As the pressure for schools, employees, students, and parents to respond to COVID-19 increases, some reactions have legal implications. Here are five issues EAB thinks schools should consider while keeping their communities safe.
1. Communicate with state authorities as you consider school closure timelines
At least 39 states have mandated that all schools statewide shut their doors, and Kansas has mandated closures through the end of the school year. The CDC advises that districts follow guidelines issued by federal, state, and local governments, alongside recommendations from healthcare providers. Many state departments of education continue to proactively communicate their recommendations for how districts should proceed.
2. Prepare to apply for testing waivers or to reschedule standardized testing
In the absence of federal or state legislation, be prepared to apply for suspension of state testing and/or to reschedule state testing if necessary.
Edweek reports Florida and several other states have cancelled remaining state testing for the school year, with more states seeking waivers.
Betsy DeVos, US Secretary of Education, issued a statement on March 12 that the federal government will consider targeted waivers for testing requirements in some situations.
3. Consider truancy, chronic absenteeism waivers, and how to track attendance for remote instruction
With increased absenteeism expected, students and parents might face concerns over truancy laws, and schools must consider reporting implications of increased chronic absenteeism.
Some schools, when possible, have loosened policies for excused absences, now accepting a parent’s note where a doctor’s note would have been previously required, which can help combat truancy issues.
The U.S. Department of Education’s recent statement acknowledges potential waivers regarding chronic absenteeism. Schools should track changes in attendance patterns and continue conversations with local and state agencies.
The CDC recommends that schools temporarily pause awards programs that incentivize attendance. In the event of a transition to remote instruction, schools should consider how they will track attendance and absenteeism. Schools that already utilize eLearning days have addressed this challenge in several ways, including:
- Logging in to class page on the district’s or school’s learning management system (LMS)
- Email/text exchange or phone call with teacher
- Parent verification
- Activity tracking in an LMS
- Checking work submitted during the eLearning day
4. Review and adapt (where possible) teacher and staff sick leave policies
With similar increases in teacher and staff absences likely, schools should clarify their existing sick leave policies to all staff and should consider whether they can or should adapt them during this unique time. Special consideration should be given to the union(s) with which schools must negotiate to adjust policies.
Seattle Public Schools (Washington)
- Negotiated that during district closures, teacher quarantine, or infection, teachers will use accrued sick leave for the first three days
- The district will cover any additional days required, up to a total of 14 days per teacher
- Currently any absences longer than 14 days will require a teacher to use additional sick leave.
Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District (Texas)
- Already has an “emergency closure leave” policy, which is triggered by district shutdowns
- 10 days of paid leave for most employees, and the school board has the authority to waive additional days if needed
Non-teaching staff are important to consider as well. The Senate recently approved a coronavirus relief package that includes a paid leave policy for hourly workers and other benefits to those unemployed due to this crisis.
If possible, schools should consider establishing sick leave pools as a method to support employees facing extended time off. These pools enable teachers and staff who have an abundance of sick days to donate them to colleagues in need.
5. Determine if your state requires a waiver for “in-person instructional time” minimums
5 considerations when cleaning and disinfecting schools
In the event of extended school closures and for extended periods of remote instruction, schools in states that require a minimum amount of in-person instruction per year should proactively explore the possibility of securing waivers.
At least 12 states have explicit policies that allow for eLearning days to count as instructional time in place of physical attendance. Work with your state department and legal counsel to ensure you understand these stipulations and allowances.
Other considerations to keep in mind
- The Department of Education encourages schools with fiscal requirement concerns including Title I carryover, funding eligible private school students, etc. to reach out to their Department contacts.
- For student privacy concerns, see the Department of Education’s FAQ resource.
- To provide meals to students in need during this time, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture has announced flexibility to meal service requirements. States may request other waivers regarding related nutrition programs—see guidance here.
- During closures and when facing remote instruction, many schools have faced equity concerns, particularly with students with disabilities. Read EAB’s expert insight on the topic.
Additional resources on this topic
School systems in countries that have been severely impacted by COVID-19—such as China, Japan, and South Korea—have engaged in a massive experimentation in distance learning, providing U.S. schools some insight into what to anticipate when scaling digital learning.
Hear from one district three strategies with detailed guidance to accommodate teacher and student needs for online learning while keeping the network safe.