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Prevention and Response: Planning for Coronavirus in Independent Schools

March 5, 2020

With the emergence of confirmed cases of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in the United States, schools should continue efforts to plan for and respond to concerns related to COVID-19.  As we all continue to monitor the latest guidance from public health officials, it is important for schools to communicate clearly and regularly with parents, students, faculty and staff on the preventive steps the school is taking to minimize the spread of any illness and to prepare for any potential outbreak should it occur within the school community.

Below are some considerations for school preparedness teams to keep in mind as they continue to monitor and develop proactive plans for prevention and response:

  • Stay Informed

Schools must continue to monitor and stay abreast of the latest data, guidance and recommendations from both the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and state and local public health officials. This information is evolving daily, and it is important for schools to track the advice of the medical community and to coordinate school efforts with the latest guidance from the CDC and departments of public health.  All planning decisions should consider the latest information from public health officials and schools should continue to collaborate closely with these agencies.

Centers for Disease Control: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html

Connecticut Department of Public Health: https://portal.ct.gov/DPH/Public-Health-Preparedness/Main-Page/2019-Novel-Coronavirus

Massachusetts Department of Public Health: https://www.mass.gov/resource/information-on-the-outbreak-of-coronavirus-disease-2019-covid-19

National Association of County and City Health Officials Directory of Local Health Departments: https://www.naccho.org/membership/lhd-directory?searchType=standard&lhd-state=CT#card-filter

  • Preventive Measures

Don’t underestimate the importance of following standard good hygiene protocols, such as hand washing, staying home when sick and avoiding sharing items such as water bottles. Continue to engage in routine environmental cleaning, using already approved cleaning products, throughout the school.  Pay particular attention to common areas and high traffic locations that may be open to the public.  Schools may also wish to consider supplemental steps, such as making additional supplies of hand sanitizer or sanitizing wipes available throughout campus and posting visual reminders about best practices to avoid illness. 

  • Community Communications

Parents and students (as well as faculty) may be especially anxious about the possible impact of COVID-19, and will be seeking reassurance from school leadership that it has developed contingency plans to address the range of potential issues that could arise – from excluding individuals from campus to alternative learning, or simply considering how absences might impact grades or academic progress. Now is the time to engage in regular contact with families to apprise them of any updated information, calm and reassure them, and communicate important information about any changes or potential changes in school operations.

  • School Trips and Travel

If you have planned trips, whether domestic or abroad, continue to monitor and heed CDC guidance to determine if such trips should be cancelled or postponed.  Examine trip and travel documents, vendor agreements, and chaperone agreements and policies, including those related to refund and trip insurance.  Maintain communication with families about trip status, providing information about when decisions may be made as to whether a trip is going forward.  In assessing whether to cancel a trip, schools should consider all relevant information, including updated travel warnings from the CDC, as well as the school’s ability to recall a trip or safely return students to campus should events evolve during the course of the trip.

  • Return to Campus Protocols

Working with public health officials, and consistent with current recommendations, schools should articulate any restrictions related to returning to or visiting campus.  Such protocols should be based on objective criteria and in keeping with public health recommendations.  In particular, schools should consider whether they will impose restrictions (such as self-monitoring or quarantine) for anyone who has recently traveled to a high risk area, is showing symptoms of illness, or has been in close contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19.  These protocols should be applied evenhandedly and schools must remain vigilant to avoid actions that are arbitrary or which could be viewed as discriminatory based on perceived race, national origin or other protected class.

  • Anticipate Absences

Prepare for the potential for increased student and employee absences due to illness, including planning for substitutes for all positions (teachers, dorm parents, dining hall and other staff).  Encourage students, faculty and staff to stay home and/or to alert the school if they are showing signs of illness, and alleviate any concerns that they may be penalized (or will lose pay) if they are absent. 

  • Force Majeure Provisions

In developing plans and protocols, it will be important to understand what your school’s current policies are related to potential school closure so that you can appropriately communicate these expectations to your community.  Specifically, take a look at handbooks, enrollment contracts and employment agreements for language relating to the closure of school facilities and whether or not the school reserves the right to modify the school year or instructional methods. These clauses, referred to as force majeure or acts-of-God provisions, inform as to whether the school has express authority to hold classes off site, extend the school year,hold classes on non-school days if necessary, and if tuition obligations will remain intact.  Even absent explicit provisions, schools should consider whether relevant documentation allows the school to develop such alternative plans in the event of unforeseen interruptions to school programs.

  • Alternative Instruction

Should the school need to close for any period of time, school teams should be considering how the school may be able to maintain continuity of instruction or provide alternative plans for programming, both in the short term and for longer periods of time. This may include exploring your capability to utilize online learning tools to continue instruction or engage in remote learning.  In considering options, teams should consider whether the school will stay open for healthy staff members while students stay home or whether faculty and staff can perform these functions while working remotely themselves.

  • Employment Policies

Review current policies related to sick days, FMLA, and leaves of absence.  Consider if and how any such policies may need to be modified to encourage faculty/staff to stay home when sick and to inform the school if they are showing signs of illness, have traveled to high risk areas, or have come into close contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19.  Review contracts with employees and vendors such as food service providers to determine your obligations to continue to pay should school services be interrupted.  Communicate with faculty/staff regarding expectations with respect to absence, sick policies, and continued pay during this period.

  • Health Services

Collaborate with on-campus health providers to develop protocols in the event a student or staff member exhibits signs of respiratory illness at school, including any protocols that may be necessary to protect medically vulnerable members of your community.  Coordinate with local public health officials to ensure timely reports of illness and to determine proper testing for confirmation of diagnoses.  For boarding students, consider how (and if) you have the capacity to quarantine on campus and what protocols you will follow if students (including international students) need to be off campus for any period of time.

Whether facing COVID-19 or any other unexpected emergency, comprehensive preparedness planning involves planning for all possible contingencies, while hoping for the best possible outcome.  While there is universally applicable information and guidance available, school teams must continue to engage in a planning process that takes into consideration the specific needs of their school community, the demographics of their student body, and the most up-to-date public health data and recommendations in their region.  

Additional resources on COVID-19 for independent schools may be found at National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS):  https://www.nais.org/.

If you have any questions regarding appropriate responses to COVID-19, please do not hesitate to contact any member of the School Law Practice Group at Shipman & Goodwin.

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