FAQ’s for School Districts on Responding to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Outbreak: Student Issues

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

In the past month, COVID-19, the illness caused by the Coronavirus spread throughout much of the world, including to the United States.  California has now reported its first fatality associated with the virus, and Governor Newsom declared a State of Emergency.  Some school districts have announced closures due to the virus. Given the scope of the virus’s spread and the fact that health professionals do not anticipate a vaccine will be available for approximately one year, school districts and county offices of education must be prepared with information for prevention of the spread of the virus, and other concerns around students and staff who may be exposed to the virus or who become ill.

There is significant uncertainty about the Coronavirus and COVID-19, that school districts and county offices of education may encounter many issues during this time of uncertainty.  Below are some of the more common scenarios to help guide you as you navigate these issues:

How Can Districts Manage Panic around COVID-19?

Students and parents may experience and express panic regarding COVID-19.  There is a lot of uncertainty about the potential impacts of the virus.  Governor Newsom’s declaration of a State of Emergency may have heightened panic and fear.  While the declaration only serves to provide the State with greater access to resources where needed, even the term “State of Emergency” can cause people to feel panicked.  We have seen runs on medical masks and hand sanitizer as people attempt to understand the level of risk while parsing information – sometimes conflicting – coming from the news media and other sources, including social media.

Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has said that at this time, “most people in the United States will have little immediate risk of exposure to this virus.”  According to the CDC, even in communities where there has been a “community spread of the virus,” the risk of exposure is elevated but is still relatively low.  There is also no evidence that children are more susceptible to COVID-19 than adults are (though students with an underlying medical condition may be more susceptible, as is true with any respiratory infection).  The CDC has also said that severe complications for children appear to be uncommon.  This is a rapidly evolving situation, but that is the current information CDC has provided on its website.  As a result, students are safe coming to school every day.

The best way to manage panic is to provide clear, understandable information to parents and students.  Here are some tips for managing panic:

  • Remain calm in discussions of COVID-19.
  • Clearly communicate the steps you are taking to address concerns about COVID-19, including coordination with outside agencies such as the county department of public health.
  • Remain flexible and make informed adjustments to communications and actions if new information becomes available.
  • Listen, demonstrate empathy with parent and student concerns, and provide accurate but supportive communications.
  • Notify parents and students of support that is available from counselors, administrators, and other appropriate personnel.
  • Provide additional support to students with anxiety disorders or other disorders that may make them prone to greater panic.
  • Be clear that you will support students staying home if they believe they have been exposed to COVID-19.  (We address student absenteeism in another section of this bulletin.)
  • Maintain a normal routine as much as possible.

Panic may also result in a rush to place blame based on ethnicity or national origin, both of which are protected classes under the Education Code.  Parents or students may have a perception that COVID-19 arose in certain countries.  The CDC has issued travel warnings (called Level 3 Health Notices) that recommend against nonessential travel to China, Iran, Italy, and South Korea (“Level 3 Countries”).  The media particularly focused on China in its early reporting regarding COVID-19 as the CDC has reported that China is the country where COVID-19 first appeared.  Americans who have not traveled to any of the affected countries recently, have not been in close contact with a person infected with COVID-19, and are of Asian, Iranian, Italian, or Korean descent are at no more risk for having COVID-19 than anyone else.  According to the CDC, “[v]iruses cannot target people from specific populations, ethnicities, or racial backgrounds.”

Nonetheless, information about the origins of COVID-19 may result in stigma against people from the affected countries or those perceived to be from those affected countries.  Where you see microaggressions (e.g., a student refuses to sit next to a student they perceive as being from a Level 3 Country), be sure to address them immediately.  If you receive reports that a student or employee has made offensive comments or engaged other offensive conduct on the basis of ethnicity or national origin, follow your harassment policy/uniform complaint procedures.  This means promptly investigating the allegations and taking all required steps to prevent continued behavior of the same type.  Most importantly, be sure to role model appropriate, responsible discussion about COVID-19.  You may also wish to include a statement in your communications to parents that your school/district does not tolerate such behavior.

