15 considerations for independent school reopening plans


15 considerations for independent school reopening plans

Please take a few minutes to tell us how your independent school currently plans to reopen this fall.

As educators across the country have spent their summers preparing for what is sure to be an unpredictable and unprecedented school year ahead, EAB’s Independent School Executive Forum has been researching the key considerations school leaders must keep in mind while making critical reopening decisions. We have convened school leaders and have reviewed dozens of return to learn plans to hone in on the key factors K-12 leaders must address in preparing for next school year.

In spite of dauntingly detailed state guidance, school leaders must plan for this upcoming year in the face of more unknowns than knowns. However, new and unfamiliar schedules and multimodal or blended learning seem likely to remain constant through the 2020-2021 school year.  

Below are critical considerations to remember while planning to safely reopen school buildings this fall.

1. Calculate safe building capacity, but don’t overthink it

In determining how many people can safely enter schools under COVID-19 building protocols, leaders should apply a formula based on information they currently have and plan from there. Early-opener insights reveal that calculating building capacity using a lower faculty to student ratio than normal can help maintain social distancing and minimize contact exposure.

Some schools like the St. Paul’s Schools have used an analytic tool to help plan for safe desk placement in their classrooms. This Excel tool uses room inventory and space optimization to provide layouts and guidance on how to safely arrange classrooms while fitting a maximum number of people.

Student to Teacher Ratio x Rooms

10-15 students per teacher, per room

Fraction of Normal Capacity

50% of full capacity

Total Occupants per Square Foot

(## students + staff)*113
xx square feet

2. Get creative in repurposing building spaces to maximize your instructional space denominator

School leaders should innovate when it comes to space utilization, focusing on ways to repurpose adjacent spaces to allow for lower density of individuals and greater physical distance among them.

Consider reassigning campus spots such as cafeterias, gymnasiums, and labs to allow for social distancing among students. And be sure not to overlook administrative spaces to allow for social-distancing within offices. Some independent schools are requesting that administrative workers continue working from home so that the school can use conference rooms and common spaces for socially-distanced instruction.

Also consider moving classes outdoors when possible. For instance, Denmark and Scotland are placing tents on school grounds, using stadiums and parking lots, and considering the use of municipal parks for experiential high school courses. Other schools are opting to contract the use of idled community spaces including performing arts centers, churches, and health clubs such as the local YMCA.

3. Determine which students will return first by considering childcare needs, enrollments, and overall complexity

Given limited capacity, many early openers in Europe prioritized certain groups of students to come back first. EAB has commonly heard of independent schools that include both a lower and upper school opting to bring back only their youngest students for face to face learning while older students will remain remote. The rationale for this model is that in-person lessons are often essential to avoid enrollment losses for younger students, while self-disciplined older students can thrive in a distance learning environment.

For schools that include just an upper school, a middle and upper school, or just a lower division, consider alternating all students between face to face and distance learning using A/B weeks, A/B days, or spit-day schedules.

4. If opting for a part-time schedule, consider the right balance of four main priorities: health safety, childcare needs, enrollment impact, and cost/complexity

Using the four variables listed above, EAB researchers graded several return strategies—including A/B Weeks, A/B days, and split-day schedules. An A/B day model seems most promising in its reduced risk and balance of consistency and cost, though for schools that serve primary students, an early grades face-to-face model can be best for avoiding enrollment losses.

Return StrategyK12 Leader Insights
Early Grades, F2FBest option for schools who serve primary students to avoid school enrollment loss
A/B WeeksPushback on weeks without childcare, not ideal for learning retention
A/B DaysRight balance of consistency and cost for many
Split-Day ScheduleClosest to normal schedule, but daunting costs

5. Create fallbacks for faculty and staff who choose not to return

With one in four private school teachers aged 55 or older and many having immunocompromised conditions, school leaders likely need to prepare for the possibility that some teachers may not be able to return to a classroom setting.

Consider deploying medically vulnerable teachers as online instructors, virtual class co-teachers, or 1:1 virtual tutors. They can also fill newly needed blended learning roles such as distance learning coaches, grading specialists, and family customer service support roles.

These teachers will be especially helpful in supporting the population of students who remain remote, as they can offer tailored services such as coaching students during synchronous or asynchronous learning, providing 1:1 online tutoring, and answering family questions in real time.

Remote Learning Instruction

Online-Only Instructor livestreams or records lessons for remote students; main teacher for “online semester” cohorts

Virtual Class Co-Teacher supports synchronous hybrid classes; facilitates group breakout activities

Virtual 1:1 Tutor provides individual support and remediation, synchronously or through asynchronus feedback

Support for Blended Learning

Distance Learning Coach coaches on migrating to multimodality; revises existing materials and designs new courses

Grading Specialist evaluates and assigns grades to tests, papers, projects, etc. using standardized answer keys and grading rubrics

Family Customer Service offers on-demand technology support to families with students in distance learning environments

6. Minimize student traffic contact and preserve social distancing in common spaces

Evaluate which measures your school can implement to reduce common area traffic such as the use of grade-specific entrances or building zones, staggered cafeteria meals and recess sessions, and one-way traffic in corridors.

Also consider ways to maintain social distancing with policies that eliminate the use of lockers, school supply sharing, and communal water fountains, for example.

