Guidance for Institutions of Higher Education (IHEs)

Section 4: General Considerations for All IHEs

This section is intended for all IHEs regardless of policy on COVID-19 vaccination. The considerations included here will help IHEs to prevent any infectious illness transmission among students, faculty, staff, and visitors.

Testing for SARS-CoV-2 Infection

Testing to rapidly detect and isolate infectious individuals can reduce transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. People living and working in congregate settings, including IHEs, are at increased risk of spreading SARS-CoV-2 infection. As such, there are special considerations for IHE administrators when planning for SARS-CoV-2 screening and diagnostic testing. Testing should be one component of comprehensive COVID-19 prevention in IHEs. If IHEs offer widespread testing, individuals with mild symptoms, those who have symptoms but thought they were not ill with COVID-19, and those with pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic infections might be identified. Implementation of CDC testing guidance can help IHEs protect students, faculty, staff, and adjacent communities and slow the spread of SARS-CoV-2.2 Prevention strategies (vaccination, physical distancing, correct and consistent use of face masks, hand hygiene, cleaning regularly, and appropriate ventilation) should be implemented along with all testing strategies.5

Vaccination and SARS-CoV-2 Testing

Prior receipt of a COVID-19 vaccine will not affect the results of SARS-CoV-2 viral tests (NAAT or antigen). People who are fully vaccinated do not need to undergo routine COVID-19 screening testing.

IHEs may consider maintaining documentation of individuals’ vaccination status to inform testing, contact tracing efforts, and quarantine protocols as appropriate and to the extent allowable by applicable federal, state, local and territorial law. CDC recommends that fully vaccinated people with no COVID-19-like symptoms and no known exposure be exempted from routine screening testing programs. Vaccination information should be obtained with appropriate safeguards and in accordance with federal, state, local and territorial laws to protect personally identifiable information from unlawful release. Testing must be carried out in a way that protects individuals’ privacy and confidentiality, is consistent with applicable laws and regulations, and integrates with state, local, and tribal public health systems.

Information about testing for SARS-CoV-2, test types, and other considerations for testing is available on CDC’s Overview of Testing for SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) page.

Diagnostic testing: Testing persons with signs or symptoms consistent with COVID-19

People with COVID-19 signs or symptoms, regardless of vaccination status, should be immediately separated from others (e.g., students, employees, visitors), masked (if not already), and sent home to isolate or to a campus-sponsored isolation room/floor/building. If symptoms are severe, they should be sent to a healthcare facility for medical care. The Coronavirus Self-Checker is a tool to help people make decisions on when to seek testing and appropriate medical care. CDC recommends that anyone with signs or symptoms of COVID-19 get tested and follow the advice of their healthcare provider. People with COVID-19 signs or symptoms should only leave isolation to get tested or receive medical care. For more information on testing, including information on testing among persons with confirmed infection in the past 90 days, see the Overview of Testing for SARS-CoV-2.

  • Positive test results using a viral test (Nucleic Acid Amplification Test – NAAT – or antigen) in people with signs or symptoms consistent with COVID-19 indicate that the person has COVID-19. A negative antigen test in people with signs or symptoms of COVID-19 should be confirmed by a laboratory-based NAAT, a more sensitive test. Results from NAATs are considered the definitive result when there is a discrepancy between the antigen and NAAT test. For more information, see the Antigen Test Algorithm pdf icon.
  • People with positive results should isolate at home, in a campus-sponsored isolation room/floor/building, or if in a healthcare setting, be placed in an area with appropriate precautions. They should remain in isolation until they have met the criteria established by CDC for discontinuing home isolation or for discontinuing precautions in a healthcare setting. Positive test results should be promptly reported to public health authorities as appropriate and consistent with applicable federal, state, local or tribal privacy laws, to allow for case investigation and contact tracing.

Diagnostic testing: Testing of asymptomatic persons with recent known or suspected exposure to SARS-CoV-2

In partnership with the appropriate state or local health department, IHEs should consider how they will conduct case investigations and trace known and potential close contacts of students, faculty, and staff diagnosed with COVID-19. Identifying close contacts can help reduce the spread of SARS-CoV-2 when unvaccinated close contacts quarantine.