What Hygiene Measures Can and Should Districts Be Taking to Prevent the Spread of COVID-19?    

            Personal Hygiene

The CDC is currently recommending personal hygienic measures for prevention of the spread of COVID-19.  COVID-19 spreads through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes or through close contact (6 feet or less) with an infected person.  Younger students, in particular, may not be aware of necessary hygienic protocols for preventing the spread of any illness.  This is a good time to provide information and training to students regarding hygiene procedures.  These are procedures that districts should practice regularly for prevention of any airborne illness, such as the cold and influenza.

The CDC, the California Department of Public Health, and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend the following hygiene measures:

Encourage students to wash their hands properly as follows:

  • Proper steps for handwashing:
    • Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold), turn off the tap, and apply soap.
    • Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap.  Lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.
    • Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds.  (The “Happy Birthday” song from beginning to end, twice, is 20 seconds.  Teach students to sing that song while washing.)
    • Rinse your hands well under clean, running water.
    • Dry your hands using a clean towel or air-dry them.
  • Students should wash their hands at the following times:
    • Before, during, and after preparing food;
    • Before eating food;
    • Before and after treating a cut or wound;
    • After using the toilet;
    • After changing diapers or cleaning up a child who has used the toilet;
    • After blowing their nose, coughing, or sneezing;
    • After touching an animal, animal feed, or animal waste; and
    • After touching garbage
  • Schools should consider scheduling regular handwashing schedules.
  • If students are unable to wash their hands, they should use hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.
  • Students should cough or sneeze into a tissue, or if a tissue is not available, onto a sleeve.
  • Students should blow their noses into a tissue.
  • Students should throw used tissues away immediately after one use.  They should throw them away in a trash receptacle, and not place them on a desk or in a backpack or pocket. Provide adequate supplies, such as tissues and trash receptacles, in easy reach.
  • Students should not share cups, straws, eating utensils, or towels.
  • Students should avoid touching their eyes, mouths, or noses.
  • Students should try to avoid people who are sick.
  • Schools should encourage families to seek the influenza vaccine.

Facility Hygiene

A person may also get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching his or her own mouth, nose, or possibly eyes.  The CDC does not believe this is the main way the virus spreads.  However, districts can engage in facility hygiene that may help avoid the spread of the virus this way by:

  • Routinely cleaning frequently touched surfaces (e.g., doorknobs, light switches, countertops).  There is no need to purchase different cleaning products.  The District’s normal cleaning products will suffice. Follow label instructions for cleaning products.
  • Providing additional cleaning of high traffic areas like classrooms, cafeterias, libraries, and main office areas.
  • Provide students and staff with disposable wipes so that they can wipe down commonly used surfaces (e.g., keyboards, desks) before and after each use.
  • Provide an isolation room for students and employees who demonstrate symptoms so they can be separate from other students and employees while waiting to leave the site.

Other Preventative Measures

Districts and schools may consider the following additional preventative measures recommended by the California Department of Public Health:

  • Consider alternates to congregate or group programming within the school including any large or communal activities such as assemblies. Conducting group activities such as assemblies by webcast or making announcements by intercom may be alternatives to group activities and communications.
  • Stagger recess times to limit the number of children who are together.
  • Limit visitors to the school by not allowing those with symptoms of fever and/or respiratory infection or who have a travel history over the course of the last 14 days to an area identified by the CDC as Level 3 Travel Health Notice.
  • Encourage employees to remain home if they are ill. Please see our previous Special Bulletin regarding employee issues related to Coronavirus/COVID-19 for more information.

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

Districts 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 districts 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 California Department of Public Health has recommended that districts exclude students who have a travel history over the course of the last 14 days to a country with a Level 3 travel notice. 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.”  It is unclear exactly what limiting contact with others means, but it appears to be something short of quarantine.  This means districts should not automatically ask individuals who have traveled to a Level 2 country to stay away from school absent advice from a healthcare provider or public health official that supports such a measure.

