Human Resources |
Article by Grace H. Lee and Ashley Sykes, Venable LLP
From the May/June 2021 Net Assets magazine
Planning for summer during a global pandemic requires schools, parents and students to be nimble and ready for possible unexpected changes. For many independent schools, summer brings a hopeful opportunity to offer in-person and/or virtual camps, which provide an excellent source of auxiliary income. Camps are also a chance to provide added value to a pandemic-weary school community. Independent schools should revisit their summer camp policies, procedures and hiring practices to promote a safe, healthy and successful camp experience in 2021.
Proper background screening is the first line of defense for ensuring a safe camp environment and preventing boundary-crossing behaviors, child abuse and misconduct. To be effective, schools must ensure their background screening program is comprehensive and complies with applicable laws for individuals working with children.
A full and complete background check should consist of more than a criminal background check. It should also include a check of the applicable state child abuse and sex offender registries; federal, state, and local court records searches (including federal fingerprint-based checks, if required by applicable law); education and employment reference checks; state licensing checks; driving history; drug tests; and even social media searches.
Many states have implemented minimum standards for background checks of individuals applying to positions with direct contact with children, which cover many of these requirements. However, schools should also modify their background screening program to collect all relevant information regarding prospective summer camp employees.
For criminal background checks, it is important to gather court records from more than one source. Federal criminal databases, while useful for providing a high-level view of any issues, often do not include every criminal record available. Schools should ensure state and local criminal history checks are run in each state where an applicant has lived within the past seven years. These checks search county court records where the criminal proceedings occur.
Although criminal histories are the foundation of a pre-employment background screening program, criminal history reports will not always identify applicants who have a problematic history working with children. For example, past conduct or behavior of individuals with boundary issues with children usually does not rise to the level of a criminal violation. Therefore, it is equally important that schools collect applicants’ employment references and follow up with every reference provided to obtain information regarding the applicant’s work experience, any disciplinary issues and the reason why the individual left their previous position.
Remember, it is okay to be direct when conducting a reference check. Consider specifically asking references whether they have any concerns about the applicant working with children.
As schools prepare for their summer camps, it is important to have in place clear, written policies that govern the conduct and behavior of summer camp staff.
It is important to note that summer camp employees may not be regular members of the school’s faculty and staff. It is likely they are not familiar with the school’s normal employee policies and procedures that may carry over into the camp environment. The school’s regular employee handbook may contain superfluous policies that are inapplicable to the camp environment. It also may be missing key policies that would only apply at camp. For these reasons, it is best to create a separate employee handbook for summer camp employees.
At minimum, the camp handbook should include policies addressing the following:
For 2021, the summer camp handbook should also address the health and safety policies in place to mitigate the transmission of COVID-19 at camp, including:
When creating health and safety protocols for the 2021 summer camp, independent schools should consider whether summer camp employees will be required to be vaccinated against COVID-19 as a condition of employment.
The U.S Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) states that independent schools may require employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19, as long as the school provides certain exemptions to comply with federal disability and religious anti-discrimination and accommodation laws. Guidance from states and localities has lagged behind, likely due to the current limited availability of the vaccine. Schools should continue to monitor vaccination guidance and be prepared to modify policies as necessary to accommodate changes in vaccine supplies and vaccination eligibility.
Schools in areas with higher rates of access to COVID-19 vaccines should also consider requiring camp employees get vaccinated as a condition of employment. Doing so could increase the rate at which its camp staff gets vaccinated and serve as an extra benefit to camp employees who are eager to receive the COVID-19 vaccination. Schools could even consider partnering with a local health care provider to schedule vaccination appointments (or even hold a vaccination drive on campus) for camp employees who have not already received a COVID-19 vaccine.
In addition to the summer camp handbook, schools should also ensure camp staff members are adequately trained on camp policies, procedures and protocols before the first day of camp.
Since camp employees are often younger than the school’s regular staff and just out of school, they may not immediately recognize the importance of policies regarding appropriate interactions with campers. In addition to being trained for their specific job duties, it is imperative for camp staff to receive training in the school summer camp policies regarding appropriate boundaries, using personal devices to communicate with campers, driving campers to and from camp, babysitting, housesitting and other potential conflicts of interest.
In light of increasing incidents of student-on-student misconduct, both on campus and online, camp staff should receive training on identifying instances of student misconduct. That training should also cover the school’s procedures for reporting such conduct.
Camp staff training should address and explain the school’s mandatory reporting obligations with regard to allegations of child abuse and/or neglect as well as the procedures for reporting such allegations.
Finally, be sure to train summer camp staff on COVID-19 health and safety protocols including the camp’s health screening procedures, identifying potentially symptomatic campers and procedures for sending campers home. Camp staff should also know how to ensure campers comply with mask requirements, social distancing and handwashing protocols throughout the day.
These are just some of the legal considerations schools should take into account as they prepare for the 2021 summer camp season. A thorough process with consistent policies and practices will help the school make the most informed summer camp hiring decisions while mitigating risks and potentially avoiding legal claims.
For more on pandemic-related health and safety protocols, download NBOA’s “Operating Guidance for Independent School Pandemic Management: COVID-19 Field Guide,” which outlines how school leaders can effectively manage their campuses as students, faculty and staff return on a regular basis. Access at nboa.org/pandemicguide.
Download a PDF of this article.
Planning for 2021 Summer Programs (web-only, Jan 2021)
Where Were the Chaperones? (May/Jun 2019)
Holding the Line (May/Jun 2020)
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