COVID-19: K-12 Schools

DHS supports CDC updated recommendations from July 27, 2021 stating that all teachers, staff, students, and visitors of K-12 schools wear masks indoors regardless of vaccination status.


School district leaders across the state have been consulting with their local and tribal health departments and making difficult decisions as they balance the need for virus mitigation measures with quality instruction, access to technology and internet, and the challenge of connecting students and families with needed resources like food, special education services, mental health services.

The guidance and resources on this page will help decision-makers plan, prepare, and respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kids wearing masks in a hallway

Ensuring the safety of Wisconsin students is key to furthering their education.

Guidance and resources

Our recommendations will be updated as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve. The CDC has additional information for school and program administrators in K-12 and higher learning settings.

 K-12 Outbreak Guidance

Guidelines for the Prevention, Investigation, and Control of COVID-19 Outbreaks in K-12 Schools in Wisconsin will help local and tribal health departments to be prepared so that outbreaks can be addressed quickly and the students, school staff, and entire community can be as safe and healthy as possible.

Post-vaccination guidance for schools is also available.

Guidelines for the Prevention, Investigation, and Control of COVID-19 Outbreaks in K-12 Schools in Wisconsin, P-02757

 Testing Support for Wisconsin Schools

To assist public and private schools in operating safely, DHS has received federal funding to develop a program to support school-based COVID-19 testing for teachers, staff, students, and their families. More information on the program can be found on the COVID-19: K-12 School Testing Program webpage.

 Guidance for Youth Programs

The CDC has provided suggestions for youth and summer camps as well as a readiness and planning tool for camp administrators. Considerations for youth sports are also available from the CDC.

 Recommendations for Graduation Ceremonies

The Department of Health Services (DHS) recommends that people avoid large events and gatherings, including traditional graduation ceremonies. If a school decides to hold an in-person graduation ceremony, they should hold it outdoors (if possible), limit attendance to allow participants and attendees from different households to stay at least 6 feet apart, require masks for those who are unvaccinated, and ensure that their events comply with all applicable local public health orders.


Schools that choose to hold graduation ceremonies can follow CDC’s recommended phased mitigation strategies (see bottom of Table 2) for extracurricular activities to help inform safety measures based on their local level of community transmission. Schools holding graduation ceremonies should also follow CDC’s Guidance for Organizing Large Events and Gatherings.

  • Some ideas to mitigate the risk of in-person graduation ceremonies include:
  • Holding ceremonies outdoors in a space large enough to allow for physical distancing of 6 feet or more between members of different households.
  • Limiting the number of attendees for each graduate.
  • Requiring masks for all participants and in-person attendees.
  • For indoor ceremonies, making sure ventilation systems are operating properly and increase the circulation of outdoor air as much as possible.
  • Ensuring that there are adequate supplies to support healthy hygiene, such as soap, water, hand sanitizer containing at least 60% alcohol, paper towels, and no-touch trash cans.
  • If open, limit the number of people who occupy restrooms at one time to allow for physical distancing.
  • Ensuring that people standing in line can maintain 6-feet of distance from one another. It may be helpful to post signs or markers to help attendees maintain the appropriate physical distance.
  • Encouraging guests to avoid singing or shouting, especially indoors. If possible, keep music levels down so people do not have to shout or speak loudly to be heard.

Some ideas to honor seniors through virtual or other alternative celebrations include:

  • Holding a virtual graduation ceremony and mailing diplomas to graduates.
  • Asking seniors to send individual videos with short messages to their graduating classmates. This, with the traditional filmed speeches by invited speakers, creates a longer film highlighting the graduates’ high school experiences and provides a long-term memento.
  • Highlighting seniors on social media each day with special hashtags that allow for family, friends, and community members to congratulate individual students (who agree to participate) with photos and messages.
  • Using main street windows to display pictures of individual students (who agree to participate).
  • Securing a digital billboard and displaying messages directly from graduates to their class. Consider expanding to include messages from families and friends to graduates as well.
  • Individualized ceremonies: School leaders could visit each graduate’s home, while remaining outside and at least 6 feet away, to congratulate and take photos of each graduate in their cap and gown and holding their diploma. This type of recognition may need to be conducted over the course of several days depending on the class size.
  • Drive-through ceremonies, with families in separate vehicles. Examples of drive-through ceremonies that involve minimal risk include:

Model 1: Students and their families drive up to the school wearing masks. Only the student gets out of the car to receive the diploma, the emcee says the name of the student on a loud speaker, a photo or video is taken of the student more than 6 feet from school staff, and the family drives away. All of this would be done in a single-file line with support from law enforcement to ensure public safety and flow of traffic.

Model 2: All family members stay in the car. The senior is in the front seat and the school’s representative passes the diploma through the car window and shares congratulations. Everyone wears masks. This could be held in alphabetical order, and would be done in a single-file line with support from law enforcement to ensure public safety and flow of traffic.

As school districts plan for alternatives to traditional graduation ceremonies, they should coordinate with local public health departments, local law enforcement, legal counsel, families, and other community members to ensure that any graduation celebration meets all expectations and requirements for physical distancing or other public health protections.

 Webinars for Local Public Health and School Stakeholders

Frequently asked questions

Why should kids in schools be wearing masks, even if fully vaccinated?

K-12 schools are settings with high mixing of vaccinated and unvaccinated people because COVID-19 vaccines are not available to children under 12. In accordance with CDC guidance, DHS recommends schools require universal masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors, regardless of vaccination status. Children should return to full-time in-person learning in the fall with layered prevention strategies in place.

What is the latest guidance on physical distancing in school settings?

