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Coronavirus on Campus

March 10, 2020, by Debra Wilson, SAIS President

What to Do If a Community Member Has COVID-19

Schools should be ready for the eventuality that a student, staff member, or community member on campus has — or has been exposed to someone with — COVID-19. The term people are using to manage these issues is “close and clean,” as this is generally what ends up happening. The scenario is generally that someone comes to campus who has either been diagnosed with COVID-19 (or presumed diagnosed through a local test) or someone comes to campus who has had exposure to such an individual. The CDC recently released updated guidance to help schools and others understand the potential risk behind these scenarios.

Schools in other parts of the country have already been wrestling with this reality, and some SAIS schools have already been through this process. Below is a summary of steps schools have taken. Note that in some cases, these steps have been taken in a different order or simultaneously, depending on the school and circumstance; in nearly all cases, they have taken place very quickly.

While these steps are not exhaustive, they may help your school compile your own complete checklist so that if/when this happens on your campus, you will have steps in place and understand the decisions that need to made, so that your staff can execute them readily. Schools may want to start drafting relevant communications to have at the ready, even before this issue arises. 

  • Once you are aware of potential exposure, understand whether the individual within your community who came to campus in some capacity was diagnosed with COVID-19 or was potentially or definitely exposed to someone with COVID-19 away from campus. This will allow you to understand where they are on the CDC’s updated guidance in terms of risk.
  • Contact your school attorney, insurance carrier, board chair (or other board leadership as appropriate), and school nurse and explain the situation.
  • Bring together your COVID-19 team to help identify needed safety and communication steps.
  • Notify your local public health officials and gain guidance as appropriate on closing, cleaning, opening, and other steps and notifications as needed. The local public health officials seem to have varying degrees of requirements here, including whether a professional, third party vendor is needed for a cleaning. Also, the level of cleaning varies depending on the potential exposure level within the school (i.e., whether the individual of concern has been diagnosed or presumed diagnosed with COVID-19 as opposed to someone who has been exposed to someone with such diagnosis). Some cleanings require airflow for 24 hours in potentially affected areas before cleaning begins. Note, in some cases local officials may decide that exposure was brief or removed enough that such cleaning is not necessary, but the school may decide to take the additional step of doing a deep clean out of an abundance of caution.
  • Schedule the appropriate deep clean of your campus immediately.
  • Particularly if the individual has been diagnosed with COVID-19, you will likely need to create a list of anyone who may have been within infection range of that person when/if they were on campus. Many attorneys are also advising taking this step if there is reason to believe an individual has been exposed to COVID-19. Work with local public health officials to determine the extent to which potentially exposed individuals need to be notified and should potentially self-quarantine. When in doubt always err on the side of caution. Again, local public health officials will likely direct you through this exercise. The recent updated CDC guidance will help you understand the risks associated with different levels of exposure and the risks associated with these individuals, particularly in places that are not yet known community outbreak areas. 
  • Work with the individuals involved to ensure they know what the expectations are for staying home from school. The individual who is diagnosed and anyone living with that person who may have been exposed should likely stay home for 14 days to ensure that they are free of symptoms. Some schools are erring on the side of a longer window; this is particularly the case with children, as they can be asymptomatic. The recent updated CDC guidance will help you understand the risks associated with different levels of exposure.
  • Keep the community up to date with regular communications, including steps being taken and the extent of the school closure, while respecting the privacy of the individuals involved.
  • Provide online learning or other supportive learning for students who must stay home.
  • If a staff member must stay home, work with them to help them telework, if possible. Flexible leave policies should be in effect to the extent possible. Unemployment or other insurance may also come into play, depending on how long the staff member must stay home and is unable to work. Understand these potential long-term issues ahead of time. 
  • When the staff member or student returns to school, check in with them to make sure that they are feeling supported and not being ostracized for their close encounter with the coronavirus. Work with staff, students, and parents to reinforce this message to ensure a smooth return to campus.

Schools should take care to thoroughly document every step they are taking and the conversations they have with the various parties and groups. For example, if an outside vendor performs the deep clean on the campus, the school should document the name of the vendor, what chemicals were used, etc. If the local or state health officials provide specific guidance on cleaning, or opening or closing, the school should document such exchanges, including who from the school had the conversation, which public health official offered the guidance, as well as the timing and the content of conversation. In the event that something goes awry, this documentation will be very important to the school.


This article is provided for general information purposes and school not be used in place of or as legal advice. Schools should work with their legal counsel to create school appropriate plans for specific situations.

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