Education (K-12): Protocols for returning to operation
These protocols are for K-12 education providers and include guidance and protocols for principals and vice-principals, teachers, school support staff, contractors, bus drivers, and others. These employers may also benefit from reviewing protocols related to office space.
These protocols are not a list of requirements; however, they should be considered and implemented to the extent that they address the risks in your workplace. You may need to identify and implement additional protocols if the ones suggested here do not sufficiently address the risk to your workers.
In preparation for the 2020/2021 school year, the Ministry of Education collaborated with the Ministry of Health and key K-12 education partners and Indigenous rightsholders to develop comprehensive health and safety guidelines for K-12 school operations during the COVID-19 pandemic. These Provincial COVID-19 Health and Safety Guidelines for K-12 Settings are designed to build on the BC Centre for Disease Control’s COVID-19 Public Health Guidance for K-12 School Settings, and address a broader range of content and requirements for schools and school districts. In case of any discrepancy between these two guidance documents, the Ministry of Education expects all K-12 schools to follow the Provincial COVID-19 Health and Safety Guidelines for K-12 Settings.
Employers must also ensure they are abiding by any orders, notices, or guidance issued by the provincial health officer, and the appropriate health authority, that are relevant to their workplace.
Developing a COVID-19 safety plan
Employers are required to develop a COVID-19 Safety Plan that outlines the policies, guidelines, and procedures they have put in place to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission. Employers must involve frontline workers, joint health and safety committees, and supervisors in identifying protocols for their workplace.
The COVID-19 Safety Plan follows the six steps outlined on COVID-19 and returning to safe operation. You can also refer to the COVID-19 Safety Plan OHS Guideline for information about developing a safety plan, including the level of detail required and use of supporting documentation.
Employers are not required to submit plans to WorkSafeBC for approval, but in accordance with the order of the provincial health officer, this plan must be posted at the worksite and on their website, if they have one. During a WorkSafeBC inspection, we will ask employers about the steps they have taken to protect their workers and to see their plan.
One part of developing your COVID-19 Safety Plan is identifying protocols that everyone at the workplace must follow to keep workers safe. We’ve provided industry-specific protocols below to consider as you develop the plan for your workplace.
These protocols are not a list of requirements; however, they should be considered and implemented to the extent that they address the risks your workplace. You may need to identify and implement additional protocols if the protocols suggested here do not sufficiently address the risk to your workers.
Understanding the risk
The virus that causes COVID-19 spreads in several ways, including through droplets when a person coughs or sneezes, and from touching a contaminated surface before touching the face. Higher risk situations require adequate protocols to address the risk.
- The risk of person-to-person transmission is increased the closer you come to other people, the amount of time you spend near them, and the number of people you come near. Physical distancing measures help mitigate this risk.
- The risk of surface transmission is increased when many people contact same surface, and when those contacts happen in short intervals of time. Effective cleaning and hygiene practices help mitigate this risk.
Selecting protocols for your workplace
Note that different protocols offer different protection. Wherever possible, use the protocols that offer the highest level of protection and add additional protocols as required.
First level protection (elimination): Limit the number of people in your workplace where possible by implementing work-from-home arrangements, establishing occupancy limits, rescheduling work tasks, or other means. Rearrange work spaces to ensure that workers are at least 2 m (6 ft) from co-workers, customers, and members of the public.
Second level protection (engineering controls): If you can’t always maintain physical distancing, install barriers such as plexiglass to separate people.
Third level protection (administrative controls): Establish rules and guidelines, such as cleaning protocols, telling workers to not share tools, or implementing one-way doors or walkways.
Fourth level protection (PPE): If the first three levels of protection aren’t enough to control the risk, consider the use of masks. Ensure masks are selected and cared for appropriately and that workers are using masks correctly.
Protocols for K-12 education
The Ministry of Education expects all K-12 schools to follow the Provincial COVID-19 Health and Safety Guidelines for K-12 Settings. The protocols below are provided as additional information that school districts and individual schools may use as guidance when developing site specific protocols.
