Guidance to Address COVID-19

Few topics have recently dominated the news as much as COVID-19, recognized widely as the Coronavirus.  As the virus spreads, schools across Connecticut should be well-prepared to prevent the spread of this infectious disease.  They should further have a plan to continue to meet their obligations in the unfortunate event of an outbreak in their community. 

Recently, the Center for Disease Control (“CDC”) issued Interim Guidance to school districts and advises that all districts have an emergency operation plan in place to address this epidemic.   The basic yet essential components of a school district’s plan should emphasize common-sense preventative actions, strategies to communicate with the community, addressing an outbreak and meeting its obligations during this time.  More specifically, the Interim Guidance suggests the following components of an emergency operation plan in schools who do not yet have an identified case of the Coronavirus in their community.

 Developing an Information-Sharing and Communication System:

  • Identify audiences (parents, community, etc…) and key messages to be communicated.
  • Identify a spokesperson for communications.
  • Communications to the school community should currently include, among other things, information about steps being taken by the school to prevent the spread of the virus and how additional information will be shared.
  • Local health officials should be a key partner in sharing information.

Prevention Actions:

  • Emphasize having students and staff stay home when sick.
  • Ensure hand-washing including washing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or using a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.
  • Routinely clean frequently touched surfaces.
  • Provide disposable wipes so the commonly used surfaces can be wiped down by students and staff before each use.
  • Make sure that staff and local community partners are aware of their specific tasks in the event of an outbreak.

Establish Procedures for Students and Staff Who are Sick at School:

  • Keep sick students and staff separate from the school population until they can leave.
  • Send home sick students and staff as soon as possible.

Monitor Absenteeism:

  • Purposefully track student and staff absences due to illness to identify rapid or unusual changes in the health of the school population.
  • Alert local health officials about increases in student and/or staff absenteeism.
  • Be alert to staff absences necessary to care for sick family members.
  • Proactively plan for coverage due to staff absences.

Schools should further keep up to date on continuing CDC and other guidance, including the CDC guidance applying to employers. In addition, our firm has posted on its labor and employment law blog, “Working Together”, guidance for employers.  Further, they should be well-prepared in the event of a confirmed case in their local community. 

School districts should be aware of a little-known state law (Connecticut General Statutes §10-210), which provides as follows:

[N]otice of any disease or defect from which any child is found by such school medical advisor to be suffering shall be given to the parent or guardian of such child, with such advice or order relating thereto as such medical advisor deems advisable, and such parent or guardian shall cause such child to be treated by a reputable physician for such disease or defects. When any child shows symptoms of any communicable disease, notice shall also be given to the director of health or board of health and such child shall be excluded from attendance at such school and not permitted to return without a permit from the town, city or borough director of health.

In addition to requiring certain notices to be given to parents and local officials, the statute expressly empowers school districts to exclude students from school who may have a “communicable disease.”  However, such exclusions should solely be based upon a medically and scientifically based determination as to whether students pose a direct threat to the safety and health of others, not supposition or irrational (or even discriminatory) notions.   

For those districts with a confirmed case in their community, the CDC advises having its emergency operation plan address the following issues:

  • If a student or staff member is infected, the school district should discuss with the local health district how long they should stay out of school. 
  • Continue to communicate with the school community.  However, schools must ensure that any such communications maintain the confidentiality of students in accordance with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (“FERPA”).
  • Schools should coordinate with local health officials to determine whether, among other things, to cancel school or school activities.

If it does become necessary to cancel school, districts should further have a plan to address the following issues:

  • Whether it is necessary to also cancel extracurricular activities and events (including field trips, athletic and club activities, concerts and plays, and student travel, not to mention large gatherings).
  • Communicating to the school community the benefits of not gathering or socializing until the outbreak is under control.
  • Ensuring the continuity of education, if possible, including on-line learning (and addressing some students’ possible lack of access to computers).  The State Department of Education has provided guidance that, among other things, addresses factors to consider for ensuring appropriate distance learning opportunities. .  It goes without saying that there may be collective bargaining/union issues with a program of distance learning, and the State Department of Education may have to approve such a program.    
  • Completing necessary school district operations through remote access.
  • Determining how to provide special education and Section 504 services when schools are closed or when a student requiring such services or modifications is excluded from school due to being a carrier of the virus. 
  • If school must be closed for an extended period of time, exploring the possibility of a waiver for the minimum number of school days, understanding that the Commissioner will likely require that a district exhaust all options (for example, cancellation of vacations, extending the school year up and until June 30).
  • Addressing IT issues if faced with a reduced staff.
  • Continuing to provide necessary services for children with special healthcare needs.
  • Strategies to provide food to students who receive meals at school.
  • Possible alternative uses of school buildings during an outbreak.
  • Transition strategies for returning to school and learning.
  • Possible bereavement needs of students.

The CDC suggests that the school’s plan to prevent the spread of the virus and to address an outbreak should be coordinated with local health officials and be tailored toward the specific needs of the district considering the district’s obligations as enumerated above. With the first confirmed case of the Coronavirus in Connecticut being recently identified, school districts are well-advised to swiftly develop its emergency operations plan and stay abreast of the CDC’s continuing guidance.  Districts should also consider seeking the guidance of counsel as it navigates these complex issues.  We will continue to keep you informed as events dictate, and as further guidance is received from appropriate state and federal authorities.

This blog/web site presents general information only. The information you obtain at this site is not, nor is it intended to be, legal advice, and you should not consider or rely on it as such. You should consult an attorney for individual advice regarding your own situation. This website is not an offer to represent you. You should not act, or refrain from acting, based upon any information at this website. Neither our presentation of such information nor your receipt of it creates nor will create an attorney-client relationship with any reader of this blog. Any links from another site to the blog are beyond the control of Pullman & Comley, LLC and do not convey their approval, support or any relationship to any site or organization. Any description of a result obtained for a client in the past is not intended to be, and is not, a guarantee or promise the firm can or will achieve a similar outcome.

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About Our School Law Blog

Alerts, commentary, and insights from the attorneys of Pullman & Comley’s School Law practice on federal and Connecticut law as it pertains to educational institutions, whether those institutions be public school districts, private K-12 schools, or post-secondary colleges and universities.

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