protect the health of their students and themselves.

Potential Health Risks Faced by Teachers

Michael Devine, MD, dual-board certified internist and geriatrician and co-founder of Devine Concierge Medicine, says that as we move toward regaining a sense of normalcy, children and teachers are set to return to the classroom this fall, facing a yet to be determined risk of being exposed.

Teachers, like anyone else, face risks when spending the day indoors with a significant number of people. In general, the more contact you have with people, the greater the risk, so it’s obvious that teachers are in a position where they could be exposed to COVID-19 while at school. 

But Sandra Kesh, MD, Deputy Medical Director, and Infectious Disease Specialist at Westmed Medical Group, says the concerns and potential risks go much deeper than this, especially since teachers don’t know what level of exposure the child has to others at home. Not to mention that kids are kids, which means their ability to follow proper handwashing and hand sanitizing protocols as well as adhering to the masking protocol, may not be as good as an adult.

Complicating matters is the fact that younger people have a greater risk of carrying asymptomatic disease, which means teachers may find themselves exposed to this infection without knowing it. This factor alone has many teachers with underlying conditions or those who live with other vulnerable people at home, wondering what precautions they should take when dealing with children. 

What Precautions Should Teachers Take When Dealing with Children? 

Make no mistake about it, COVID-19 is highly contagious. “Spread through droplets, which microscopically coat surfaces and linger in the air via aerosolization, packing children and teachers into a confined space certainly has the potential to increase the risk of transmission if basic precautions are not taken,” says Devine.

According to Kesh, the first line of defense then is to keep up with wearing masks, hand washing, social distancing, and ensuring there is enough ventilation in classrooms. 

Beyond that, she says you should also assume that when you are touching anything a kid has touched, your hands are dirty. Therefore, you’ll want to be vigilant about not touching your face, or fidgeting with your mask too much while you have it on. 

With respect to ventilation, Kesh says the more movement there is in the air, the better. “Use fans, AC and keep the windows open where possible,” she adds. 

Maintain Zero Tolerance Policy for Signs of Contagion

When it comes to children, Kesh says there should be a zero-tolerance policy when a child is sick. “If a child shows symptoms of COVID-19, it will be important to keep them home and away from others until a test determines otherwise,” she explains. 

And David Cutler, MD, family medicine physician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica agrees. "Teachers and students should be screened daily for signs of COVID-19 (fever, cough, shortness of breath) and excluded from school when any of these are present,” he says. If a student or teacher has had close exposure to COVID-19 (less than 6 feet away from a known COVID patient for more than 15 minutes), then Cutler says they should be tested for COVID-19 AND excluded from school for 14 days after their last known exposure.

“It is highly recommended to perform daily body temperature screenings on everyone entering the school before they are physically allowed in the building,” says Devine. If the temperature is found to be greater than or equal to 100 degrees Fahrenheit, he says entry should be denied for the safety of others.

In the classroom, Kesh recommends that schools use a cohort model, which can help with contract tracing — a crucial step to controlling the spread of the virus. Moreover, she says it would also be helpful for those cohorts to stay within their classrooms and for teachers to rotate to prevent children from moving throughout the school. “This way, if one kid gets sick, the exposure circle will only be the other kids in their cohort, as opposed to the entire school,” she explains. 

Michael Devine, MD

It is highly recommended to perform daily body temperature screenings on everyone entering the school before they are physically allowed in the building

— Michael Devine, MD

Outside of the classroom, Devine says group sessions and large social gatherings, including the cafeteria, gym, and playground, should be avoided. In addition to social distancing, wearing masks, and screening for symptoms, he also recommends that staff incorporate the following safety protocol.

  • Clean all surfaces including tabletops, door handles, desks, and chairs using a disinfectant as frequently as possible. Most household and commercial disinfectants are sufficient to eliminate viruses such as COVID-19.
  • Clean hands regularly with soap and water. Always follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's protocol for handwashing and use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol in-between washings or when soap and water are not available.
  • Avoid touching your face and mucous membranes. If you inadvertently have come in contact with infection by touching a contaminated surface, the virus can enter your body, most easily, through the mucous membranes (mouth, nose, eyes, etc.).
  • Consider changing your clothes and showering promptly upon returning home to limit the risk of inadvertently carrying the virus into the house with you. It is recommended not to wear the shoes that you wore to work inside your home.

“It is important to note that face coverings, masks, and shields (excluding N95 or P100 respirators), do very little to protect you, personally, from the virus,” says Devine. They do, however, significantly decrease the chance of you spreading the virus to others. “If everyone participates, then all parties are protected,” he adds. 

Tips for Staying Safe and Healthy at School

While you may not have control over the model your district adopts, you can take steps to stay safe and healthy if you’re required to be in the classroom this fall. 

That said, Kesh points out that so much depends on what your school does and has in terms of resources. With that in mind, here are a few things she says to consider before you go back to work.

Communicate With School Administrators

  • Make sure your school administrator has thought out all the scenarios and kept the safety of their teachers top of mind. Teachers are at higher risk for more severe disease because they are older. 
  • Teachers should feel comfortable asking administrators what plans they have in place. Ask about contact tracing and time out of work if you’re sick. 
  • Every board of education will have its own approach to managing their schools, but it’s good to ask questions.

Stock Up on Protective Equipment

Once school starts, William Li, MD, a physician-scientist, and Angiogenesis Foundation President says, you’ll want to stock up on supplies and take safety precautions during the day. Here are his tips for staying safe and healthy at school. 

  • Stock up on masks. Get a supply of decent masks made of a minimum of two layers. He recommends bringing several to school and also keeping a supply in the car. 
  • Consider eye protection. If you have access to clear eye shields, wearing them can offer even more protection. 
  • Practice proper hand hygiene. Hand wash frequently and use hand sanitizer multiple times a day.
  • Communicate concerns to administrators. Tell the school administration about any concerns regarding your safety or the safety of your students. The old adage: see something, say something applies in the COVID-19 era.

And finally, when it comes to your time outside of school, Cutler points out that it’s important for teachers to pay attention to self-care habits that help boost immunity and overall physical and mental health. This includes staying well-nourished, getting adequate sleep, managing stress, exercising daily, and reaching out for help when you need it. He also stresses the importance of avoiding tobacco and moderating alcohol consumption.

Additionally, Cutler says now, more than ever, it’s crucial to control cardiovascular risk factors like diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol, and obesity, which are all conditions that might put you at an increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19.

What This Means for You

Educators, parents, and students are dealing with a tremendous amount of stress and uncertainty right now. Teachers are torn between their desire to return to the classroom and their need to keep themselves, their students, and families safe. Unfortunately, there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution to any of this. That’s why it’s critical to communicate any concerns about health and safety to your administrators and district officials.

And remember, you’re not alone. Ask for support from other staff members and union leaders. And don’t hesitate to reach out to your doctor or a mental health professional if you are feeling overwhelmed about heading back to the classroom.

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Article Sources
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  1. CDC. Information for pediatric healthcare providers. Updated July 17, 2020.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. When and how to wash your hands.  Updated April 2, 2020. 

  3. CDC. People with certain medical conditions. Updated July 30, 2020.