In the past month, we have issued a number of resources on Coronavirus Disease 2019, or COVID-19, as applicable to schools, colleges, and universities, from education-focused recommendations to issues implicating all employers, including educational ones (on workplace guidance, business continuity, and wage and hour impacts). In the past week, however, we have begun to hear the word “pandemic” used, even if only tentatively, with regard to the virus, and schools have begun to cancel international trips as the number of cases abroad and in the United States continue to rise. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the White House, and NSBA also have now warned of possible significant disruptions to daily life that may occur in the near future, including school closures. Such warnings have caused panic in the financial markets and have led many K-12 schools to step up planning for the possibility of a local outbreak. What can—and should—schools do differently now in light of these new concerns?
In addition to keeping in mind the recommendations from our earlier alerts and the CDC’s Interim Guidance for schools, we recommend that schools consider the following:
- Canceling classes and events is not yet necessary. Public health officials are not currently calling for educational institutions to cancel classes or other events.
- This includes trips. The CDC has not recommended canceling school trips within the United States. With spring break trips looming, consider your community’s taste for risk and general advice on the impact of COVID-19 on travel when making decisions about whether to allow international trips to proceed. For instance, travel to Asian countries poses a greater risk than travel elsewhere at this time, although the risk balance may change. For travel elsewhere, travel may not be discouraged but may still not be palatable for members of your institution’s community. Schools should be prepared to meet with parents/students, work closely with travel companies, and address financial concerns about lost deposits before canceling a trip.
- Balance student rights when considering the removal of individual students. The Illinois State Board of Education has directed that students who have been to mainland China should not attend school for 14 days after their return date. What if your community is concerned about a student returning to school after those 14 days have passed? What about a student who has visited another country other than China where the virus is spreading? Remember that students are required to attend school and that students with health issues may be protected by federal and state laws addressing actual or perceived disabilities. In short, comply with the directives of local health officials and seek legal advice before deciding to take additional steps above and beyond those recommendations.
- Increase behaviors to prevent the spread of illness now. One of the most challenging things about containing COVID-19 is that individuals may be contagious before experiencing symptoms. Masks have not been shown to help much with preventing infection, and even if they were, there simply are not enough to go around. Schools can, however, take other steps to help prevent the spread of viruses, including COVID-19. Now is the time to begin working with students and staff diligently to increase hand washing and classroom sanitation, as well as to limit student contact when at all possible. The CDC recommends that individuals maintain a distance of six feet from one another to limit the risk of infection. This may include limiting assemblies and activities that require close contact, like physical education, as well as creating space between desks in classrooms, if possible.
- Prepare a plan for if, or when, students begin to get sick. Now is also the time to think about your school’s protocol for containment if a student presents with symptoms of the virus. Should a student be allowed to remain in the building to wait for parent pickup, even if it increases the risk of infecting others? Should students be routinely checked for symptoms? Again, we see no good reason to wait to address these questions. Work with your local health department to determine what should be done with a student who shows symptoms of COVID-19. A recent publication from the state of Washington, which is currently the epicenter of the COVID-19 virus in the United States, is a must-read for school districts wherever they are located. It addresses issues ranging from special education continuity in case of an outbreak and responding to bullying and harassment.
- It is never too early to begin planning for school closures. Since we published our last guidance, the CDC has recommended that schools begin planning as the likelihood for “community spread” is on the rise. This issue is complex and may be challenging for schools, especially K-12 schools that provide free and reduced meals for students. However, taking steps now can help avoid cancellation of classes later, including thinking ahead about what large gatherings, meetings, assemblies, and other gatherings are in the near future and coming up with a contingency plan in case the situation with the virus changes quickly. Particularly where the flu is still a major issue in schools, steps can also be taken now to limit large group activities where possible to help slow the spread of all communicable diseases. Additionally, schools should begin to plan now for how to use long term assignments or projects and distance/online learning tools to provide educational continuity if canceling classes eventually becomes necessary. School districts should begin discussions with their ROE’s to address required approvals to use Act for God Days and e-learning for emergency closures. If any students lack computer or internet access because of financial limitations, address those issues now.
- Communicate now to avoid panic. Keeping parents, students, and other members of your community apprised of your plans as well as of what is not currently being considered—such as entire school shutdowns—can help avoid panic and increase buy in from interested stakeholders. Consider reminding community members that you are working with local health officials to monitor the situation and that they can best help by staying home if sick and following general hygiene recommendations.
We will continue to monitor this issue closely.