Checklist for returning to campus: Steps to take to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission

Expert Insight

Checklist for returning to campus: Steps to take to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission

As institutions prepare for potential reopenings, senior leaders must consider what protective measures to introduce to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission. To inform those conversations, EAB has conducted a literature review drawing on expert advice from professional organizations, non-profits, and other agencies. This article provides the baseline protective measures campuses should take. Importantly, this guidance should serve as a reference rather than a complete list of recommendations; it focuses on changes campus leaders can make to normal operations and does not cover medical interventions like testing. For those issues, EAB encourages universities to defer to the recommendations of national and local public health authorities.

Read on to learn more about four critical areas leaders must focus on and see early case studies from within and outside the higher education industry.

1. Cleaning and disinfection

The risk of COVID-19 infection has put custodial services in the spotlight. Campuses should expect that extensive disinfection regimens will be both required by health authorities and heavily requested by users. This increased demand on custodial services will likely require additional staffing (or at least consideration for what activities staff can stop doing in favor of disinfection). At minimum, leaders must revisit custodial staffing to ensure they have sufficient coverage. Campuses will also need to develop emergency protocols for reporting and disinfecting exposure sites if a community member falls ill.

In the longer term, mitigating transmission may mean making changes to interior design, such as installing touchless technology on doors and using hard nonporous finishes that can be easily disinfected.


  • Given cost containment efforts underway, many institutions may be considering across-the-board cuts in staffing. Frontline staff like custodians are often the first to see staffing decreases. Start conversations now with financial leaders to ensure critical groups of staff like custodians are protected.
  • Despite an increased emphasis on disinfecting, universities should also plan on ramping up general cleaning protocols to keep campus spaces looking as tidy as possible. Hospitality leaders have already reported that when customers fear transmission, lack of cleanliness can translate into an increased perceived risk of disease.
  • Leaders must establish a triage process for handling a high volume of requests for disinfection from users, as demand will likely outstrip capacity.
  • Consider whether to offer hazard pay for frontline staff, who bear the actual and psychological burden of containing the virus. Surveys of chief business officers and senior facilities officers revealed that 1.5x is the most common hourly wage multiplier from institutions currently offering hazard pay.

Case Study:

Popular Hong Kong restaurant Yardbird reopened recently following the decline of the coronavirus outbreak in the city. Customers, who are kept 1.5 meters (approximately 5 feet) apart, use a freshly disinfected pen to sign a health declaration form before sitting down to eat. Every surface in the restaurant is sanitized every half-hour, and disposable menus have replaced plastic-covered ones. While guests dine, their masks are stored in single-use envelopes provided by the restaurant.

2. Space planning and reconfiguration

For campus leaders, the biggest challenge in maintaining a six-foot distance between individuals is a shortage of space. Spacing students an adequate distance from each other in classrooms will result in drastically decreased capacity; small classes will have to be held in larger rooms, medium-sized classes will move into vast lecture halls, and massive entry-level courses will either move outside or go online.

Per-person estimates vary based on conditions, but planners in restaurants, offices, and public transit are designating anywhere from 100 to 200 square feet per individual; for most operators, this has translated into an 70-80% decrease in capacity. This will require close coordination with academic departments to make the most of campus facilities: classes may need to be shortened or have extra sessions added, and rooms not usually reserved for instructional use might be co-opted as additional classrooms.

To prepare, staff must tape off or remove furniture to discourage crowding and install markings on floors in dining halls, entryways, and any other space where people will queue. Corridors and entrances/exits may need to be marked as one way to reduce crowding (or widened if possible).

Residence halls present perhaps the biggest challenge for institutions. With most rooms configured as doubles (or more) with shared restrooms, restricting room assignments to one student will severely restrict housing capacity. (And building restrictions based on one restroom per students would reduce capacity even more dramatically). While some campuses can explore solutions such as renting blocks of hotel rooms for students, others may require greater numbers of students to live off-campus or remain at home.


The average American university is reserving fewer than 50 beds for quarantine.
The average American university is reserving fewer than 50 beds for quarantine.

