FAQs for Private Schools on Responding to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Outbreak: Student Issues

CATEGORY: Special Bulletins
CLIENT TYPE: Private Education
PUBLICATION: LCW Special Bulletin
DATE: Mar 09, 2020

In the past month, the Coronavirus (COVID-19) has spread throughout much of the world, including to the United States.  Last week Governor Newsom declared a state of emergency in California.  Los Angeles and San Francisco Counties, among others, have also declared a Local Health Emergency.  Action by the state and counties in declaring a state of emergency make greater resources available to address this developing issue.  They do not give schools greater authority to quarantine students or their families.

Given the uncertainty surrounding the spread of the virus and attempts to contain it, schools must address not only the current situation but consider potential developments as well. Moreover, the issues faced by individual schools are often unique and require careful, individualized consideration while taking into account federal, state, and local guidance.

Schools should collaborate, share information, and review plans with local health officials to help protect the whole school community, including those with special health needs. School plans should be designed to minimize disruption to teaching and learning and protect students and staff from social stigma and discrimination.

In addition, schools can help manage fears about the Coronavirus by reassuring families that the school is closely monitoring the situation, including coordinating with the county health department and taking steps that are in proportion to current, known risks and in line with up-to-date, official guidance.

The advice below addresses many of the questions and scenarios that California schools are facing with regard to students and families.  Please see LCW’s separate FAQs regarding Employee Issues.

Q.  Can schools tell students to stay at home if they have recently traveled to a country with CDC Level 3 or Level 2 Travel Notices?

A: Schools should rely on the latest guidance of federal, state and local health departments before making any decisions regarding quarantine of students.

Currently, the CDC calls for quarantine of individuals who have traveled to countries with Level 3 travel notices, but not for countries with Level 2 or 1 travel notices.  This means schools can require individuals returning from Level 3 countries to not come to school for a period of 14 days from the time they left an area with widespread or ongoing community spread.  The CDC advises that these individuals self-monitor at home and practice social distancing.

Presently, the only country with a Level 2 travel notice is Japan.  The CDC states that travelers who go to Japan “should limit contact with others and monitor their health for 14 days after returning to the United States.”  In most cases, it will be difficult to allow a student to return to school while ensuring that they have limited contacted with others during this 14-day period.  However, schools should consider on a case-by-case basis whether they can accommodate limited contact with others in deciding whether to allow these students to return to school during this 14-day period.

When in doubt, schools should contact their local health department and seek their recommendation, rather than attempting to make medical decisions on their own.  While schools should be aware of the CDC’s and other federal and state agencies’ current recommendations, it is your local public health department that is in the position of interpreting this guidance in light of the particular circumstances, including with respect to your school’s geographic area.

For example, the CDC states that if conditions worsen to the point where there is widespread transmission of the Coronavirus, requiring quarantine of individuals who have traveled internationally could be arbitrary in the context of similar risk among others in the community if there is already an outbreak in your school’s particular area.  Decisions that are arbitrary—apart from possibly having no public health benefit—also increase the risk of discrimination claims.

Q:  Should schools cancel international and domestic field trips?

A:  Many schools have international and domestic trips planned for upcoming Spring Break, or at other times in the near future.  Here are some tips for how to decide whether to go on trips, and related issues:

  • What travel precautions are recommended by the most recent guidance from the CDC and other public agencies or health officials?

The CDC Interim Guidance states that schools may need to postpone or cancel trips that could expose students and staff to potential community spread of COVID-19.

The CDC recommends travelers avoid all nonessential travel to destinations with Level 3 travel notices because of the risk of getting COVID-19.  This means that travel to Level 3 countries should be cancelled for the foreseeable future.

We also recommend that schools avoid travel to Level 2 countries.  The CDC only recommends that older adults and those with chronic medical conditions avoid nonessential travel to Level 2 countries.  However, in other guidance for colleges and universities, the CDC has recommended that travel abroad be suspended because students may face unpredictable circumstances, travel restrictions, challenges in returning home or accessing health care while abroad.  Though the CDC’s guidance for higher education institutions relates to study abroad programs, many of the same concerns apply to travel abroad for trips of shorter duration, such as Spring Break.

Otherwise, for travel to countries with Level 1 or no travel notices, schools should regularly check the CDC’s webpage on Coronavirus Information for Travelers: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/travelers/index.html.   This webpage includes a risk assessment by country map.  Schools should also regularly review the State Department Website regarding travel advisories at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/traveladvisories/traveladvisories.html/.