When in doubt, districts should contact their local health department and seek their recommendation, rather than attempting to make medical decisions on their own.  While districts 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 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 district’s or a school’s particular area.  Decisions that are arbitrary—apart from possibly having no public health benefit—also increase the risk of discrimination claims.

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?

According to the CDC’s FAQs for K-12 Schools, a district may need to shut a school (or the entire district) 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, districts 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 districts avoid independently making medical decisions—such as which individuals should be subject to quarantine—without advice from 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.  Districts can also contact their local health officials for guidance in how to evaluate risks and appropriate response.

If directed by health officials, districts may need to provide notice to the community about potential exposure.  Districts should coordinate with local public health officials in providing this notice.  It is important to remember that districts 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 Education Code, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (“FERPA”), the California Constitution and California’s Confidentiality of Medical Information Act (“CMIA”).

If public health officials determine that a student may not attend school for a period of time, district should take steps to academically support the student while studying from home. (We have addressed this in another section of this bulletin.)

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

Districts should continue to enforce their normal protocols regarding when parents should keep sick students at home and when to send sick students home.  For example, many districts already have policies that address these issues.  Districts 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 district’s protocols in an objective and non-discriminatory manner.

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

  • Remember that the CDC and local public health authorities do not expect districts 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 administration sends students who become sick at school or arrive at school sick 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.

How Should Districts Address Student Absenteeism Related to COVID-19?

Parents may decide to keep their children home out of fear or panic, even when the risk of infection is low and the district has taken appropriate hygiene measures.  The Education Code’s compulsory education provision requires students to attend school unless they have a reasonable excuse (e.g., illness, doctor’s appointment).

Fear of illness does not constitute an excused absence.  Thus, districts should encourage students to come to school if they have not been exposed to COVID-19, do not have active symptoms, or have not recently returned from travel to one of the Level 3 Countries identified above.  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 their appropriate and necessary instruction.  Providing clear communications to parents about risk levels and hygiene measures may help allay some parents’ fears.  District communications should also remind parents that their children should come to school if they do not have any risk factors for transmission.

It is also important to note that California public school districts’ funding depends upon students attending school.  Absenteeism negatively impacts funding.  (It does not matter whether the absence is excused or not.)  Please contact LCW if you have questions about how to handle students with unexcused absences and required procedures under the Education Code.  In addition, there may be some relief available to districts where there are significant reductions in ADA due to absences related to COVID-19.

On the other hand, districts should not set a tone that discourages students from staying home when they are legitimately ill.  Students with respiratory illnesses (including a cold or flu) should stay home to avoid transmission to other students.  Districts should clearly inform parents that they do not expect sick students to attend school.  District Emergency and Disaster Preparedness Plans may require adjustment of absenteeism policies to ensure students may remain home for a length of time required by their physician and health officials.  In addition, avoid perfect attendance awards and initiatives that may compel students to come to school when they are ill.

As noted above, where a district notices an unusual pattern of absenteeism, whether at a single school or district-wide, 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.

When and Under What Circumstances Should a District Implement a District or School Closure? 

Districts should work in close collaboration with local health department officials in determining whether to implement a closure.  The CDC’s Interim Guidance for Schools states that districts are not expected to make decisions about school closures on their own.  Districts 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 that there are cases of COVID-19 in the community, districts pro-actively reach out to their local health officials regarding whether to implement a school closure.  If local health officials recommend a school or district closure, the CDC recommends that districts consider whether to keep the school or district open for staff members who are not ill so that they can develop and deliver instruction remotely. 

How Should Districts Implement and Communicate School Closures?

Districts should follow their Emergencies and Disaster Preparedness Plan and School Safety Plan for school closures.  In addition, School Site Plans generally contain a plan for a school closure in case of a pandemic or epidemic.  As noted above, districts may wish to consider whether to close only to students or to allow employees to remain on campus to perform duties.  Districts and schools should also have a plan for when they intend to reopen with a target to reopen as soon as possible. Schools should also create readmission criteria after a school closure in consultation with local public health officials.