  • Close contacts who are not fully vaccinated should be tested using a viral test immediately after being identified, and if negative, tested again in 5–7 days after last exposure or immediately if symptoms develop during quarantine (symptomatic close contacts should be tested regardless of vaccination status). If feasible, broader testing beyond close contacts (such as testing a dorm) may be done simultaneously with other strategies to control transmission of SARS-CoV-2 on campus.
  • Fully vaccinated close contacts should get tested within 5-7 days after exposure and wear a mask indoors in public for 14 days after exposure or until a negative test result.

The feasibility of identifying and testing close contacts may vary by IHE and the local health department. If individual contact tracing is not feasible, IHEs may consider testing all people who were in the proximity of a person confirmed to have COVID-19 (e.g., those who shared communal spaces or bathrooms) or testing all individuals within a shared setting (e.g., testing all residents on a floor or an entire residence hall).

Actions to Support Testing

IHE administrators should follow state and local laws as well as guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commissionexternal icon when offering testing to faculty, staff, and students who are employed by the IHE. IHEs also should follow guidance from the U.S. Department of Education on the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA)external icon and their applicability to students and COVID-19 contact tracing and testing.

For students

IHE administrators and healthcare providers should provide options to immediately separate students with COVID-19 and their close contacts by providing virtual learning options and self-isolation and self-quarantine rooms in residence halls or other housing facilities. Students should receive support managing COVID-19 symptoms, including medical care when necessary, as well as support managing emotional issues related to isolation or quarantine and the provision of alternative food service arrangements for those who live on campus.

For faculty and staff

IHE administrators should offer alternative teaching and work-from-home options for faculty, instructors, and staff who have COVID-19 and unvaccinated persons who have been identified as a close contact, provided that they are well enough to continue working remotely. IHEs should consider implementing flexible sick leave and supportive policies and practices.

Communication plan

IHEs should implement communications campaigns using behavior-based and actionable strategies to increase prevention, testing, isolation, and quarantine. Communication plans for prevention should also include any relevant guidance on returning to campus after traveling (e.g., holiday breaks, sports-related travel).

In accordance with state, territorial, tribal, and local laws and regulations, IHEs should make a plan to communicate with individuals who have a confirmed COVID-19 diagnosis and those suspected of having COVID-19, as well as to communicate relevant information about known cases to other students, faculty, and staff in a way that protects personally identifiable information. If privacy can be ensured and appropriate privacy laws complied with, the IHE may also want to be made aware of SARS-CoV-2 test results and symptoms through voluntary reporting by their students, faculty, and staff.

Testing of previously positive individuals

CDC does not recommend retesting (including screening testing) individuals who do not have symptoms and had a positive test within 90 days of the initial testing date. Data currently suggest that some individuals who were previously infected with SARS-CoV-2 will continue to test positive due to residual virus material but are unlikely to be infectious.

Cleaning, Improving Ventilation, and Maintaining Healthy Facilities

When to clean

Cleaning with products containing soap or detergent reduces germs on surfaces and objects by removing contaminants and may weaken or damage some of the virus particles, which decreases risk of infection from surfaces.

Cleaning high touch surfaces and shared objects once a day is usually enough to sufficiently remove virus that may be on surfaces unless someone with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 has been in your facility. Disinfecting (using disinfectants on U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [EPA]’s Listexternal icon) removes any remaining germs on surfaces, which further reduces any risk of spreading infection. For more information on cleaning your facility regularly and cleaning your facility when someone is sick, see Cleaning and Disinfecting Your Facility.

When to disinfect

You may want to either clean more frequently or choose to disinfect (in addition to cleaning) in shared spaces if certain conditions apply that can increase the risk of infection from touching surfaces, such as:

If there has been a sick person or someone who tested positive for COVID-19 in your facility within the last 24 hours, you should clean AND disinfect the space.

Use disinfectants safely

Always read and follow the directions on how to use and store cleaning and disinfecting products. Ventilate the space when using these products.

