Can K-12 Schools Safely Reopen in Fall 2020?

school opening coronavirus

As the coronavirus crisis continues, a consensus about at least delaying school openings is emerging.

New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio recently unveiled a partial reopening plan for fall 2020.

The proposal would stagger school openings and incorporate two or three days a week of remote learning. At least right now, this plan is at odds with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s phased reopening plan.

Los Angeles, the nation’s second-largest school district, will remain closed indefinitely.

Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Austin Beutner promised to share reopening information in the near future.

It is “our goal is to welcome students back to school as soon as it is safe and appropriate for us to do so,” he said.

Other large school districts in the country, like Houston, Atlanta, Detroit, and Dallas, have announced some combination of delayed starts and phased reopening.

Coronavirus School Safety

In these uncertain times, industry safety standards provide some stability. They let parents know what to expect when their children return to school.

State and Local Government Guidelines

Schools have a duty to educate all children. In some cases, online learning may not be an effective substitute.

Many children, especially those with special needs, require supervision. Additionally, many Americans lack reliable internet access.

That’s especially true in rural areas. Arguably, refusing to open at the designated time intentionally denies an education to these at-risk children.

On the other side of the coin, it is important to not jump the gun.

State educational agencies often issue “guidelines” in these areas which local school districts are theoretically free to ignore.

If that happens, and a child or adult gets sick, the school district was arguably negligent.

Technically, state and local government guidelines may not apply to private schools.

However, these institutions are held to the same standard of care as public schools.

Prepare for an Outbreak

Reliance on government guidelines is not enough. Schools must assume that a COVID-19 outbreak will occur, and they must be prepared to deal with that situation.

A solid emergency plan usually includes:

  • Consideration for the disease’s severity in the local area,
  • Health impact on older adults, young children, and people with chronic medical conditions, like asthma,
  • Daily sanitization of all surfaces,
  • An employee facemask requirement,
  • Periodic symptom screening,
  • Sending symptomatic employees home, and
  • Adjusting sick leave and attendance policies where appropriate.

Some schools include coronavirus safety waivers as part of this plan. These waivers might or might not be legally effective, as outlined below.

An emergency plan should be in writing and available for public review. Additionally, since June’s plans are often outdated by July, the emergency plan should be updated frequently.

Online Instruction Rules

Schools not only have a responsibility to keep kids safe in school.

They have an obligation to keep them safe at home during online instruction periods. During spring 2020, at-home safety obligations were limited.

But the fall of 2020 will be different. It will not be enough to have students log on and hope for the best.

Zoom, the preferred online learning platform, has some well-documented security issues. Additionally, cyberbullying was already a major problem. Online school gives bullies an additional platform.

Online classes must have the toughest available security. Additionally, school employees should monitor Zoom sessions and take action against bullying.

Coronavirus Waivers

Most parents sign field trip, athletic participation, and other permission slips without giving them a second thought. Such waivers are not always enforceable.

Some such waivers are void because they violate public policy.

Typically, organizations cannot condition facilities use, which the person has paid for, on a waiver.

If an athletic club installs a rock-climbing wall and insists that participants sign waivers if they already paid membership dues, the waiver is probably unenforceable.

Additionally, a liability is arguably a contract of adhesion.

These “contracts” usually contain take-it-or-leave-it offers which leave no room for negotiation.

Additionally, one party usually has substantially more bargaining power than the other one. Some of these agreements, like homeowners’ association contracts, are usually enforceable.

Others do not hold up in court.

Global pandemics alter, but do not eliminate, the duty to keep students safe. For a free consultation with an experienced personal injury attorney in New York, contact Napoli Shkolnik PLLC.