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New ISBE/IDPH Guidance Supports Reducing Social Distancing for In-Person Instruction

K-12 Education Publications

It is hard to believe that it has been nine months since the Illinois State Board of Education and Illinois Department of Public Health issued their Part 3 – Transition Joint Guidance, “Starting the 2020-2021 School Year.” ISBE and IDPH have now provided a follow-up to that June 2020 guidanceThe Part 4 – Transition Joint Guidance, “Revised Public Health Guidance for Schools, firmly supports “the return to in-person instruction as soon as practicable in every Illinois community.” The guidance recognizes that schools can use three feet as a physical distancing guideline rather than six feet in pursuit of that goal. It further advises that schools are only required to offer remote learning for households with higher medical risks. However, schools will not return to pre-pandemic operations anytime soon and will need to continue assessing individualized risks. 

Five Essentials for Mitigation 

The ISBE and IDPH guidance comes on the heels of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance from February 2021, in which the CDC emphasized the importance of prioritizing reopening of schools for in-person instruction over nonessential business and activities. The new State guidance echoes the five essential mitigation strategies the CDC recommended in February, including: 

  • Universal and correct use of personal protective equipment (PPE) 
  • Social distancing (which the CDC refers to as “physical distancing”), as much as possible 
  • Contact tracing in combination with isolation and quarantine, in collaboration with the local health department 
  • Cleaning and maintaining healthy facilities (including ventilation), and 
  • Handwashing and respiratory etiquette. 

The guidance includes considerable detail concerning the proper use of PPE, including the types of masks recommended and when alternatives such as face shields are appropriate. For social distancing, the ISBE and IDPH guidance goes further than the CDC guidance, explicitly recognizing that social distancing need only be observed “as much as possible.”  

Social Distancing for In-Person Instruction 

Fitting students in a school’s physical space while still complying with spacing guidelines is an essential threshold question for school districts seeking to return to in-person instruction. The Part 4 Guidance lowers the bar as to the amount of space required for in-person instruction, as indicated in the following chart:  


Spacing Required 

Student-to-Student Interaction 

3 to 6 Feet 

Student-to-Vaccinated Staff Interaction 

3 to 6 Feet 

Unvaccinated Staff-to-Anyone 

6 Feet 

Masked Individuals Serving/Receiving/ Disposing of Food and Leaving Cafeteria 

3 to 6 Feet 

Anyone Eating (i.e., Spacing for Lunch) 

6 Feet 


The guidance also makes clear that capacity limits for in-person learning and associated activities—including classrooms, gyms, cafeterias, and multipurpose rooms—should be determined by the space’s ability to accommodate social distancing, not any set capacity limit or percentage. Although recognizing that six feet of distance is always the safest, these relaxations of physical distancing guidelines provide more flexibility for schools and districts seeking to reopen with limited space. The guidelines emphasize that universal masking must be strictly maintained and monitored by school staff to benefit from these closer spacing options 

Notably, although the ISBE and IDPH guidance has eased social distancing recommendations, the quarantine requirements for “close contacts” have not changed for purposes of quarantine. ISBE and IDPH echo recent advice that a person who has had lab-confirmed COVID-19 within the past 90 days or is fully vaccinated does not need to quarantine even if they are a close contactHowever, any other person (with or without a face mask) who was within 6 feet of a confirmed case of COVID-19 (with or without a face mask) for a cumulative total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period during the infectious period will need to quarantine. Moreover, if a case was symptomatic (e.g., coughing, sneezing), persons with briefer periods of exposure may be considered close contacts. School leaders may find that the risk of having to quarantine large groups of individuals may outweigh the benefits of relaxed physical distancing.  

Remote Instruction Option Limited 

Last summer, Superintendent Dr. Carmen Ayala advised Illinois school districts that remote instruction must be an option upon request. The new guidance seems to require a school or district to provide a remote option only to those at increased risk of severe illness or who live with someone at increased risk. The guidance does not mandate a remote option for quarantine periods. This change could significantly decrease the remote learning burden on schools and educators going forward.  

For assistance navigating these challenging issues, contact the authors of this post or any other Franczek attorney.