Always follow standard practices and appropriate regulations specific to your facility for minimum standards for cleaning and disinfection. For more information on cleaning and disinfecting, see Cleaning and Disinfecting Your Facility.

Improving ventilation

Improving ventilation is an important COVID-19 prevention strategy for IHEs. Along with other preventive strategies, protective ventilation practices and interventions can reduce the airborne concentration of viral particles and reduce the overall viral dose to occupants. For more specific information about maintenance and use of ventilation equipment and other ventilation considerations, refer to CDC’s Ventilation in Buildings webpage. CDC’s Ventilation FAQs and Improving Ventilation in Your Home webpage further describe actions to improve ventilation. Additional ventilation recommendations for different types of IHE buildings can be found in the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) schools and universities guidance document pdf icon.

Handwashing and respiratory etiquette

IHEs should facilitate health-promoting behaviors such as handwashing and respiratory etiquette to reduce the spread of infectious illnesses including COVID-19. IHEs can place visual cues such as handwashing postersstickers, and other materials in highly visible areas. They can download and print handwashing materials or order handwashing materials from CDC for free using CDC-INFO on Demand.

Food service and communal dining

Currently, there is no evidence to suggest that COVID-19 is spread by handling or eating food. However, consuming refreshments, snacks, and meals with persons not from the same household may increase the risk of getting and spreading COVID-19 among people who are not fully vaccinated because masks are removed when eating or drinking.

  • Promote prevention measures. Require staff and volunteers to wash their hands, and encourage diners to wash their hands or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer (before and after serving or eating). In indoor dining areas, people who are not fully vaccinated should wear a mask and physically distance when not actively eating or drinking. This includes when waiting in line to pick up a meal, in the cashier line, and when sitting down to eat. People who are fully vaccinated should wear a mask in indoor dining areas when not actively eating or drinking in areas of substantial or high community transmission. People who are not fully vaccinated should wear a mask in these settings regardless of community transmission levels.
  • Increase airflow and ventilation. Prioritize outdoor dining and improved ventilation in indoor dining spaces.
  • Avoid crowding. In areas with substantial to high levels of community transmission, or campuses that include a mixed population of vaccinated and unvaccinated persons, stagger use of dining areas, reduce seating capacity, and use markers and guides to ensure that people remain at least 6 feet apart when waiting in line to order or pick up.
  • Consider offering to-go options and serve individually plated meals. If traditional self-serve stations are offered, CDC provides recommendations to reduce the risk of getting and spreading COVID-19.
  • Clean regularly. For food contact surfaces, continue following all routine requirements for cleaning and sanitization. Non-food contact surfaces should be cleaned at least daily. If someone with COVID-19 has been in the facility in the previous 24 hours, non-food contact surfaces should be disinfected. See CDC’s Food and COVID-19 for more detailed information. Food service operators can find more detailed recommendations relevant to food service establishments in Considerations for Restaurant and Bar Operators and FAQs for Institutional Food Service Operators. For more information on COVID-19 adapted community food serving and distribution models, visit Safely Distributing School Meals during COVID-19.

Water systems

The temporary shutdown or reduced operation of IHEs and reductions in normal water use can create hazards for returning students, faculty, and staff. Check for hazards such as mold, Legionella (the bacteria that causes Legionnaire’s Disease), and lead and copper contaminationexternal icon from plumbing that has corroded.

Service animals and other animals in campus buildings

Health Equity

Long-standing systemic health and social inequities have put many racial and ethnic minority groups at increased risk of getting sick and dying from COVID-19. American Indian/Alaska Native, Black, and Hispanic persons are disproportionately affected by COVID-19; these disparities exist among all age groups, including school-aged children and young adults. Because of these disparities, in-person instruction on campuses might pose a greater risk of COVID-19 to disproportionately affected populations. For these reasons, health equity considerations related to in-person instruction are an integral part of decision-making. Partnerships among academic, public health and laboratory systems could be established or strengthened to better utilize point-of-care tests and engage underserved communities.