DHS, in alignment with CDC guidance updates, is revising its guidance for preventing the spread of COVID-19 in K-12 schools. This includes acceptance of CDC’s updated recommendation (as of 3/19/21) that schools maintain a minimum of 3 feet of physical distance between students in classrooms where mask use is universal. Teachers and adult school staff still must maintain at least 6 feet of physical distance at all times. This updated guidance does not change the distance used to define close contacts in a K-12 schools; that remains at 6 feet.

In areas of high community transmission, middle and high school students should be at least 6 feet apart, if cohorting is not possible. Furthermore, a minimum of 6 feet of distance should be maintained in the following settings:

  • When masks cannot be worn, such as when eating.
  • During activities when increased exhalation occurs, such as singing, shouting, band, or sports and exercise. Move these activities outdoors or to large, well-ventilated space, when possible.
  • In common areas such as school lobbies and auditoriums.

For more information, see CDC’s K-12 School Operational Strategy.

What are the exclusion criteria in schools and child care settings when someone experiences symptoms post-COVID vaccination?

Systemic signs and symptoms, such as fever, fatigue, headache, chills, muscle aches and pain, and joint pain, can occur following COVID-19 vaccination. Preliminary data from mRNA COVID-19 vaccine trials indicate that most systemic post-vaccination signs and symptoms:

  • Are mild to moderate in severity.
  • Occur within the first three days of vaccination (the day of vaccination and the following two days, with most occurring the day after vaccination).
  • Resolve within 1-2 days of onset.
  • Are more common and severe following the second dose, and among younger persons compared to those who are older (>55 years).

Cough, shortness of breath, runny nose, sore throat, or loss of taste or smell are not consistent with post-vaccination symptoms, and instead may be symptoms of SARS-CoV-2 or another infection.

The following chart should be followed for exclusion criteria when someone starts to experience symptoms within three days (the day of vaccination and following two days) of receiving either dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Signs and symptoms
Suggested approach
Signs and symptoms unlikely to be from COVID-19 vaccination:
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Runny nose
  • Sore throat
  • Loss of taste or smell

Follow exclusion criteria in the Guidelines for the Prevention, Investigation, and Control of COVID-19 Outbreaks in Child Care Settings and Guidelines for the Prevention, Investigation, and Control of COVID-19 Outbreaks in K-12 Schools in Wisconsin.

If performed, a negative SARS-CoV-2 antigen test in a staff member who has signs and symptoms that are not typical for post-vaccination should be confirmed by a SARS-CoV-2 nucleic acid amplification test (NAAT), such as RT-PCR or LAMP.

Signs and symptoms that may be from either COVID-19 vaccination, SARS-CoV-2 infection, or another infection (for example, influenza):
  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Chills
  • Muscle aches/pain
  • Joint pain

Recommend evaluation by health care provider.

Staff who meet the following criteria may be considered for return to work without viral testing for SARS-CoV-2:

  • Feel well enough and are willing to work.
  • Are afebrile.*
  • Systemic signs and symptoms are limited only to those listed to the left (i.e., do not have other signs and symptoms of COVID-19 including cough, shortness of breath, sore throat, or change in smell or taste.

If symptomatic staff return to work and symptoms are not improving or if symptoms persist for more than two days, they should be excluded from work pending further evaluation from a healthcare provider. If feasible, recommend viral testing.

If diagnosed with another illness, refer to your district's return to work policy.

*Staff with fever should be excluded from work pending further evaluation, including consideration for SARS-CoV-2 testing. If an infectious etiology is not suspected or confirmed as the source of their fever, they may return to work when they feel well enough.


Do fully vaccinated (greater than 14 days after final vaccine dose) students and staff need to follow the exclusion guidance in the Guidelines for the Prevention, Investigation, and Control of COVID-19 Outbreaks in K-12 Schools in Wisconsin if they develop symptoms?

Yes, fully vaccinated symptomatic students and staff should follow the exclusion criteria in the Guidelines for the Prevention, Investigation, and Control of COVID-19 Outbreaks in K-12 Schools in Wisconsin. It is possible for fully vaccinated individuals to experience mild COVID-19 infections. Fully vaccinated symptomatic students and staff should be encouraged to get tested for COVID-19.

Are teachers and other school staff required to follow quarantine and isolation protocols?

Although the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) has acknowledged that there may be circumstances wherein certain workers would need to be exempted from quarantine protocols, DHS limited these exemptions to health care workers and other situations where quarantine could impact “public health and safety.” This means that school administrators, teachers, and other staff should continue to follow the quarantine and isolation protocols in the school outbreak guidance released by DHS.

An unvaccinated student or faculty/staff member previously had a positive COVID-19 antibody test. Should quarantine be recommended if they have close contact with someone with COVID-19?

Yes, if the student or faculty/staff member is not fully vaccinated, they should stay home and quarantine. Although a positive antibody test can show that a person has had a past SARS-CoV-2 infection, it cannot currently measure whether the person’s immune response generated enough of the specific types of antibodies needed to prevent reinfection. 

According to the CDC, people who are not fully vaccinated and had a positive antibody test result within 3 months of their close contact do not need to quarantine if:

  • they do not develop symptoms and 
  • they have limited or no contact with people at high risk for severe COVID-19 illness.

However, in nearly all settings where close contact with others is possible or likely, including schools, the exposed person cannot be certain of every person’s risk of severe COVID-19 illness. For this reason, DHS continues to recommend quarantine for students or faculty/staff who are not fully vaccinated and who have tested antibody positive at any time. 

Last Revised: July 28, 2021

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 The information on this page contains Department of Health Services (DHS) recommendations, some of which may be required based on state or local orders. Please contact your local or tribal health department for more information on COVID-19 related public health orders in your community.