- All workers, students and other persons who have travelled outside Canada in the last 14 days or have been identified by public health as a case or a close contact of a confirmed case or outbreak of COVID-19 must stay home and self-isolate in accordance with guidance from the BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC).
- All workers, students, and other persons who develop new symptoms of illness must stay home. Key symptoms to watch for are fever, chills, cough, shortness of breath, loss of sense of smell or taste, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
- If the worker or student (or their parent) indicates that the symptoms are consistent with a previously diagnosed health condition and are not unusual for that individual, they may return to school. No assessment or note is required from a health care provider.
- For mild symptoms without fever, workers and students can monitor at home for 24 hours. If symptoms improve, they can return to school without further assessment.
- If symptoms include fever, or if after 24 hours, symptoms remain unchanged or worsen, seek a health assessment. A health assessment can include calling 8-1-1, a primary care provider like a physician or nurse practitioner, or going to a COVID-19 testing centre. Follow direction provided in the BCCDC’s COVID-19 Public Health Guidance for K-12 School Settings on what to do when a COVID-19 test is recommended by the health assessment.
- Workers and students may attend school if a member of their household develops new symptoms of illness provided the workers/students themselves have no symptoms. If the household member tests positive for COVID-19, public health will advise the asymptomatic worker/student on self-isolation and when they may return to school.
- A daily health check is required to reduce the likelihood of a person with COVID-19 coming to school when they are infectious. The BCCDC has provided a Daily Health Check Example in Appendix C of COVID-19 Public Health Guidance for K-12 School Settings. A full list of COVID-19 symptoms is available from BCCDC.
- Workers and other adults must assess themselves daily for key symptoms of illness prior to entering the school.
- Parents and caregivers must assess their child daily for key symptoms of illness before sending them to school.
- Parents and caregivers should remain outside of the school to drop off their children where possible.
- Parents, caregivers, health care providers, volunteers and other visiting adults entering the school should be prioritized to those supporting activities that are of benefit to student learning and wellbeing (e.g., teacher candidates, immunizers, meal program volunteers).
- All visitors should confirm they have no symptoms of illness.
- Schools should keep a list of the dates, names, and contact information for all visitors who enter the school.
- Develop procedures for workers and students to return home as soon as possible should they develop symptoms of illness while at school. Apply physical distancing, respiratory etiquette, and hand hygiene principles. The ill person should be provided with a non-medical mask or tissues. Consider identifying a room or area separate from others where the ill person can wait for pick-up should they not be able to return home immediately. For additional guidance in developing this procedure, refer to Appendix E of COVID-19 Public Health Guidance for K-12 School Settings.
- If there was a potential exposure at a school (i.e., a worker or student has a confirmed case of COVID-19 and attended school when they may have been potentially infectious), public health will work with the school to understand who may have been exposed, and to determine what actions should be taken. A process map for how contact tracing would occur is included as Appendix B of COVID-19 Public Health Guidance for K-12 School Settings.
- Develop procedures for workers and students to return to school with mild symptoms of illness remaining in accordance with the BCCDC’s COVID-19 Public Health Guidance for K-12 School Settings.
- Refer to the Ministry of Education’s Provincial COVID-19 Health and Safety Guidelines for K-12 Settings for additional information.
- At this time, there is no evidence that a building’s ventilation system, in good operating condition, would contribute to the spread of COVID-19.
- For activities that take place indoors, application of the basic principles of good indoor air quality should continue, including supplying outdoor air to replenish indoor air by removing and diluting contaminants that naturally occur in indoor settings. All mechanical heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems should be checked to ensure they are working properly. Where possible, schools can open windows if weather permits.
- For more information, refer to the BCCDC's COVID-19 Public Health Guidance for K-12 School Settings and the Ministry of Education’s Provincial COVID-19 Health and Safety Guidelines for K-12 Settings.
- Limit the public coming into the office. Encourage parents and others to call instead of visiting the school.
- Designate a 2 metre area in front of reception desks and consider the use of tape or other floor markers to designate where people can stand and line up (if required).
- Consider installing barriers, such as plexiglass, where physical distancing cannot be maintained and a person is interacting with individuals outside of a cohort/learning group.
