COVID-19: Schools

As of May 13 2021
The CDC’s school guidance for mask wearing remains unchanged. Most students will still be unvaccinated and schools should follow CDC’s guidance for schools. Teachers, school administrators, and staff should continue to follow CDC’s school guidance until more people and children are vaccinated. Students and staff on buses should continue to follow all masking and physical distancing guidelines.

 

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. Part of this program will include providing interested schools and school districts with guidance and connections to COVID-19 testing vendors.

Participation in the program is voluntary. Testing supplies, diagnostics, and specimen collection services will be provided free of cost.

Participating schools and school districts can design their testing program to include any of the following elements:

  • Diagnostic testing for symptomatic individuals and close contacts;
  • Testing participants and/or attendees of school-based events or activities
  • Regular screening testing for asymptomatic individuals (such as weekly screenings)

This testing support is intended to complement other mitigation efforts in schools, such as universal and correct use of masks, maintaining adequate physical distance, and thorough handwashing.

Download the school testing program fact sheet.

Three Key Reasons to Test in Schools
  • Testing helps reduce community spread and keeps schools operating safely. Testing individuals who are symptomatic and close contacts helps enable rapid detection of cases in the school community to reduce or prevent school outbreaks. A routine screening testing program, which regularly tests people without symptoms or known exposures, is a crucial tool to reduce “silent” spread of the virus and can help protect students, teachers, and staff. According to the CDC, at least 50% of infections are likely contracted from someone that is asymptomatic (showing no symptoms) or pre-symptomatic (not currently showing symptoms but may develop them in the future).
  • Testing in schools helps ensure equitable access. Having testing available in schools makes testing available as a trusted, convenient, safe part of the community on a schedule that works for kids, teachers, staff and their families without requiring extra appointments or transportation.
  • Testing increases confidence in schools’ ability to operate safely. Students, parents/guardians, teachers, and staff may be anxious about returning to in-person learning without knowing whether they may be exposed to infection by others in the school community. Strong testing programs with regular and transparent data sharing can help calm concerns about school safety.
Available Testing Supplies

DHS is currently providing Point-Of-Care (POC) Antigen and confirmatory polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests to schools participating in the program. These tests and supplies are available free of charge by ordering from DHS at https://covid19supplies.wi.gov/Testing.

In order to perform POC Antigen Testing, the school must: 

  • Have a Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA) Certificate of Waiver or be working with a partner (such as a local and tribal public health department) who holds this certificate type.
  • Test results must be reported to the State of Wisconsin and to federal authorities (HHS). Reporting account set-up and guidance is available from DHS.

Schools should plan to facilitate PCR testing as needed based on DHS guidance

Note: DHS is developing more robust testing support for the 2021-2022 school year. Additional testing supplies may be available for Spring and Summer 2021. More information will be shared as it is available.

Program Participation

All tests must be ordered by a clinician with prescribing authority (MD, DO, PA, or NP). 
Schools conducting testing under Dr. Westergaard’s, DHS Chief Medical Officer, statewide standing order for point of care tests will be required to complete an attestation form and plan to facilitate access to confirmatory PCR testing as needed. See the POC antigen test standing order.

All POC testing must be performed under a CLIA certificate or a certificate of waiver.
If you need a CLIA waiver, you find directions for obtaining one through Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.  

Test supplies can be ordered through the State of Wisconsin.
Visit the Wisconsin COVID-19 Collection Supplies Request website to order testing materials. These will be shipped to your school.

Schools must obtain consent prior to conducting testing. Template consent forms are available from the Shah Family Foundation.

Participating schools must report all test results to the State of Wisconsin and to federal authorities (HHS). Reporting account set-up and guidance is available from DHS. 

Guidance for individuals waiting for a test result or who test positive can be found in the DHS Guidelines for the Prevention, Investigation, and Control of COVID-19 Outbreaks in K-12 Schools in Wisconsin. Exclusion criteria for fully vaccinated individuals can be found in the FAQs below.

 View the April 23, 2021 webinar for more information on how to obtain a CLIA Certificate of Waiver, how to perform testing using BinaxNOW kits, and how to report results.

If you have questions about ordering testing supplies or the school testing program in general, please email DHSK12CovidTesting@dhs.wisconsin.gov

 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 medium- and large-sized gatherings, including traditional graduation ceremonies. This guidance applies even for those who are fully vaccinated. If schools decide to hold an in-person graduation ceremony, they should ensure that their events comply with all applicable state and 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

Webinar April 29, 2021

Webinar: April 23, 2021

Webinar: March 23, 2021

Webinar: February 24, 2021

Webinar: January 28, 2021

Webinar: December 1, 2020

 

Frequently asked questions

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.

 

 
Last Revised: May 14, 2021

 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.