In addition to international travel, schools should also carefully evaluate the risks of traveling to places within the United States based on the current situation in those areas and on recommendations from public health officials.

  • What kinds of potential problems might come up in the weeks leading up to and during a student trip?

Try to forecast the likelihood of such things as being subject to quarantine by public health officials, being barred from re-entry to the United States, travel delays, etc.

  • Does the school’s insurance carrier have any special requirements for travel to locations with CDC travel notices?

We recommend checking-in with the school’s insurance company to make sure the school is complying with any requirements necessary to maintain insurance coverage.

  • What are other schools doing in your local area?

Schools have a duty of care to act as a reasonably prudent person would under similar circumstances.  If a school fails to meet its duty of care, it could give rise to liability against the school for negligence.  So, for example, if other schools in your area are canceling international or domestic field trips, this is something to take into account.

Q:  What steps should schools take going forward with international and domestic field trips?

A: For schools that decide to go forward with upcoming international and domestic trips, we recommend amending their field trip waivers to:

  • Specifically identify the risks associated with travel due to the Coronavirus.  Risks include exposure to the Coronavirus, being subject to quarantine for two or more weeks and travel delays.
  • Include links to the CDC and State Department websites with information about travel advisories in light of the Coronavirus, and acknowledge that parents are responsible for regularly checking these webpages for updated travel warnings.
  • Include language indicating that schools have the sole discretion to determine when to cancel planned trips due to safety concerns, and that the school is not responsible for reimbursing any trip related costs.

Q:  What steps should schools take to cancel international and domestic field trips?

A:  For schools that decide to cancel upcoming domestic or international trips, if the trip is sponsored by a third-party travel vendor, schools and families may be able to receive refunds depending on the terms of the vendor contract, and whether they include force majeure provisions that could apply to this situation.

Schools and families that purchased trip insurance may have coverage that applies in this situation, depending on the terms of the insurance policy.  Some policies provide coverage for trips that are cancelled for any reason, whereas other policies exclude reasons related to disease outbreaks.  In addition, many airlines are waiving change fees for those who want to postpone or cancel travel plans due to the Coronavirus.

If the school sponsors the trip, and there is no third-party vendor, whether or not the school will need to reimburse parents will depend on the terms of the trip waiver or other written agreement with the parents.  Accordingly, agreements should clearly state that in the event that the school cancels the trip, the school will not be responsible for reimbursing parents for any trip related costs.

Q:  What should a school do if it learns that a community member has COVID-19 or has come into contact with someone with COVID-19?

A:  According to the CDC’s FAQs for K-12 Schools, a school may need to shut down for 14 days, or possibly longer, if a student or staff member attended school before being confirmed as having COVID-19.  The CDC further states,

“Any decision about a school dismissal or cancellation of school events should be made in coordination with your local health officials.  Schools are not expected to make decisions about school closures and event cancellation independent of their local health officials.  Dismissal and event cancellation decisions should be considered on a case-by-case basis using information from health officials about the local conditions.”

Accordingly, schools should alert their local health department if they become aware that a community member has a confirmed case of COVID-19.

As for situations where there is concern that a community member may have been exposed to someone with COVID-19, consistent with CDC guidance, we recommend that schools avoid independently making medical decisions—such as which individuals should be subject to quarantine—without advice from a medical professional and/or public health officials.  For example, in the case of an asymptomatic student who may have come into contact with someone with COVID-19, it may be appropriate to ask the family to consult with their doctor in order to understand the risk of exposure.  Schools can also contact their local health officials for guidance in how to evaluate risks and appropriate response.

If directed by health officials, schools may need to provide notice to their communities about potential exposure.  Schools should coordinate with local public health officials in providing this notice.  It is important to remember that schools may not disclose the identity of the subject individual—whether directly or indirectly—to the community, since doing so could violate their right to privacy under the California Constitution and California’s Confidentiality of Medical Information Act.

If public health officials determine that a student may not attend school for a period of time, schools should take steps to academically support the student while studying from home.   For a discussion about employees, see our separate FAQs regarding Employee Issues.

If the school is operated out of a shared building or area, the school should inform building management so they can take whatever precautions they deem necessary.