- Develop policies around when students should practice hand hygiene. This should include, at minimum:
- When they arrive at school
- Before they leave home to take the bus, and when they leave school prior to taking the bus
- Before and after any breaks (e.g. recess and lunch)
- Before and after eating and drinking (excluding drinks kept at a student’s desk or locker)
- Before and after using water fountains
- After using the toilet
- After sneezing or coughing into hands
- Whenever hands are visibly dirty
- Before and after using an indoor learning space used by multiple cohorts/learning groups (e.g., gym, music room, science lab)
- Before and after outdoor play
- Facilitate regular opportunities to practice hand hygiene. Workers should assist younger students with hand hygiene as needed.
- Use portable handwashing sites or alcohol-based hand sanitizer where sinks are not available.
- Encourage students to refrain from touching their eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands.
- Emphasize that food, drinks, unwashed utensils, and cigarettes or vaping devices should not be shared.
- Limit frequently-touched items that are not easily cleaned. There is no need to limit the distribution or sharing of books or paper based educational resources to students.
- Encourage students to bring an individual, filled water-bottle or other beverage container to school each day for their personal use to support hydration. Re-filling water stations may be used. Water fountains where a person drinks directly from the spout should be used minimally, and only if no other means of water access are available.
- Students may bring personal items and school supplies to school for their own use. This includes reusable food containers for bringing snacks and meals. Items brought regularly to and from school should be limited to those that can be easily cleaned and/or considered to be low risk (e.g., clothing, paper).
- Playgrounds can be used as normal.
- Consider strategies that prevent crowding at pick-up and drop-off times.
- Remind students to avoid close greetings like hugs or handshakes.
- Consider organizing activities, including snack times, outside when practicable.
- Incorporate more individual activities or activities that encourage more space between students and workers. For elementary students, adapt group activities to minimize physical contact and reduce shared items. For middle and secondary students, minimize group activities and avoid activities that require physical contact.
- Consider different classroom configurations to maintain distance between students and adults (e.g., different desk and table formations). For middle and secondary schools, consider arranging desks/tables so students are not facing each other and using consistent seating arrangements.
- Stagger recess/snack, lunch, and class transition times to provide a greater amount of space for everyone.
- Extracurricular activities including sports, arts, or special interest clubs can occur if physical distancing can be practiced in accordance with BCCDC guidance for within- and outside-of-cohort/learning group interactions.
- Inter-school events including competitions, tournaments and festivals, should not occur at this time.
- Schools can continue to use alternate spaces outside of school grounds (e.g., community and recreation centres, other school facilities) and to provide field trips, in accordance with aligned with the BCCDC’s COVID-19 Public Health Guidance for K-12 School Settings, the Ministry of Education’s Provincial COVID-19 Health and Safety Guidelines for K-12 Settings, and any other site-specific guidance. Overnight or international field trips should not occur at this time.
- A cohort/learning group is a group of students and workers who remain together throughout a school term. The use of cohorts/learning groups reduces the number of individual interactions a person has in school.
- In elementary and middle schools, a cohort/learning group can be composed of up to 60 people.
- In secondary schools, a cohort/learning group can be composed of up to 120 people.
- Cohorts/learning groups can be composed of students and workers.
- Principals and vice-principals should determine the composition of the cohort/learning group. The composition of the cohort/learning group should remain consistent for all activities that occur in schools, including but not limited to learning and breaks (lunch, recess, classroom changes, etc.). Cohort/learning group composition can be changed at the start of a new quarter, semester or term. Outside of these, composition should be changed as minimally as possible, except where required to support optimal school functioning. This may include learning, operational, or student health and safety considerations.
- Within the cohort/learning group, physical distancing should include avoiding physical contact, minimizing close, prolonged face-to-face interactions, spreading out as much as possible within the space available.
- Consistent seating arrangements are encouraged within cohorts/learning groups where practical.
- Principals and vice-principals should keep up-to-date lists of all members of a cohort/learning group to share with public health should contact tracing need to occur.
