Should Connecticut schools be worried? How should school officials respond? The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Drug Prevention advise that schools should prepare to take steps to prevent the spread of the novel corona virus (COVID-19) among their students and staff, should local health officials identify such a need. School plans should be designed to minimize disruption to teaching and learning and protect students and staff from social stigma and discrimination.

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) first appeared in Wuhan, China in December 2019. Since then, approximately 3,990 individuals have died as a result of the virus and over 113,766 people have been infected world-wide. 423 individuals in the United States (as of the date of this writing) have been diagnosed with the virus, including nineteen deaths, with thirty-five states reporting confirmed cases. These numbers continue to rise each day. Only one Connecticut resident has been diagnosed with the disease to date, however, this number is expected to rise, with confirmed cases in nearly all surrounding states, including New York (40), Massachusetts (28), and Rhode Island (3).

The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Trump administration declared a public health emergency over the outbreak. The United States also stated that it would temporarily bar entry to the United States of foreign nationals who have recently traveled to China, and U.S. citizens returning from China’s Hubei province will be subject to a mandatory 14-day quarantine. The State Department has issued a Warning Level Four travel advisory stating, “Do not travel to China due to the novel coronavirus first identified in Wuhan, China.” Other countries have been assigned Level Two (Japan) or Level Three (Italy, Iran, South Korea, Mongolia, among others) travel advisories.

The Basics About the Coronavirus

According to the CDC, symptoms of the virus may appear in as few as two days or up to 14 days after exposure. Symptoms include fever, cough, and shortness of breath. The virus can be spread from person-to-person similar to how the flu spreads, such as through sneezing and coughing. The CDC has stated that it currently is not clear if people can get the virus by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes. There is currently no vaccine to protect against COVID-19.

What Schools Can Do to Minimize Risks

School plans should build on everyday practices such as encouraging hand hygiene, monitoring absenteeism, and encouraging communication with students, faculty and local health officials.

Promote Good Hygiene. The CDC recommends taking everyday preventive actions to help prevent the spread of respiratory viruses such as washing hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol, avoiding close contact with people who are sick, staying home when you are sick, covering your cough or sneeze with a tissue, and cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe. Schools should provide tissues and hand-sanitizers, ensure that wash areas and bathrooms are adequately stocked with hand soap, and should educate students on best hygiene practices and prevention measures. A school-wide assembly and staff/faculty meetings regarding best hygiene practices is recommended.Posting reminders in bathrooms and dining areas is also advised. Custodial staff should be instructed to increase the frequency with which they clean and disinfect commonly touched areas, such as doorknobs, stair railings, desktops, computer keyboards, chrome books, etc.

International Travel. Given the upcoming spring recess schedule, schools should develop a specific plan to monitor international travel by school community members.  Individuals should be asked to disclose any intended travel plans. In the event that a member of the school community travels to a country designated a Level Two advisory or greater, you may wish to consider enforcing a mandatory 14-day self-quarantine policy. If such a policy is to be enforced, students and staff should be made aware of this policy in advance. The 14-day period should begin on the last day that the individual was present in a country deemed a “Level Two” or above.  Appropriate quarantine accommodations may need to be provided for international students who do not have a place of residence off school grounds. Such circumstances should be considered on a case-by-case basis.

For those students whose home residence is in a country that is subject to a travel advisory, you may wish to consider arranging accommodations for those students during the spring recess so they can avoid traveling to their home countries should they choose to do so.

Domestic Travel. School officials may also consider enforcing a policy that all school community members who intend to travel domestically inform school officials regarding those plans and the intended destination. If any student or staff member has symptoms of illness upon return from a trip, they should be advised to remain at home and contact a physician.  Again, consider enforcing a 14-day self-quarantine for all individuals who display signs of illness after travel.

Monitor and Plan for Absenteeism. School officials should review the usual absenteeism patterns at their school among both students and staff. Plan to alert local health officials about increases in student and staff absenteeism, particularly if due to respiratory illnesses, which have symptoms similar to those of COVID-19. Encourage students and staff to stay home when sick.  Review and consider temporarily revising absentee and sick leave policies, to permit individuals to stay home in the event they believe they may be ill. The use of attendance awards and incentives should be discouraged.  School officials should anticipate an increase in absenteeism, and therefore should identify critical job functions and positions, and formulate a plan for cross-coverage if needed.

Extracurricular Activities. Should COVID-19 spread within this state, school officials should consider limiting large gatherings of students and the community. This may impact extracurricular activities, such as sporting events and concerts.

Consider Emergency Closures. Temporarily closing schools is a strategy to stop or slow the further spread of COVID-19 in communities. During school closures, schools may consider remaining open for staff members only while students stay home. Keeping facilities open may allow teachers to develop and deliver lessons and materials remotely, thus maintaining continuity of teaching and learning. In the event of a temporary closure, it may be necessary to consider adopting a limited waiver of requirements for minimum numbers of in-person instructional hours, if applicable.

Remote Learning. In anticipation of the need for a temporary closure, plans should be developed in advance to facilitate continuity of learning, such as digital and e-learning options. Depending upon the course content and available resources, some strategies might include:  preparation of online materials, digital reference materials, tutorials or “teacher check-ins” by telephone, e-mail or web conferencing, recorded lessons, webinars and web-based modules. Efforts should be made in advance to ensure appropriate technological support is in place in the event that remote web-based learning becomes necessary.

Communication. Formulate a plan to encourage and facilitate communication with faculty, students and their families regarding the sharing of information about illnesses, new policies regarding travel, and the potential for emergency closures.

Conclusion

This issue, like prior issues related to SARS and the Swine flu, requires schools to balance their legal obligation to provide a safe environment for students and staff with their obligation to avoid violating privacy and discrimination laws. The best way for school officials to walk this tightrope is to be well-informed about the facts, as published by official government agencies like the CDC, not act on assumptions or misinformation, and formulate specific plans in advance. School officials should continue to closely monitor this situation as it evolves.

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This information is for educational purposes only to provide general information and a general understanding of the law. It does not constitute legal advice and does not establish any attorney-client relationship.

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