With the emergence of confirmed Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) cases in the United States and in communities surrounding Connecticut, Connecticut public school districts should continue planning for the possibility of community spread and responding to concerns regarding COVID-19. Given the rapidly evolving nature of the COVID-19 outbreak and the information made available to us by public health authorities, it is critical that school districts partner with state and local health officials and regularly consult the latest official guidance as they implement measures to address COVID-19 in their school communities. The guidance herein is based on the information available as of the date of this publication, including guidance issued on March 6, 2020 by the Connecticut State Department of Education (CSDE) and the Connecticut Department of Administrative Services (DAS). (For guidance specific to independent schools, click here.)
As we all continue to monitor the latest guidance from public health authorities, it is important for school districts to communicate clearly and regularly with families, students (as age-appropriate), and staff on the preventive steps the school district is taking to minimize the spread of any illness and to prepare for any potential outbreak, should it occur within the school community.
Below are some considerations for school districts to keep in mind as they monitor information and develop proactive plans for prevention and response:
- Stay Informed
School districts must continue to monitor the latest data, guidance, and recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Connecticut Department of Public Health, the United States Department of Education, CSDE, DAS, and other relevant public health and education officials. This information is evolving daily, and it is important for school districts to track the advice of the medical community and partner with public health and education officials to ensure compliance with federal, state, and local rules and determine what steps may be appropriate in your district.
The following are links to resources that may be particularly useful:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html
Connecticut Department of Public Health: https://portal.ct.gov/DPH/Public-Health-Preparedness/Main-Page/2019-Novel-Coronavirus
Connecticut State Department of Education: https://portal.ct.gov/-/media/SDE/Digest/2019-20/March-2020-State-Department-of-Education-Covid19-Guidance.pdf
United States Department of Education: https://www.ed.gov/coronavirus?src=feature
National Association of County and City Health Officials Directory of Local Health Departments: https://www.naccho.org/membership/lhd-directory?searchType=standard&lhd-state=CT#card-filter
- Preventive Measures and School Cleaning
Designate and train members of your school community who can stay abreast of rapidly evolving information regarding COVID-19 and inform others as needed, and who will be on point in the event of a community outbreak.
Review and consider modifying current policies, procedures, and other school district documents that may be relevant to a COVID-19 outbreak, such as emergency response plans; collective bargaining agreements and employment contracts; contracts with outside vendors; field trip documents; substitute teacher plans; visitor policies; insurance coverage; and non-discrimination and bullying policies.
Remind all members of the school community to follow standard good hygiene protocols such as hand washing, staying home when sick, and avoiding sharing items such as water bottles.
Continue to engage in routine environmental cleaning throughout the school district, paying particular attention to common areas and high-traffic locations that may be open to the public. Many school districts have had questions about “green cleaning” compliance. In guidance issued on March 6, 2020 (available at https://portal.ct.gov/-/media/SDE/2020_COVID-19_Green_Cleaning_Guidance_for_State_Buildings_and_Public_Schools.pdf), DAS advised school districts that “it is acceptable to use most conventional cleaning and sanitizing products,” and that the state’s “green cleaning” laws “provide an exception for the use of any disinfectant, disinfecting cleaner, sanitizer or any other antimicrobial product approved by federal law.” DAS has further advised that “[t]o the extent that the laws around green cleaning products have been interpreted locally to further restrict use of environmental cleaning products and/or personal care products, in the context of [COVID-19], these laws should not be misconstrued to limit compliance with the relevant CDC and/or [Connecticut Department of Public Health] guidance necessary for protection of public health and safety.”
- Community Communications
Families, students, and staff may be especially anxious about the possible impact of COVID-19, and will be seeking reassurance from school district leadership that it has developed contingency plans to address the range of potential issues that could arise – from excluding individuals from campus to alternative learning, or simply considering how absences might impact grades or academic progress. Now is the time to engage in regular contact with families to apprise them of any updated information, calm and reassure them, and communicate important information about any changes or potential changes in school operations. When sharing information with the school community, keep in mind that school districts cannot share personally identifiable information about the medical condition of specific students or staff members and must maintain all information about student and staff illness as confidential in compliance with applicable laws.
- School Trips, Travel, and Gatherings
If you have planned trips, whether domestic or abroad, continue to monitor and heed CDC guidance to determine if such trips should be cancelled or postponed. Examine permission slips, vendor agreements, chaperone agreements, and other trip and travel documents, including those related to refund and trip insurance. Maintain communication with families about trip status, providing information about when decisions may be made as to whether a trip is going forward. In assessing whether to cancel a trip, schools should consider all relevant information, including updated travel warnings from the CDC, as well as the school’s ability to safely return students from the destination should events evolve during the course of the trip. If you decide that a trip will take place, consider modifying field trip permission slips in light of COVID-19, bearing in mind that waivers of liability generally are not enforceable in Connecticut. Also, consider whether any precautions or notifications are necessary with respect to families, students, and staff members who are planning to travel over upcoming school breaks. Finally, consider whether it would be prudent to cancel or defer school-sponsored events that would bring members of the school community together in mass gatherings, such as a school play or an athletic activity.
- Return to School Protocols
Working with public health officials, and consistent with current official recommendations, school districts should articulate any restrictions on returning to or visiting school grounds. Such protocols should be based on objective criteria and consistent with public health recommendations. In particular, school districts should consider whether they will impose restrictions (such as self-monitoring or quarantine) for anyone who has recently traveled to a high-risk area, is showing symptoms of illness, or has been in close contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19. These protocols should be applied evenhandedly and school districts must remain vigilant to avoid actions that are arbitrary or which could be viewed as discriminatory based on perceived race, national origin, or another protected class.
