As regions across New York State prepare to enter Phase Four of reopening, the New York State Department of Health (“NYDOH”) has released its “Interim Guidance for Higher Education During the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency.” As explained in our previous client alert, prior to reopening, all New York businesses and institutions, including those previously allowed to open as “essential,” must follow comprehensive, industry-specific reopening guidelines and rules.
The new guidance is intended to address all types of in-person higher education institutions, such as community colleges, universities, and graduate and professional schools. In addition to certain mandatory elements that must be followed, unlike other industry guidelines, rather than provide a template safety plan, the higher education guidelines require that institutions develop and then submit their own safety plan to NYDOH for approval. Following approval, higher education institutions must then post the plans conspicuously for students and employees to access.
Below, we summarize the various mandatory protocols and policies that must be included in the safety plan.
Required Overarching Policies and Requirements
Each safety plan must, at minimum, cover (1) the reopening of the campus, (2) monitoring of health conditions, (3) containment of potential transmission of the virus, and (4) a shutdown of in-person operations on the campus if necessary due to widespread COVID-19 transmission.
1. Reopening of the Campus
Prior to restarting campus operations, including student, faculty, and staff return, the reopening plan must consider various factors relating to capacity, provision of personal protective equipment, safely restarting operations (such as cleaning and disinfection protocols), extracurricular activities, vulnerable populations, and hygiene.
2. Monitoring of Health Conditions
Monitoring policies to track health conditions on campus must be included. These policies must consider, at minimum, testing responsibility (including identifying who is responsible for administering tests), testing frequency and protocols, metrics for early warnings signs of positive cases of COVID-19, tracing procedures (including contact tracing), and screening.
3. Containment of Potential Transmission of the Virus
The safety plan must also include plans for how to respond to positive or suspected cases of COVID-19, as well as preventative policies and practices. The plans must consider, at minimum, several factors including isolation (including plans for isolating symptomatic individuals), quarantine, handling students confirmed or suspected to have COVID-19, and protocols for hygiene, cleaning and disinfection.
4. Shutdown of In-Person Operations on Campus
The safety plans must also have contingency plans for decreasing on-campus operations or closing the campus in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak. Considerations that must be made under the plan include operational activity (such as which operations will be decreased or scaled back) and move-out procedures for resident students to safely depart campus.
Other Industry Guidelines May Apply
In addition to all of the above, higher education institutions should keep in mind that guidelines for other industries may apply as well. For example, administrative functions must operate in accordance with the state’s reopening guidelines for offices. In addition, the state has already released guidance for higher education research functions that were permitted to
Developing compliant plans is critical, given that the NYDOH may require that plans be modified to ensure compliance with the guidance. Therefore, higher education institutions should review the guidance and prepare to create a reopening safety plan, in addition to updating their existing policies and procedures in accordance with the guidance.