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Coronavirus Webinar Takeaways

Wednesday, March 11, 2020   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Debra Wilson
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3/12/20 Update
Travel from Europe to the US will be limited starting Friday 3/13/20 at midnight and continuing for 30 days. This limitation will not include the United Kingdom and US citizens will likely be allowed back in after screening. We will provide more guidance once details and regulations are available. However, if you have students on trips in Europe now, additional steps may be needed immediately to get your students home smoothly, particularly if there are international students on the trip. 

 

 

Debra P. Wilson

Below is a summary of questions and responses from the SAIS webinar “Coronavirus Update: Student Travel and Emerging Issues” (March 4, 2020), as well as responses and links to additional information. You may also listen to the full webinar recording.

This information here and in the webinar is provided for general information only, not as legal advice. Schools are strongly encouraged to work with legal counsel as they wrestle with the nuances of responding to this outbreak.

Communication 

Is there language my school should use in communicating with families about coronavirus preparation and response? Are there samples? 

On this webpage, you’ll find elements to include in your communications as well as sample letters shared by SAIS schools. Schools should be communicating consistently and frequently with parents, particularly as outbreaks start getting closer to the school community. Your school may find it most helpful to have a specific page on your website on which to post previous communications and any updates. A risk matrix like this one that clearly notes what is happening on campus depending on the level of risk might also be useful to share.

School Travel

Is there criteria or a rubric we can use to make decisions about whether/when to cancel school-sponsored trips?

Student travel should be assessed in light of the particular context of the trip. Schools will need to consider all of the aspects of the trip including but not limited to: the standard of care expected for traveling with students and whether the school and any third party vendors can meet it in light of the ages of the students involved, the training and skill sets of the chaperones or vendors undertaking the trip, the severity of the outbreak wherever students are traveling to or traveling through, the medical support available in those places if needed, any potential challenges returning to the country or the state, and other such risk mitigation considerations. Schools should be sure to also consider concerns such as the community’s general comfort level with welcoming community members back after traveling.

Any trips will need a crisis plan that specifically addresses medical issues, including what would happen if any member of the group (including a chaperone) were to contract the coronavirus. If the school moves ahead with the trip, it is essential to fully update the parents, students, and chaperones of any and all increased risks, and to obtain informed consent from all participants and their guardians. Schools will also want to consider the purpose of the trip in question. Some schools take a trip each year because it ties into the curriculum or it is a tradition for a particular grade. Where schools can postpone or meet the needs of that trip, those considerations should be part of the risk assessment.

Note that as of March 9, 2020, 75% of the members reporting data to the Global Education Benchmark Group had cancelled international spring break travel. While not necessarily indicative of needing to cancel international travel, knowing that many schools are making that ultimate determination is helpful context.

Many schools are looking at school-sponsored travel both globally and domestically, given the outbreaks that have been occurring recently within the United States. Global Education Benchmarking Group offers helpful information and considerations related to student travel. Again, clear, transparent, and proactive communications will help you keep your community informed.

Finally, schools will want to contact their insurance company to make sure that a school-sponsored trip to a particular location will be insured given the outbreak. Note that some schools are cancelling all school-sponsored trips out of an abundance of caution and to limit the case-by-case risk assessment of each scenario.

What are the financial implications if we do cancel? In planning for trips for next year (2021), what should we ask of travel agents and what contingencies should we put in place?

The financial implications of canceling trips are entirely dependent on the terms of the contracts originally entered into when purchases were made. Some airlines, hotels, and travel groups are being very flexible in their refund policies, while others are not. Schools should reach out to the appropriate entities to fully understand upfront the costs related to canceling trips. Schools should certainly consider the flexibility of the trips to which they commit before entering into agreements for travel next year. 

Should we cancel field trips to crowded places like zoos?

Schools will also want to assess the risks associated with these more local outings in light of the context of the situation in much the same way they would consider trips above, although obviously on a more localized level. Schools should be consistent in how they are approaching all travel with students. Failure to be consistent in your considerations and processes tends to lead to liability later. If the trip is in a state with no outbreak, or one that is contained in a separate part of the state, the trip may not be unacceptably risky. That being said, some schools are cancelling all trips off campus out of an abundance of caution and to limit the case-by-case risk assessment of each scenario.

Finally, as noted in the student travel question , schools should consider whether such trips are really necessary and think about other ways that opportunities may be created at school to meet the same programmatic or social need.

Personal Travel

Should we — and can we legally — track the personal travel of families and staff over spring break? Beyond suggesting self-quarantine, can we require it of families who have traveled to high-risk areas?