If a district or school has decided to close, it will likely be because there is evidence that an employee or student tested positive for COVID-19, or local public health officials have concerns about community exposure.  Districts should work with the local health department as well as other appropriate local authorities to determine the best way to communicate the closure and the reason for the decision to close.  Districts should not identify the person or persons who have COVID-19 in any communication.

School Site Plans should contain information regarding maintenance of communications to parents during a closure.  If not, districts should consider using their websites, social media, or text blasts (as available) to provide the most up-to-date information to parents.  Consider that some families do not have access to the internet or smart phones and find alternative methods to deliver important communications.  Districts 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.  The communications should be thorough enough to contain information to allay fear and panic.

Regardless of the type of communication, a closure may cause fear and panic.  The district should provide parents with resources to the local public health department, the CDC, and other agencies that can provide information about the COVID-19 risks, and what to do if a member of the family becomes ill.

School districts and county offices of education have some protection for loss of funding due to closure.  The Education Code allows the Superintendent of Public Instruction to credit normal apportionments to school districts and county offices of education in emergencies, including in case of an epidemic.  According to CDE Management Advisory 90-01, “School districts and county offices are to be held harmless from revenue loss that might otherwise result from the loss of ADA or instructional time in emergencies.”  The fact that the Governor has declared a State of Emergency will be useful evidence of the fact that the closures are due to a true emergency.

How will the District Support Student Academics during a School Closure/Remote Instruction Possibilities?  

We recommend that districts and schools take proactive steps now to determine ways that they can support academic instruction during a school closure period.  Schools should consider ways that they can implement remote instruction, including what educational tools and applications can be used for these purposes, and training teachers, students, and parents on how to use them.  If a school is not able to implement remote instruction, we recommend that schools have teachers prepare 14 days of instruction materials ready to send to parents electronically, or through the mail, in the event of a sudden school closure.  Again, when determining how to academically support students, be aware that families in the school community may not have internet access.  Districts should have backup plans to ensure they appropriately serve the students in those families.

Districts should also consider providing for continuity of other services for students such as meal programs, and medical and social services that districts typically provide during the school day.

How Should Districts Manage Civic Center Act Facility Use by Third Parties in the Event of a School Closure?

School districts should review their Joint Use Agreements with any party that utilizes District facilities for Civic Center Act purposes to determine their rights and obligations in the event of a school closure.  Administration should communicate its decision on school closure to any group or party scheduled to use District facilities and try to reach a resolution of any anticipated disputes.

Should Schools Cancel International and Domestic Field Trips?

We understand that many district schools have international and domestic trips planned for upcoming Spring Break, or at other times in the near future.

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.  For schools with upcoming international trips planned, we recommend that districts follow the CDC’s advice and consider cancelling these trips.  Districts should also consider cancelling upcoming domestic trips that involve air travel.

We recommend that districts consult with their insurance carriers regarding whether they will have insurance coverage if they go forward with upcoming international or domestic trips.  Schools should also 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.  The CDC currently recommends that travelers avoid all nonessential travel to China, Iran, South Korea, and Italy.  The CDC recommends that older adults or those who have chronic medical conditions consider postponing travel to Japan.  The CDC may issue further recommendations regarding travel as the outbreak develops.  Districts should also regularly review the State Department Website regarding travel advisories at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/traveladvisories/traveladvisories.html/.

For districts that decide to go forward with upcoming international and domestic trips, we recommend that these districts amend their field trip waivers so that they specifically identify the risks associated with travel as including exposure to the coronavirus, which may include being subject to quarantine for two or more weeks and travel delays.  These trip waivers should also 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.

For districts that decide to cancel these upcoming domestic or international trips, if the trip is sponsored by a third-party travel vendor, districts 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.  Districts and families who purchased trip insurance may be able to use this insurance under these circumstances, depending on the terms of the insurance.  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 agreements with the parents.  Many airlines are waiving change fees for those who want to postpone travel due to the coronavirus.