Dear Legal Mailbag:

As a building principal, I am so proud of how our teachers have embraced distance learning during the COVID-19 health emergency. To a person, the teachers have put their hearts into making distance learning meaningful for the students. The only pushback that I have received is from a few teachers who have said that they are anxious about synchronous distance learning, aka “live television.” These teachers are concerned that they cannot control the situation entirely, and they worry about a number of things, like saying the wrong thing or even getting hacked and having their students exposed by some malevolent soul to vulgarity or worse.

It is an imperfect world, and we all know that things can go wrong. But the confluence of a new technology and an unsettling time have caused these few teachers to be overwrought with concern for their personal liability. Given their concerns, they have asked to be excused from synchronous learning activities, and they are even threatening to get their union involved. Can you suggest some comforting words, or should I grant their request for excusal?

Uncharted Waters

Dear Mr. Waters:

Legal Mailbag is delighted to hear that the teachers in your building are engaged with distance learning without drama. The flexibility of teachers, their initiative in making the most of a challenging situation, and their dedication to doing what is best for their students is an inspiration, and we are all grateful for their efforts. For those few teachers who have concerns, Legal Mailbag has words of comfort.

There is a strong public policy in Connecticut to support and protect teachers in recognition of the important work that they do. That public policy is reflected in the indemnity statute, Conn. Gen. Stat. § 10-235. The indemnity statute provides that teachers (along with administrators, school board members and even volunteers in some situations) are indemnified and held harmless against claims made against them for actions they take in the course of their employment as long as their actions are not wanton, reckless or malicious. Legal Mailbag recognizes that that paraphrase from the law is a mouthful. In short, if teachers act in good faith but nonetheless get sued for something they do (or don’t do) while doing their jobs, their school district defends them and pays any damages that may be awarded. Significantly, that protection extends to legal fees, and teachers do not have to hire their own lawyers in such situations.

Clearly, when teachers provide instruction in accordance with a school district remote learning plan, they are doing their jobs and are therefore protected by the indemnity statute. Legal Mailbag has not heard of a single claim being made against a teacher for actions taken in connection with distance learning, but anyone can sue anyone for anything. Accordingly, it important for teachers and others to know about the extensive protections afforded to teachers and others through the indemnity statute.

Finally, Legal Mailbag notes that these teachers and their union representatives may be asking you to excuse them from distance learning. District officials are responsible for designing the distance learning plan, and it is most appropriate to take teacher concerns into account, expressed either individual or through their union representatives. However, the modality of instruction is not a mandatory subject of negotiation. After officials consider input and options, the district is free to implement a distance learning plan that includes synchronous instruction.

Originally appeared in the CAS Weekly Newsletter.
Written by attorney Thomas B. Mooney.