7. Reduce upper school classroom transitions as much as possible

While logistically difficult, school leaders need to consider upper school schedule modifications to reduce contact exposure. Three alternative models could help accomplish this:

  • Teacher Rotations: students remain in the same classroom, but their subject matter teachers rotate across rooms
  • In-Building Livestreams: students remain in one room with the same teacher all day; the same courses are taught live and livestreamed at the same hour, so all students are involved in synchronous learning  
  • Multiweek Experiential Electives: an idea originating at Colorado College that places students and teachers in the same room for three-to-four-week intensives that focus on a single subject at a time

8. Embrace low-tech, high frequency cleaning protocols

Deep cleans are costly and not overwhelmingly effective as they can lack lasting impact. Instead, consider quick-win efforts that custodians, teachers, and even students can employ.


  • Clean high traffic-area door handles twice during school day
  • Mark floors with social distancing reminders


  • Hourly hand washing breaks
  • Sanitize hands when entering and exiting rooms


  • Teach students to effectively wipe down digital devices
  • Create social distancing etiquette words like “please” and “thank you”

9. Prepare to coordinate school-based point of care testing

In lieu of a vaccine, robust testing will be vital, and schools are likely to play a role, though most schools seem to be using temperature checks as a proxy—at least for now. When it comes to testing, Israel has relied on parents, Germany has partnered with community businesses, and the US is betting on subsidized public-private partnerships.

10. Partner with peer school(s) to secure PPE or consider developing in-house production capabilities


Estimated cost per month for two masks a day for a school with an average enrollment of 473 students and 70 staff

Experts tell us that personal protective equipment (PPE) is essential for containing the spread of the coronavirus; however, tight supply chains, price increases, and uncertainty around how much PPE is really needed have proven obstacles in procuring adequate amounts of equipment. If an independent school with an average enrollment of 473 students and 70 staff were to provide two disposable masks for in-school staff and students each day, it would likely cost over $75,000 in just one month.

More cost-effective solutions involve partnering with neighboring schools to secure supply chains or to develop PPE in house through the use of 3D printing.

11. When it comes to athletics programming, monitor state associations for phased guidelines

The questions of when and how sports can safely resume are on the minds of many students, families, and educators, but different sports have different risks associated with them.

The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) and the Sports Medicine Advisory Committee (SMAC) have provided schools with guidance for relaunching high school athletics that prescribe required precautions and activities for each phase of reopening.

Lower risk

Individual running events, golf, tennis, swimming

Moderate risk

Basketball, field hockey, soccer, baseball, softball, volleyball

Higher risk

Wrestling, football, lacrosse, competitive cheer, dance

12. Plan for various transportation scenarios

Ensuring social distancing on school buses will likely be difficult and expensive as it can limit bus capacity by as much as 80%. Purchasing more buses is cost prohibitive. And since many bus drivers are at an age that puts them at risk of critical infection, widespread bus driver shortages may worsen.

School leaders can start with quick wins to mitigate transportation concerns, such as securing PPE for all drivers and surveying drivers now about their intent to return in the fall. Now is also the time to consider if buses will be where health screenings take place and to revisit K-12 ride-sharing options.

13. Plan to keep students in their classrooms for meals—if possible

Schools can take minimal safety measures when it comes to dining protocols by at least limiting the total number of students allowed in a dining space at any time and removing buffet style eating. The ideal safety measures, though, would entail keeping students in their classrooms for meals, serving only prepackaged meals or encouraging students to bring their own, and using disposable food service items, such as utensils and dishes.

14. For boarding schools, consider the public health tradeoffs and potential viral spread in dorms and residence halls

Given the proven difficulty of containing the spread of the virus on bathroom surfaces and in shared tight spaces, such as dorm rooms, exemplary schools will prioritize public health guidance above all else in the reopening of student dormitories.

An exemplary school may limit overall dormitory capacity to approximately 50% capacity, will limit hall bathrooms to as few students as possible, will guarantee a single room to every student who requests one, will hold room capacity to no more than two students, and will have isolated quarantine units prepared for any infected students.

15. Prepare your boarding school’s approach to quarantining infected students, considering tradeoffs between cost and risk

The CDC recommends schools have isolated units prepared for students who may become infected with COVID-19. These units will ideally be individual living quarters with individual restrooms, negative pressure ventilation systems, laundry and sanitation services, meal delivery, and no visitation permitted.  

Lower cost approaches, such as confining the infected student to their own standard room, tend to carry higher risk. Another approach isolates students in the facility while they remain quarantined in a room. This allows multiple confirmed cases to be cohorted into an isolation room, although this approach runs a high risk of spread among the quarantined roommates. For schools attempting to secure isolation and quarantine facilities on their campus, they can follow the lead of many colleges and universities who’ve contracted off-campus hotels or recreational venues as quarantine units.

Independent school reopening this fall will likely take numerous forms and will inevitably vary according to your school community’s needs. However, across the board, effective reopening strategies will take into account many of the safe building protocols and enrollment impact considerations described above.

To support our partners during this critical planning phase, EAB has developed Independent School Rapid Response Team Frameworks. Use these frameworks as checklists to guide your leadership team’s key decisions on choosing a reopening schedule, enforcing health and safety measures, finding roles for medically vulnerable teachers, implementing fall retention efforts, and designing a crisis relief fund.

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