Coronavirus: What Should Schools, Colleges, and Universities Do Now?

Franczek P.C.
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Franczek P.C.

The risk of coronavirus may be lower than the flu, but with the numbers of cases and fatalities growing in China and a handful of cases in the United States, some are calling for schools, colleges, and universities to take steps to minimize risk to, prepare, and reassure community members. What steps should educational institutions take now in response to the coronavirus?

The “novel coronavirus” (named by the World Health Organization as “2019-nCoV”) was first detected in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China. It continues to spread person-to-person in China at high rates, with limited reports of infections in other parts of the world, including the U.S. Stakeholders, including teachers’ unions and college students, have called for more action by schools to address the threat.

We recommend that educational institutions take the following steps to address the coronavirus threat:

  • Identify a person or office to monitor guidance from public health officials and coordinate your institution’s response and communication efforts. Educational institutions are strongly advised to follow the guidance issued by public health officials. Because this guidance may change over time, having someone responsible for monitoring guidance and communicating updates to appropriate stakeholders is vital. The Illinois Department of Public Health (“IDPH”) has established a hotline and e-mail address for inquiries regarding the outbreak: 1-800-889-3931, or DPH.SICK@Illinois.gov. The City of Chicago has also established a hotline, 312-746-4835, or coronavirus@chicago.gov. Information is also available on public health agency websites, including:
  • Follow public health agency recommendations regarding individuals at risk for infection. On February 6, 2020, the Chicago Department of Public Health issued specific guidance for students, K-12 schools, universities, and other businesses and organizations, outlining specific recommendations to limit the risk of 2019-nCoV exposure. These include, among other things, directing any student, faculty member, or other employee who returned from mainland China on or after February 3, 2020 not to attend work or school for 14 days after their return date. The guidance advises that any absences be excused, and that schools and employers provide alternate arrangements for teleworking and online school assignments. Institutions should consult their local health officials for updated guidance regarding who is at risk for infection and how to minimize any risk to the community.
  • No need to cancel classes or events. Currently, health officials report that 2019-nCoV “is not spreading in the community in the United States and the vast majority of Americans have low risk of exposure.” Accordingly, public health officials are not currently calling for educational institutions to cancel classes or other events.
  • Consider providing a general update to parents and students. The update might include information discussed in this alert as well as reminders of the limited risk of coronavirus in the United States and the lack of reported cases in your community. Consider including information about how the virus is spread, which is described in the most recent Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidance on the virus.
  • Comply with Mandatory Reporting Requirements. Illinois schools, colleges, and universities are required by law to report suspected or confirmed cases of certain infectious diseases. Illinois educational institutions should immediately report suspected 2019-nCoV to their local public health department, or to the IDPH. A listing of local health departments is available from the IDPH website.
  • Remind constituencies of the steps that can help prevent the spread of coronavirus (and viruses in general). Educational institutions should remind all staff, students, and other community members of the basic measures that everyone can take to limit the spread of viruses, including 2019-nCoV. Steps recommended by the CDC include: frequent (and thorough) hand washing; use of alcohol-based hand sanitizer when soap and water are not available; avoiding touching eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands; avoiding close contact with people who are sick; staying home when sick; covering any cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throwing the tissue in the trash and washing hands; and regularly cleaning and disinfecting frequently-touched objects and surfaces.
  • Take normal care with notices regarding specific instances in your community. If your institution has a reported instance of suspected coronavirus, you may want to consider providing limited information to the community. Doing so can dispel myths and misinformation, but great care must always be taken to respect confidentiality. We recommend working with your institution’s legal counsel before issuing any such notice to ensure privacy considerations are adequately addressed.
  • Be Aware of Potential Bias, Discrimination, and Harassment of Asian and Asian-American students. Reports describe incidents worldwide of individuals of Chinese descent being blamed, singled out, and excluded based on fears of coronavirus. Schools, colleges, and universities will not be immune to such reactions, but there are different implications than when such conduct occurs on the street. For example, a college student’s recent Snapchat post stating “Taking Calc 151 with only Asians in the classroom .. I hope I don’t catch coronavirus” might just be seen as bad taste or racism if the student had been on a public bus with only Asian and Asian-American individuals. In the school context, however, such a post could constitute prohibited harassment on the basis of race or national origin, particularly if part of a larger pattern on campus. Educational institutions should attempt to foster a sense of community and dispel myths that any one person or group of persons is responsible for or more likely to transmit the virus in the U.S. Responses to reports of conduct that could constitute bias, discrimination, or harassment must also be dealt with swiftly and thoroughly, as required under federal and state law prohibiting bullying on the basis of race, color, or national origin.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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