Q.  What should schools do if a student becomes ill at school? 

A:  Schools should continue to enforce their normal protocols regarding when parents should keep sick students at home and when sick students should be sent home.  For example, many schools already have written policies in their family/student handbooks that address these issues.  Schools should also send home students with acute respiratory illness symptoms consistent with COVID-19 (such as fever, coughing, and/or shortness of breath).  Make sure to follow your school’s protocols in an objective and non-discriminatory manner.

The CDC has stated the following in its Interim Guidance regarding steps that schools should take if a student becomes ill at school:

  • Remember that schools are not expected to screen students to identify cases of COVID-19. The majority of respiratory illnesses are not COVID-19.  If a community (or more specifically, a school) has cases of COVID-19, local health officials will help identify those individuals and will follow up on next steps.
  • Establish procedures to ensure students who become sick at school or arrive at school sick are sent home as soon as possible, and remind parents to keep their children at home if they are sick with a contagious illness.
  • Keep sick students separate from well students until they can leave.
  • Alert local health officials about large increases in student and staff absenteeism, particularly if absences appear due to respiratory illnesses, such as the common cold or the “flu,” as these symptoms are similar to the COVID-19.

Q:  How should schools address student absenteeism related to COVID-19? 

A:  Parents may decide to keep their children home, even when the risk of infection is low and the school is following up-to-date recommendations from public health officials to reduce the risk of Coronavirus transmission.

While it is important to demonstrate empathy for parents who are afraid to send their children to school, it is also important to ensure that students receive the education that schools are contractually required to provide.  Providing clear, factual communications to parents about risk levels and hygiene measures may help allay some parents’ fears.  Schools should encourage students to come to school if they are not sick and if they have not had any exposure to COVID-19 that medical professionals or public health officials deem as warranting isolation.

On the other hand, schools should not set a tone that discourages students from staying home when they are legitimately ill. Students with respiratory illnesses (including a cough or flu) should stay home to avoid transmission to other students.  Schools should clearly inform parents that they do not expect sick students to attend school, even if this means relaxing normal attendance policies.  For example, schools should avoid perfect attendance awards and initiatives that may compel students to come to school when they are ill.

The CDC recommends that when a school notices an unusual pattern of absenteeism, it should notify the local public health department so the public health department can investigate whether there is an uptick in COVID-19 cases in the community.

Q.     When and under what circumstances should a school close?  

A:  Schools should work in close collaboration with their local health department officials in determining whether to shut down.  The CDC’s Interim Guidance for Schools states that schools are not expected to make decisions about school closures on their own. Schools should seek specific guidance from local health officials to determine if, when, and for how long to take these steps.

The CDC recommends that if local health officials report cases of COVID-19 in the community, schools should pro-actively reach out to their county health department regarding whether to close the school.  We recommend that private schools also communicate with their local school districts when making these decisions.  If local or state health officials advise a school to close, the CDC recommends that the school consider whether to keep school open for staff members who are not ill so that they can develop and deliver instruction remotely.

Schools should consider using their websites, social media, or text blasts (as available) to provide the most up-to-date information to parents regarding school closures.  Schools should provide information in language formats necessary to reach all students, and deliver communications calmly and professionally to ease parent concerns as much as possible.

QHow should the school support student academics during a school closure?  

A:  We recommend that schools take proactive steps now to determine how they can support academic instruction during a school closure period:

  • Consider ways to provide remote instruction, including what educational tools and applications can be used for these purposes, training teachers, students, and parents on how to use them and how to provide services to students who may not have access to a computer or internet at home.  Some schools are conducting trial runs where classroom instruction is offered remotely for a day to anticipate any problems that may arise in advance.
  • Schools should ensure that they have the proper licenses for use of online instruction tools.
  • If a school is not able to provide remote instruction, we recommend that schools have teachers prepare 14 days of instruction materials ready to send to parents electronically in the event of a sudden school closure.

Q:  If there is a school closure, what are a school’s obligations to provide tuition refunds or extend the school year?

A:  Schools that have been directed to close by local or state health officials may be able to rely on the force majeure provisions in their enrollment contracts in order to continue to enforce parents’ obligations to pay tuition.  This depends on whether a force majeure event is defined to include an outbreak or pandemic, and on whether the provision makes it clear that the parents’ tuition obligations are not excused in such an event.

For schools that do not have a force majeure provision in their enrollment contract, it will depend on the other terms of the contract and the circumstances that led to the school closure.  We recommend that these schools speak with their legal counsel about their particular circumstances.