Prepare for increased student and staff absences due to illness, including planning for substitutes for all positions (e.g., teachers, paraprofessionals, nurses, cafeteria workers, and custodial/maintenance workers). Encourage students and staff to stay home and to alert the school district if they are showing signs of illness.
- School Closures
Be sure to consult the latest guidance from state and local health and education officials before deciding to close schools. CSDE’s guidance notes the following with respect to school closures:
At this time, school closures in Connecticut have not been directed by Federal and/or State officials. Should it become necessary to consider closing one or more schools, that decision will not be made in a silo. Absent an emergency declaration from the Office of the Governor or Federal government, school closures are local decisions made by the school district in coordination with and at the direction of the local health officials. Consultation with the State Department of Public Health and State Department of Education is also recommended.
CSDE also points out that state law allows the Connecticut State Board of Education to authorize a shorter school year (fewer than 180 days) where there are emergency circumstances, and reminds school districts to direct requests regarding a shorter school year to the Commissioner of Education in writing. However, CSDE advises school districts to “exhaust all other options to make up any lost school days.”
- Prolonged School Closure: Alternative Instruction and Other Considerations
Consider whether it is advisable for the school district to maintain continuity of instruction through distance learning programs should schools need to close for a prolonged period of time. This may include exploring the school district’s ability to utilize online learning tools or engage in other forms of remote learning that could be accessed by all students on an equal basis. In evaluating options, keep in mind that if educational services are being delivered to students in any form, those services must be provided to all students, including students with limited or no access to technology at home and students with disabilities in accordance with their Individualized Education Programs or Section 504 plans. School districts should also consider how employees and collective bargaining obligations may be affected by a distance learning model, including whether the school district would remain open for healthy staff members while students stay home or whether staff could perform their normal work functions while working remotely. In addition, coordinate with the appropriate agencies to ensure children receiving free and reduced-price meals at school continue to receive the nutrition that schools typically provide. Seek guidance from CSDE regarding any modifications to expectations regarding attendance, staffing, graduation, and instructional hour requirements. For additional considerations regarding continuity of learning, consult CSDE’s guidance (available at https://portal.ct.gov/-/media/SDE/Digest/2019-20/March-2020-State-Department-of-Education-Covid19-Guidance.pdf) and consider consulting a guide prepared by The United States Department of Education entitled, “Preparing for Infectious Disease: Department of Education Recommendations to Ensure the Continuity of Teaching and Learning for Schools (K-12) During Extended Student Absence or School Dismissal” (available at https://rems.ed.gov/Docs/DoE_Recommendations_to_Ensure_Continuity_Teaching_and_Learning.pdf).
- Employment Matters
Review any employment documents (e.g., collective bargaining agreements, employment contracts, and policies) related to sick days, FMLA, leaves of absence, and other employee rights to determine how such documents may affect the school district’s response to COVID-19 and whether any modifications may be warranted. Consider meeting with unions to discuss any potential impacts on employees, and encourage staff members to stay home when sick and inform the school if they are showing signs of illness, have travelled to high-risk areas, or have otherwise been exposed to COVID-19. Notify staff members in advance of any rules the school district may have established regarding a staff member’s return from traveling to a high-risk area or other exposure.
- Student Matters
Notify families in advance of any rules the school district may have established regarding a student’s or family’s return from traveling to a high-risk area or other exposure. If a school district requires any form of quarantine, it should implement plans to ensure continuity of learning. Special considerations may be appropriate for students with disabilities. For example, school districts should consider their obligation to continue providing special education and related services to a student with a disability who has an extended absence related to COVID-19 while schools remain open. Similarly, school districts should consider whether, if a school district closes for reasons related to COVID-19 and adopts a district-wide distance learning platform, the district can continue delivering special education and related services to the student through such platform. Finally, school districts also need to be aware of and consider their obligations under Section 504 and Connecticut law, such as homebound instruction regulations.
- Health Services
Collaborate with the school district’s medical advisor and school nursing staff as well as local public health officials to develop protocols in the event a student or staff member exhibits signs of respiratory illness at school, including any protocols that may be necessary to protect medically vulnerable members of the school community. Coordinate with local public health officials to ensure timely reports of illness and to determine appropriate steps when a COVID-19 infection is suspected.
- Discrimination and Stigmatization
Be vigilant about avoiding discriminatory practices and remind members of the school community not to discriminate, stigmatize, bully, or harass on any basis that may related to COVID-19. School districts continue to have an obligation to avoid all forms of discrimination and to investigate claims of discrimination, bullying, and harassment in accordance with applicable laws. The CDC warns that “[s]tigma and discrimination can occur when people associate an infectious disease, such as COVID-19, with a population or nationality, even though not everyone in that population or from that region is specifically at risk for the disease . . . .” The CDC reminds us that “stigma hurts everyone by creating more fear or anger towards ordinary people instead of the disease that is causing the problem.”
Whether facing COVID-19 or any other unexpected emergency, comprehensive preparedness planning involves planning for all possible contingencies while hoping for the best possible outcome. While there is universally applicable information and guidance available, school districts must continue to engage in a planning process that takes into consideration the specific needs of their school community and the latest public health data and recommendations in their region.
If you have any questions regarding appropriate responses to COVID-19, please do not hesitate to contact any member of the School Law Practice Group at Shipman & Goodwin.