- During break times (e.g., recess, lunch), students may want to socialize with peers in different cohorts/learning groups:
- In elementary schools, students can socialize with peers in different cohorts/learning groups if they are outdoors and can minimize physical contact or if they are indoors and can maintain physical distance.
- In middle and secondary schools, students can socialize with peers in different cohorts/learning groups if they can maintain physical distance.
- Spaces where members of different cohorts/learning groups interact should be sufficiently large and/or have limits on the number of people present so that space is available for physical distancing.
- Within and outside of cohorts/learning groups, there should be no crowding.
- Students from different cohorts/learning groups may be required to be together to receive beneficial social supports, programs, or services (e.g., meal programs, after school clubs, etc.). Within these supports or services, it is expected that cohorts/learning groups and physical distance are maintained as much as is practicable while still ensuring the support, program, or service continues. This does not apply to extracurricular activities where consistent physical distancing between cohorts/learning groups must be maintained.
- The Provincial Health Officer's Order for Mass Gathering Events does not apply to students or teachers at school when they are engaged in educational activities but does apply to community events held at schools.
Physical distancing and barriers
- Establish and post occupancy limits for shared spaces such as lunch rooms and break rooms. Consider removing chairs or tables to ensure occupancy limits are not exceeded. If possible, provide additional areas for workers to have their breaks, including outside areas if available.
- Stagger start and end of shift times as well as break times for workers to prevent crowding when entering and leaving the workplace.
- Workers and other adults should reduce the number of close, face-to-face interactions with each other at all times, even if wearing a non-medical mask. This includes during break times and in meetings.
- Provide instructions to workers on methods for maintaining physical distance such as not greeting others by hugging or shaking hands.
- Designate a 2 metre area in front of reception desks and consider the use of tape or other floor markers to designate where people can stand and line up (if required).
- Manage the flow of people in public spaces such as hallways and on stairs. This may include one-way hallways and designated entrance and exit doors. It is important not to reduce the number of exits and ensure the fire code is adhered to. Use floor markings and posters to address traffic flow throughout the school.
- If workers need to travel between worksites, maintain physical distance in vehicles wherever possible. Consider separate vehicles if possible. Larger vehicles may be able to accommodate physical distancing by using a seat configuration that maximizes distance between people.
- Consider installing barriers, such as plexiglass, where physical distancing cannot be maintained and a person is interacting with individuals outside of their cohort/learning group, including iterant workers working across cohorts/learning groups. Examples may include the front reception desk where visitors check in and in the cafeteria where food is distributed.
- Ensure hand washing supplies are available at all times including soap, paper towels and, where appropriate, 60% alcohol-based hand sanitizer. See the List of Hand Sanitizers Authorized by Health Canada. Hand hygiene stations should be set up at the school entrance and other locations as appropriate.
- Develop policies around when workers should practice hand hygiene. This should include, at minimum:
- When they arrive at school
- Before and after any breaks (e.g., recess and lunch)
- Before and after eating and drinking
- Before and after handling food or assisting students with eating
- Before and after giving medication to a student or self
- Before and after using a water fountain
- After using the toilet
- After contact with body fluids (e.g., runny noses, spit, vomit, blood)
- After removing gloves
- After handling garbage
- Whenever hands are visibly dirty
- Post handwashing signs near all sinks. WorkSafeBC handwashing signage is provided to communicate good handwashing practices. Workers, including teachers, principals, vice-principals and support workers should wash their hands frequently to reduce the risk of transmission.
- Encourage workers to bring an individual, filled water-bottle or other beverage container to school each day for their personal use to support hydration. Re-filling water stations may be used. Water fountains where a person drinks directly from the spout should be used minimally, and only if no other means of water access are available.
- Workers may bring personal items and school supplies to school for their own use. This includes reusable food containers for bringing snacks and meals. Items brought regularly to and from school should be limited to those that can be easily cleaned and/or considered to be low risk (e.g., clothing, paper).
- Limit frequently-touched items that are not easily cleaned.
Interacting with cohorts/learning groups
- Schools should minimize the number of adults (workers and others) who interact with cohorts/learning groups they are not a part of as much as is practical to do so while supporting learning and a positive, healthy, and safe environment.
