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Questions Independent School Leaders Are Asking About COVID-19

By Net Assets posted 03-10-2020 03:23 PM

  
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Risk Management |

On tracking community members’ travel, limiting campus visitors, planning large gatherings, adjusting trip waivers, addressing and preventing bullying and more.

By Amber Stockham

How do we track who has traveled to areas with outbreaks?

Most schools have already established policies that ask students, families and faculty to voluntarily disclose when they have traveled internationally. With the spread of COVID-19 domestically, new domestic outbreaks are occurring daily, and tracking the potential impact to your school is becoming more difficult.

To mitigate the school’s risk, administrators can ask all community members — not just faculty or international students — to disclose domestic and international travel plans. You may also ask all community members who travel on mass transportation, such as planes and long-distance trains and buses, to disclose their travel dates, means of travel, and destination, according to Schwartz Hannum PC. If a community member becomes infected, this information will help you identify possible sources and isolate the risk.

If a community member’s travel leads you to request they self-quarantine upon return, use consistent, objective criteria as the basis for the decision. Local health officials can help schools establish these criteria based upon current risk levels. Consult regularly with your local or state health department to ensure you have the most current information available.

We are worried about the risk of visitors to campus. How can we mitigate it?

Many schools have begun restricting visitors to campus, whether those visitors are family members, delivery personnel or accepted students. Assess the risk visitors may pose and implement consistent protocols for who will be allowed on campus and under what circumstances.

If your school opts to allow only local travelers on campus, consider how the decision will be received within the community; international students or domestic boarders may feel sensitive at this time.

If possible, perform visits, tours and interviews for potential students, faculty and staff virtually. Schools should also reconsider plans to bring visiting faculty to campus at this time. If your school opts to allow only local travelers on campus, consider how the decision will be received within the community; international students or domestic boarders may feel sensitive at this time.

Regarding delivery personnel, schools will differ in their approach, but options include:

  • Banning food deliveries to campus at this time.
  • Asking delivery personnel to remain outside when dropping packages and have those accepting deliveries wear gloves when moving the packages indoors. It is advisable to contain packages for three hours, the amount of time experts believe the virus is viable outside the body.
  • Asking students and staff to avoid making purchases online when at all possible and minimize package deliveries.

Should we be limiting large gatherings on campus, and if so, what does that mean for prom and graduation?

Planning and invitations for prom and graduation are occurring right now, with many schools signing contracts for venues and vendors. At this time, the CDC is recommending limiting large gatherings if possible. There is no “right” answer because we cannot know what the spread of COVID-19 will look like in two months. Each school will need to assess the risk given their unique circumstances and decide if they will allow any gatherings and, if so, how large and for what reasons. Some points to consider:

  • Most large higher education institutions are limiting gatherings of larger than 25 people, with specific criteria for allowing those gatherings which are critical to the community.
  • Schools should consider the setting of the gathering, particularly for school outings. Is it a space in which there will be many non-school-related people to whom the participants will be exposed? Or is it a remote location where exposure to non-community members will be minimized?
  • Is broadcasting the proceedings to limit exposure to and from visitors an option? Many schools are utilizing services such as Zoom or GoToMeeting, but as more organizations opt to use these services, their servers may become inundated and less reliable. Schools should consider what alternatives they might use in these circumstances.
  • If the gathering will require the school to acquire temporary personnel, such as summer camps or large catering events, consider the likelihood of hiring enough personnel to properly staff the gathering. Many schools are having difficulty attracting qualified personnel to work camps.
  • Any contract the school signs for event services should include a force majeure clause to allow for cancellation due to disaster, including pandemic or forced cancellation by health officials.
  • Schools could potentially be held liable for infections contracted at large gatherings, but liability would depend upon the specific circumstances of the gathering, including proximity to an outbreak, size of the event, and anticipated geographic range of attendees.
  • One of the first COVID-19 outbreaks on the East Coast occurred at the crisis management meeting for Biogen, a multinational biotech company based in Massachusetts. Consider all gatherings, even those to plan for your school’s COVID-19 response, from a risk-analysis perspective before moving forward.

If we move forward with a planned trip, should we have chaperones sign waivers?

Having families sign limited waivers of liability for students on a school-sponsored trip is always recommended. In light of current concerns, schools should update these waivers to specifically include the potential risk of infection from COVID-19. 

As for chaperones, an agreement that specifies that chaperones are voluntarily going on the trip and that calls out behavioral expectations is recommended. Signing a waiver, however, is not. Should a chaperone become ill or injured on a trip, waivers can interfere with the school’s protections under workers compensation laws.

How do we address concerns about bullying?

More students of Asian descent are being bullied in U.S. schools, both public and private, likely due to the current COVID-19 outbreak. This bullying is based on misinformation and fear, and the best way to address it is to reduce both. Communications from the school should seek to educate the audience as to the facts regarding the virus and provide a calm alternative to often panicked media stories.

School administrators can also seek to foster community dialogue around the feelings of students or faculty who may be feeling vulnerable or isolated due to their nationality or country of origin. Many of our community members are in pain, and engendering empathy rather than fear is the best way to serve both them and those whom they have come to call friends.

If you encounter bullying by adults or students on your campus, it likely violates your code of conduct policies, and consequences for violations should be consistently enforced. Bullying may also violate the law in your state or locality. Schools should consult their school counsel as these situations arise to ensure they are being addressed in a consistent and legal manner.

What do we know about the risk of this virus going forward?

Reports from China and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services indicate that approximately 20% of people who become ill with the virus will experience serious symptoms. The risk of mortality – previously estimated at 3.4% – may be closer to 2%. No one can predict what infection rates will be in coming months, but health officials can provide some educated guesses about the cycle of the outbreak. 

COVID-19 infections in the U.S. are anticipated to peak in mid- to late-April with an anticipated lull over the summer and a return in the fall. Schools should anticipate that infections will increase prior to year end and plan accordingly. Clearly communicate the school’s intentions related to impacted students and faculty. These communications may include:

  • How the school plans to address the situation if students who leave the country are denied re-entry.
  • Under what conditions the health center will be open and treating patients.
  • Under what circumstances students who cannot safely travel home can remain on campus.
  • How schools will quarantine residents (students and faculty) who are exposed to the virus.
  • What services will remain open should it become necessary to close the campus. While anticipating all service availability and/or remote learning options is impossible, some communication of the school’s plans that does not limit its ability to adjust plans as the situation evolves will reassure community members that administrators are considering the situation holistically and thoroughly.

Schools should not become lax if they see a reduction in infections. All schools should be reviewing their agreements, handbooks and releases in anticipation of similar concerns in the fall when students return to campus.

Amber Stockham, SHPR, is NBOA's director, human resources programs.

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