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Fire safety considerations for reopening schools during COVID-19

This page provides fire and life safety considerations for authorities having jurisdiction and school administrators when preparing to reopen schools during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As many communities approach the end of the summer season and deliberate whether to open schools amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it is important to ensure that students and staff remain protected during a fire or an emergency.

Key takeaways

  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends implementing multiple mitigation measures to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 disease. This will result in many changes to how schools and classrooms operate.
  • Ensure the fire and life safety systems present in a building remain functional despite buildings being unoccupied for an extended period. The requirements have not changed as a result of the pandemic.
  • Be careful not to introduce new hazards when implementing changes.
  • The requirements and approaches can vary based on local decisions.

The CDC recommends that school administrators implement multiple mitigation strategies, including social distancing, cloth face coverings, hand hygiene and student cohorts.

Preparing K-12 School Administrators for a Safe Return to School in Fall 2020

Mitigation measures

Some school districts are considering a return to in-person classes or distance learning, and some are considering a hybrid of the two options. For in-person and hybrid schedules, administrators should be aware of the impacts on fire and life safety as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and how to mitigate them.

Inspection, testing and maintenance

Many school buildings may have been unoccupied for an extended period. It is important that administrators ensure that the fire and life safety systems remain operational before reoccupying the buildings. This could require completing certain inspection, testing and maintenance (ITM) procedures.

Some examples of systems that typically require ongoing ITM include water-based fire protection systems, fire alarm systems, cooking equipment and portable fire extinguishers.

Situational changes

As a result of the mitigation measures noted above, and in addition to other guidelines, many schools that reopen will do so with unique changes in place that might require special attention from a fire and life safety perspective.

Schools will likely obtain, store and distribute increased quantities of items like hand sanitizer, cloth face coverings, personal electronic devices, or temporary partitions or barriers. These items represent potential changes to the fire protection hazards present before the pandemic and that the fire protection systems were designed to protect against.

Administrators should be mindful of the locations and quantities of these items to ensure that compliance with fire protection requirements is maintained and to avoid inadvertently creating new or unforeseen hazards. For example:

Other factors to consider

Fire drills, while maintaining social distancing, will be different. Emergency plans during the pandemic should consider the impact on how students and staff perceive hazards during a drill verses during a real emergency.

Temporary measures taken to repurpose or adapt spaces that are normally unoccupied or used for a different purpose can impact how well the means of egress serve occupants in an emergency.

Informational resources

Ingress and egress concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic.

International Code Council. (2018). International Building Code. International Fire Code.

National Fire Protection Association