- Practice physical distancing with interacting with another cohort/learning group. For example, a secondary school teacher can teach multiple cohorts/learning groups but should maintain physical distance from students and other workers as much as possible. In an elementary or secondary school, two classes from different cohorts/learning groups can be in the same learning space at the same time if physical distancing can be maintained between people from different cohorts/learning groups.
Use of personal protective equipment (PPE)
- Schools must follow the guidance and requirements on the use of PPE laid out by the BCCDC's COVID-19 Public Health Guidance for K-12 School Settings and the Ministry of Education’s Provincial COVID-19 Health and Safety Guidelines for K-12 Settings.
- Schools should be cleaned and disinfected in accordance with the BCCDC's COVID-19 Public Health Guidance for K-12 School Settings and the Ministry of Education’s Provincial COVID-19 Health and Safety Guidelines for K-12 Settings.
- Establish a cleaning and disinfection procedure which includes:
- General cleaning and disinfecting of the premises at least once every 24 hours. This includes items that only a single student uses, like an individual desk or locker.
- Cleaning and disinfecting of frequently-touched surfaces at least twice every 24 hours. These include door knobs, light switches, water fountains, toilet handles, tables, desks and chairs used by multiple students, keyboards and toys.
- Cleaning and disinfecting laminated paper-based products daily if they are touched by multiple people.
- Cleaning and disinfecting any surface that is visibly dirty.
- Empty garbage containers daily and when full.
- Provide adequate instruction, training, and supplies to custodians on the cleaning protocols developed for the workplace.
- Use common, commercially-available detergents and disinfectant products and closely follow the instructions on the label. See Health Canada’s list of hard-surface disinfectants for use against COVID-19 for specific brands and disinfectant products.
- Buses used for transporting students should be cleaned and disinfected according the guidance provided in the BCCDC’s Cleaning and Disinfectants for Public Settings document. Additional guidance is available from Transport Canada.
- Bus drivers should practice hand hygiene regularly, including before and after completing trips.
- Students should clean their hands before they leave home to take the bus, when they leave school prior to taking the bus, and when they get home.
- If space is available, students should have their own seat and sit next to the window. Where space is limited, prioritize students sharing a seat with a member of their household or cohort/learning group.
- Consistent and assigned seating arrangements should be used. Consider the order students typically load and unload to support buses being loaded from back to front and unloaded from front to back.
- Encouraging private vehicle use and active transportation (e.g., biking, walking) where possible to decrease transportation density.
- Schools/school districts should keep up-to-date passenger lists to share with public health should contact tracing need to occur.
- Schools can continue to include food preparation as part of learning and provide food services, including for sale.
- The July 31, 2020 Order of the Provincial Health Officer Food Service Establishments and Liquor Services does not apply to schools. Food Safety Legislation and the Guidelines for Food and Beverage Sales in B.C. Schools continue to apply as relevant.
- Schools should continue to emphasize that food and beverages should not be shared. Schools should not allow homemade food items to be made available at this time (e.g., birthday treats, bake sale items).
- Refer to the BCCDC's COVID-19 Public Health Guidance for K-12 School Settings and the Ministry of Education’s Provincial COVID-19 Health and Safety Guidelines for K-12 Settings for detailed guidance on food services.
- Remind workers that all health and safety measures in place prior to the pandemic are still in place.
- Attempt to mitigate worker confusion and concerns by communicating essential health and safety information to them in writing before they return to the workplace. If possible, give workers an appropriate amount of time to review this material, and to respond with questions.
- Communicate the contents of the COVID-19 safety plan to all workers, and advise them on how to access a copy of the plan (e.g., in school office or staff room). Additional communication may be required as new information is made available that may affect work practices.
- Consider holding daily check-in meeting with workers to provide them with new information and review any concerns.
- Ensure that parents and caregivers understand your policy that students must stay home if they are sick.
- Keep parents and caregivers informed about what you are doing in your educational setting regarding taking extra precautions.