Addressing social and racial injustice and inequity is at the forefront of public health. Administrators can help to protect people at increased risk for severe COVID-19 and promote health equity by implementing the following strategies:

  • Encourage and support people to get vaccinated as soon as they can.
  • Offer options for accommodations, modifications, and assistance to students, faculty, and staff at increased risk for severe illness that limit their exposure risk and allow for education and or work opportunities (such as virtual learning, telework, and modified job responsibilities) to remain available to them.
  • Provide inclusive programming and make options available for people with special healthcare needs and disabilities that allow on-site or virtual participation with appropriate accommodations, modifications, and assistance (for example, people with disabilities may need additional support to access and use technology for virtual learning).
  • Put in place policies to protect the privacy and health information of all people, consistent with applicable laws.
  • Train people at all levels of the organization to identify and address all forms of discrimination consistent with applicable laws and IHE policies.
  • Work with others to connect people with resources (for example, healthy foods and stable and safe housing) and services to meet their physical, spiritual, and mental health needs.
  • Identify students who might be experiencing homelessness or food insecurity, and identify resourcesexternal icon and strategies to address these and other needs related to COVID-19.

Considerations for students, faculty, and staff with disabilities

  • People with disabilities should be highly encouraged to get vaccinated and be fully integrated into the most appropriate learning environment with the proper accommodations.
  • Disability resource centers should review policies and procedures to assess/qualify students for new accommodations, modifications, and assistance that might be needed due to changes in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Consider the individualized approaches for COVID-19 prevention that may be needed for some people with disabilities.
  • Provide accommodations for people who might have difficulty with mask use, such as some people with disabilities or certain medical conditions. Allow exceptions in the IHEs mask use policy. People concerned about their ability to consistently and correctly use a mask should consult with their healthcare provider or IHE disability resource center, for suggested adaptations and alternatives.
  • Ensure education remains accessible for students with disabilities as prevention strategies to reduce cases of COVID-19 are implemented.
  • Encourage all students, faculty, and staff to discuss any accommodations they might need with the IHE’s disability resource center.

Gatherings, Events, and Visitors

Crowded settings still present a greater risk of transmission among people who have not been fully vaccinated, especially when they bring together people of unknown vaccination status from different communities where community transmission is substantial to high. People who are not fully vaccinated should continue to avoid large gatherings, but if they choose to attend, they should wear well-fitting masks that cover the mouth and nose, maintain physical distancing, and practice good hand hygiene. For mixed campus IHEs, in-person instruction should be prioritized over extracurricular activities, including sports and school events, to minimize risk of transmission in schools and to protect in-person learning. Mixed campus IHEs may consider limiting the size of gatherings to maintain physical distance as an additional measure.

Sports and Gyms

Due to increased exhalation that occurs during physical activity, many sports put athletes, coaches, trainers, and staff at increased risk for getting and spreading COVID-19, especially among those who are not fully vaccinated. Close contact sports and indoor sports are particularly risky.4

Prevention strategies in these activities remain important and should comply with IHE policies and procedures. People who are fully vaccinated can refrain from quarantine following a known exposure if asymptomatic. They should be tested 5-7 days following exposure and wear a mask for 14 days indoors in public or until they receive a negative test result. Athletes, coaches, trainers, and staff should refrain from sporting activities when they have symptoms consistent with COVID-19 and should isolate and be tested.