Institutions must also dedicate space for quarantining suspected cases of COVID-19. Early data from the Association of College and University Housing Officers (ACUHO) indicates that the average American university is reserving fewer than 50 beds for quarantine. This is unlikely to be sufficient. At a minimum, institutions should reserve enough beds to accommodate any student returning to campus from a location with active outbreaks, with additional capacity to isolate students in the event of a campus outbreak. This number will vary based on student populations, but leaders should consult with health officials to run scenarios on transmission and ensure enough space is set aside to isolate all cases and suspected cases in an aggressive transmission scenario.

Lastly, campus leadership should revisit existing plans for non-pandemic emergency procedures, such as fire evacuations, to avoid crowding whenever possible during those events.


  • Consider the full cost of reopening—including lost revenue. Both reduced capacity and reduced demand will lead to a decline in room and board revenue. Auxiliary leaders should also prepare that they may need to issue refunds mid-semester if campuses close again.
  • Even if students are housed singly, most will still share communal bathrooms that can easily become vectors of transmission. Universities must determine how to balance room capacity with bathroom capacity, particularly since bathrooms are often poorly ventilated, which increases the risk of transmission. Some cases of COVID-19 are also believed to primarily impact the digestive system, meaning there is a possibility the disease could spread via toilets.

Case Study

Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University has announced that it will provide low-density housing to eligible students and has created an isolation plan using rooms with individual HVAC units. Dining will be takeout style only, and individuals must maintain a six-foot distance at all times. The university will adjust classroom capacity to maintain social distancing, and class schedules will also be modified to prevent large groups from gathering in common spaces. All students, faculty, and staff are also required to wear face coverings if they are in any common area on campus, whether indoors or outdoors.

3. Procurement

The focus of procurement must be on securing sufficient personal protective equipment (PPE) and cleaning supplies. At minimum, institutions must provide masks for all faculty, students, and staff. All frontline staff such as custodians and groundskeepers must have reliable access to gloves and gowns. Campuses must also procure the materials to create checkpoints at building entrances, including hand sanitizer stations and thermometers.


  • Anticipate material needs and contact suppliers to get ahead of potential shortages or slowdowns. Supply chain disruptions may cause necessary materials to be delayed and/or more expensive due to demand.
  • If universities expect to use a greater volume of cleaning supplies or will buy ahead to combat supply chain disruptions, Facilities divisions must identify sufficient storage space for unused materials (and secure access to it).
  • Universities with access to chemistry labs, makerspaces, veterinary schools, engineering facilities, or art workshops may be able to source or create disinfectants or PPE. For example, 3D printers can be used to produce face shields, veterinary labs may have PPE or other needed medical equipment stashed away, and sewing machines can be used to make face masks.

Case Study

Professor Peter Tonge, chair of the chemistry department at State University of New York at Stony Brook, mobilized his department to create hand sanitizer from scratch using raw materials on hand in labs. In just two days, a volunteer effort produced 97 gallons of homemade hand sanitizer using hydrogen peroxide, glycerol, and alcohol. The sanitizer was donated to the university hospital.

4. Education and communication

Risk-reduction measures on this front will fall into two buckets: communicating transmission-prevention protocol to students and staff and developing internal emergency response plans for what to do if an outbreak occurs. Training modules, such as these from World Health Organization, can instruct employees on how to disinfect areas properly, adjust building infrastructure like ventilation to minimize transmission, and lower risks to themselves while working. Campuses should install signage frequently and visibly to remind the campus community of policies and procedures around measures like social distancing and hand washing. (The CDC has many print resources available for circulation immediately.) Finally, campuses should make sure that all disease-prevention efforts they are making are clearly communicated to students, parents, faculty, staff, and the local community.


  • If monitoring student locations and movements is part of contact-tracing or policy-enforcement efforts, senior leaders may have to negotiate issues related to privacy and consent.
  • Facilities and other administrative divisions must cooperate with each other and with local authorities to develop outbreak response plans.

Early Solutions

The Motley Fool, an investing and personal finance site with nearly 400 employees, is planning to develop hand signs or space markers for co-workers to remind others to keep their distance. “We’re thinking through some sort of universal cue that says, ‘You’re too close to me, I need space,’ ” director of operations Shannon McLendon told the Washington Post. She also plans to step up cleaning and distribute face masks, and add foot-pulls to doors.

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