- Ensure that workers know how to raise safety concerns. This may be through your joint health and safety committee.
- Establishing a central location where new information is posted relating to COVID-19 in your workplace.
- Train your workers on:
- The risk of exposure to COVID-19 and the signs and symptoms of the disease.
- Safe work procedures or instruction to be followed, including hand washing and cough/sneeze etiquette.
- How to report a suspected exposure to or symptoms of COVID-19.
- Changes you’ve made to work policies, practices, and procedures due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Updates to the COVID-19 safety plan as it is reviewed and modified over time.
- Keep records of instruction and training provided to workers regarding COVID-19, as well as reports of exposure and first aid records.
- Document COVID-19 related meetings and post minutes at a central location.
Employer (school district)
- Select, implement, and document risk assessments and appropriate site-specific control measures in the COVID-19 safety plan. Re-examine all tasks in the workplace, especially those that require the direct care of students, and ensure that safe work procedures are updated with COVID-19 practices.
- Ensure that all resources (information, authorization administrative changes, technology, training, human resources) and materials (personal protective equipment, equipment, cleaning and disinfecting products and systems) required to implement and maintain the COVID-19 safety plan are made reasonably available as practical when required.
- Ensure the COVID-19 safety plan is posted in a convenient location in the school (e.g., the school office, staff room) and on the school’s website if there is one.
- Ensure that supervisors and workers are informed about the content the COVID-19 safety plan.
- Conduct a periodic review the effectiveness of the COVID-19 safety plan. This includes a review of the available control technologies to ensure that these are selected and used when practical.
- Ensure workers, parents, caregivers, and other adults routinely entering the school are aware of their responsibility to assess themselves daily for key symptoms of illness prior to entering the school. (i.e., perform a daily health check).
- Provide instruction to workers and students in how to properly put on, wear, take off and store non-medical masks. Information to support this is available from the BCCDC, the Government of Canada, and WorkSafeBC.
- Maintain records of training and inspections.
Supervisors (principals and vice principals)
- Ensure that workers are knowledgeable regarding the controls required to minimize their risk of exposure to COVID-19 and know where the COVID-19 safety plan is posted.
- Direct work in a manner that eliminates or minimizes the risk to workers.
- Post or relay educational and informational material in an accessible area for workers to review.
Workers (teachers, education assistants, support staff and outside contractors)
- Know the controls required to minimize their risk of exposure to COVID-19.
- Participate in COVID-19 related training and instruction.
- Follow established work procedures and instructions as directed by the employer or supervisor.
- Report any unsafe conditions or acts to the supervisor.
- Know how and when to report suspected exposure incidents.
Service operations managers (operations forepersons)
- Maintain an inventory of PPE for custodians, cleaning and disinfectant products, and well-maintained equipment used for cleaning and disinfecting.
- Provide adequate instruction to custodians on the hazards associated with cleaning work areas and on the safe work procedures specified in this exposure control plan.
- Direct the work in a manner that ensures the risk to custodians is minimized and adequately controlled.
- Revise the work schedule to ensure priority intensive cleaning of impacted work area surfaces and touch points.
See the following links for additional information, guidance, or resources that may assist you in the development of your plan.
- B.C.'s Back to School Plan
- BC Centre for Disease Control - COVID-19: Public Health Guidance for K-12 School Settings
- BC Centre for Disease Control - Childcare and Schools
- BC Centre for Disease Control - Cleaning and Disinfectants for Public Settings
- Ministry of Education – Provincial COVID-19 Health and Safety Guidelines for K-12 Settings
A PDF version of the industry protocols is available for printing.
For more information
The information on this page is based on current recommendations and may change. For the latest guidance, please see the health information from the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control and the latest news from the government of British Columbia.
If you have a question or concern
Workers and employers with questions or concerns about workplace exposure to COVID-19 can call WorkSafeBC’s Prevention Information Line at 604.276.3100 in the Lower Mainland (toll-free within B.C. at 1.888.621.SAFE). You’ll be able to speak to a prevention officer to get answers to your questions, and if required, a prevention officer will be assigned to assess the health and safety risk at your workplace.