  • IHEs should offer and promote vaccination to all athletes, coaches, trainers, and staff.
    • IHEs can help increase vaccine uptake among athletes, coaches, staff, and spectators by providing information about COVID-19 vaccination, promoting vaccine trust and confidence, and establishing supportive policies and practices that make getting vaccinated as easy and convenient as possible.
  • IHEs are strongly encouraged to use screening testing for athletes, coaches, trainers, and staff who are not fully vaccinated to facilitate safe participation and reduce risk of transmission – and avoid jeopardizing in-person education due to outbreaks.
  • IHEs should establish testing protocols for athletes, coaches, and support staff who are not fully vaccinated prior to travel. Physical distancing can be difficult when flying or traveling by bus. Follow CDC guidance for travel during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • IHEs should establish policies for athletes, coaches, staff, and spectators.
    • IHEs should consider requiring proof of vaccination or a negative test result for attendance at large sporting events, especially indoors.
    • In general, people do not need to wear masks when outdoors. However, particularly in areas of substantial to high transmission, CDC recommends that people who are not fully vaccinated wear a mask in crowded outdoor settings or during activities that involve sustained close contact with other people who are not fully vaccinated. Fully vaccinated people might choose to wear a mask in crowded outdoor settings if they or someone in their household is immunocompromised or unvaccinated.
    • CDC recommends universal indoor masking and reduced capacity or other strategies to promote physical distancing in indoor sports events.
  • IHEs should improve ventilation in indoor settings for sporting events, training, practices, locker rooms, and other facilities by bringing as much fresh air into buildings as possible. Additional information is available on CDC’s Ventilation in Buildings page.
  • Athletes who are not fully vaccinated should wear masks at all times when indoors. In areas of substantial and high community transmission, fully vaccinated athletes should also wear masks when not actively participating in sport (e.g., on the sidelines and bench, in locker rooms).
  • Coaches, trainers, and staff who are not fully vaccinated should wear masks at all times.
    • If an outbreak of COVID-19 occurs in a sports team, IHEs should work with their state or local health department to isolate people with COVID-19 symptoms and initiate, in accordance with applicable federal, state, local and territorial privacy laws, contact tracing procedures.

IHE administrators should also consider specific sport-related risks:

  • Setting of the sporting event or activity. In general, the risk of SARS-CoV-2 transmission is lower when playing outdoors than in indoor settings. Consider the ability to keep physical distancing in various settings at the sporting event (e.g., fields, benches/team areas, locker rooms, spectator viewing areas, spectator facilities/restrooms).
  • Physical closeness. Spread of COVID-19 is more likely to occur in sports that require sustained close contact (e.g., wrestling, hockey, football).
  • Number of people. Risk of spread of COVID-19 increases with increasing numbers of athletes, coaches, staff, and spectators.
  • Level of intensity of activity. The risk of COVID-19 spread increases with the intensity of the sport.
  • Duration of time. The risk of COVID-19 spread increases the more time athletes, coaches, staff, and spectators spend in close proximity or in indoor group settings. This includes time spent traveling to/from sporting events, meetings, meals, and other settings related to the event.
  • Presence of people more likely to develop severe illness. People at increased risk of severe illness might need to take extra precautions.

Study Abroad and Travel

IHEs planning study-abroad programs should check CDC’s destination-specific Travel Health Notices (THN) for information about the COVID-19 situation in the destination or host countryexternal icon. IHEs should postpone programs in destinations with very high COVID-19 levels (Level 4 Travel Health Notice). IHEs should have plans in place to take action if situations in the destination change and COVID-19 levels become very high during the program. IHEs may consider requiring vaccination as a condition of a study-abroad program.

IHEs planning study-abroad programs should advise and strongly encourage students to

Students may face unpredictable circumstances accessing medical care if they get sick or injured in their host country. Routine healthcare and emergency medical services may be impacted by COVID-19 at the destination.

Study-abroad programs should ensure that students are aware of and follow all airline and destination entry requirements, such as testing, vaccination, mask wearing and quarantine. They should be aware that if they do not follow the destination’s requirements, they may be denied entry and required to return to the United States. Programs and students should check with the Office of Foreign Affairs or Ministry of Health or the US Department of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs, Country Informationexternal icon page for destination-specific entry requirements. Before studying abroad, programs and students should consider obtaining insurance to cover health care and emergency evacuation while abroad.

Programs should advise students who are at increased risk for severe COVID-19 to discuss any study abroad plans with their healthcare provider. For more information and guidance on safety precautions for students before, during, and after travel, please visit CDC’s Studying Abroad webpage or CDC’s Yellow Book section Study Abroad and Other International Student Travel.

International Students

International students vaccinated outside of the United States should refer to Interim Clinical Considerations for Use of COVID-19 Vaccines Currently Authorized in the United States for the need for vaccinations upon arrival in the United States.

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