March 10, 2020
COVID-19, also known as coronavirus, (a new respiratory virus strain), is spreading rapidly. In the span of just a few short months, the virus has spread around the globe to our doorstep here in Ohio. On March 9, 2020, the Ohio Department of Health announced three positive cases of COVID-19 in Cuyahoga County. This number is expected to rise. For now, COVID-19 is here to stay.
Ohio school districts are on the front lines of the COVID-19 fight. School districts must be proactive and timely prepare for the spread and impact of COVID-19. Preparation should include prospective consideration of and planning for how best to address various COVID-19 challenges that are likely to arise in schools. For example, school districts should:
- Review, become familiar with, ask questions about, and be ready to implement school safety/emergency management plans. These plans establish procedures for determining when to close a school; how to communicate information to families, students, and staff about school closings; and decontamination of school facilities.
- Contact the district’s local health department and county emergency management agencies to establish or refresh connections with those armed with facts. These agencies can help ensure that the district’s safety plan is current, effective, and suited to respond to COVID-19 in schools.
- Learn and share with students, staff, and families – in visible and easily understandable language – precautionary measures called for by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Ohio Department of Health, and local health departments.
- Prepare for staff and student absences as well as school closings. The Ohio Department of Education recently announced that, when dealing with COVID-19-related absences and school closings, district leaders should work with local health departments to make decisions that prioritize the health and safety of students and the community. This means that anyone (students or staff) with COVID-19 symptoms should stay home and receive testing and treatment. According to the Ohio Department of Education, instructional time, student testing, and other related issues will be addressed down the road when it is safe.
- Review and if necessary revise impacted district policies, including non-discrimination and student/employee absence policies (such as those rewarding “perfect attendance”).
- Assess existing collective bargaining agreements, particularly terms affecting employee absence, and evaluate the ongoing need for contract amendments, understandings, or other contract “work-arounds” that are necessary in the wake of COVID-19.
- In conjunction with local health departments, plan for and implement protocols for students and staff who – in light of the upcoming spring break – are returning to school from international and national travel as well as students and staff who attend school with COVID-19 symptoms and/or attended school before testing positive for COVID-19.
- Request that parents and staff members proactively report any potential exposure (e.g., contact with an individual who has tested positive) so that appropriate measures can be taken. Set up a system to review information received and make decisions regarding the impact of this information.
Now more than ever, Ohio school districts are tasked with actively monitoring, preparing for, and responding to COVID-19. Legal counsel can help. Contact your attorneys to help navigate the many different challenges presented by the novel COVID-19.
Peter Zawadski is an associate at Walter | Haverfield who focuses his practice on education law as well as labor and employment matters. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and at 216-928-2920.