Yes, schools may ask families and staff for personal travel plans and for follow up limitations on their connection with campus upon their return. Schools that collect information will want to review the information and notify families of any limitations on their attending school upon their return. Schools engaging in this practice will want to work with legal counsel to ensure that they are aware of any negligence obligations that come with collecting and acting upon such information, as collecting the information without taking follow up steps may create more liability than it prevents.

If at all possible, the school should be clear before a family or staff member leaves for the trip what the school’s expectations are of the individual upon return in terms of self-quarantine or staying out of school for a period of time. Bear in mind that these considerations are now also relevant for domestic travel, given the outbreaks in some parts of the country. While it may feel helpful to set a guideline of a specific diagnosis number for a location that triggers someone staying out of school after traveling to that place, it may be helpful to consider whether that same reasoning holds true in larger states or cities, as well as the school’s own location. See other considerations at sais.org/coronavirus.

Should we revisit our HR policies around staff leave?

Yes, all schools should look carefully and comprehensively at all of their human resource policies. Ideally, schools will create at least interim flexibility, as a failure to do so may result in staff members under-reporting health issues and coming to school when they should stay home. The same is true for issues relating to students staying home. Fisher Phillips offers a recording a recent webinar that may be helpful. Schools may find it helpful to know how unemployment coverage works in their states, particularly for those staff members who are really unable to work if the school is closed.

International Students 

Are our international students likely to be able to go home this summer, and if so, are they likely to be allowed to return to the U.S.? How should we modify plans for admission and enrollment with new families? 

International students come from a wide array of countries and their ability to travel home and back to the United States will vary almost as widely. Schools should be tracking the ongoing outbreaks in those specific countries and be aware of any travel restrictions. Schools may want to work with the families of international students to coordinate summer activities for them in the United States if there is a concern that students may not be able to fly home, or if they do that they might not be able to return to school. Schools should consider more flexible agreements with families in the case that a student is not able to return to the school in the fall if they go home. Schools will want to work with their attorneys to discuss the enforceability of their agreements if students are physically unable to come to school due to travel restrictions. Remember that steps the school takes to provide opportunities for international students during the summer come with the same obligations the school has during the school year.

School Closure

If we do close our school, what should we consider in terms of when to open again?

Due to the shifting nature of this virus, schools are just starting to understand how re-opening the physical plan after a closure might work. Schools should not re-open before getting clearance from local health officials, particularly if the health officials were the ones who directed the school to close. Schools that have had to close for deep-cleaning due to a potential exposure have often found they can open within a day or two. Schools that have been considering longer closures of the physical campus have anticipated that adults may come back to school first to plan collectively for the return of all students and adjust programming as needed to make up for any lost time.

It is helpful for schools to bear in mind the terminology they use if the physical campus must close for a period of time. Many schools are talking about transitioning to distance or online learning as opposed to talking about “closing the school” to make clear that the school is not closing, but rather shifting, its method of service delivery.

What should we say if parents ask for tuition refunds?

Schools should work with their attorneys to understand the current status of their enrollment agreements, employee agreements, and school handbooks when it comes to having to alter the school year or delivery mechanisms to manage a crisis that causes the school to close the physical campus for a period of time. Schools should be looking for language that either clearly says “force majeure” in their agreements, or other language that clearly points to flexibility in delivery of services in the event of a natural disaster or emergency. If your school does not have such language, there may be steps you can take that help clarify that online, other learning approaches, or resetting of the school calendar are provided in fulfillment of the agreement. Schools should work with their legal counsel on this issue if there is serious concern.

Schools that do not have language that specifically provides for this flexibility will also want to work with their attorneys to ensure they have it going forward beyond this year. Given the circumstances, public policy should help schools find some flexibility in how they deliver their services, but that is never guaranteed. Schools that are anticipating physical plant closures are looking at both online learning as well as extension of the school year, including extending school into the summer and Saturday classes. This is particularly true for younger grades.

Other

What plans should we put in place for dealing with an outbreak in our boarding school environment?

Boarding schools may find that it is most helpful to look at recent CDC guidance for higher education, particularly in terms of preparing the campus, health facilities, and overall emergency planning. The Association of Boarding Schools has also been working with groups of boarding schools; their resources and opportunities may be helpful.

What are other schools doing to stem mistreatment of students from Asia and other affected areas?

The CDC also offers helpful guidance to use in stemming misinformation and mistreatment of others based on their race or ethnicity. "Speaking Up Against Racism Around the New Coronavirus," an online resource from Teaching Tolerance, may also be helpful.

We will continue to gather resources to help your school make these important decisions on sais.org/coronavirus.


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