This document is intended to support school administrators responding to a potential crisis about which there is already a great deal of armchair quarterbacking, rumors, and fear. While we are primarily focused on legal concerns, our intent is to distill the current information from numerous government sources and add it to our legal knowledge, in order to provide a comprehensive plan for your consideration. Although it is not possible to anticipate every twist and turn the Coronavirus crisis will take, you can rest assured that the questions and answers below are targeted toward the most prevalent and pressing concerns at this early stage.
Question 1: What is the Coronavirus?
Answer: Coronaviruses (plural) are a family of viruses impacting various species of animals. The specific coronavirus currently making headlines is known as “SARS-CoV-2” and causes a disease that has been abbreviated as “COVID-19.” The virus is spread by air (e.g., coughing and sneezing) and by physical contact (e.g., shaking hands, touching an object contaminated by the virus).
COVID-19 has caused a range of problems, from mild symptoms to severe respiratory illness and death. Symptoms may appear 2‑14 days after exposure and include fever, coughing, and shortness of breath.
Question 2: What is the current risk of contracting the Coronavirus?
Answer: At this time, most individuals in the United States will have a low risk of exposure to the Coronavirus. Even communities where the virus has been reported as present are at relatively low risk of exposure. It is important to remind school communities that, while healthcare workers caring for patients with COVID-19 and other individuals who are in close contact with persons with COVID‑19 (foreign or domestic) are at an elevated risk of exposure, most individuals in local school communities are not presently at an elevated risk.
Additionally, according to the CDC, there is no evidence that children are more susceptible to the virus than are adults. When communicating with parents, administrators should include this important detail to alleviate parental concerns.
Question 3: What should my school district do to prepare for the Coronavirus?
Answer: First and foremost, school district administrators should clearly communicate to students and staff that they should take common sense precautions to avoid contracting the virus, including routine hand washing and sneezing or coughing into a tissue (and immediately disposing of the tissue). Students and staff should also be encouraged to: stay home when ill; avoid touching their eyes, noses, or mouths; and clean/disinfect frequently‑touched surfaces.
Administrators should also collaborate with state and local health authorities to remain up‑to‑date regarding emergency operations plans in the event the virus reaches pandemic status. Students, staff, and parents should be provided with frequent, transparent communications. Stress the affirmative steps the school district is taking to ensure the health and safety of students and staff.
Question 4: What policies should my school district review at this time?
Answer: Administrators should evaluate emergency management plans in conjunction with health authorities and ensure the plans feature sufficient adaptability, which may be required in response to quickly‑changing circumstances.
In the event of widespread illness due to the virus, administrators can expect heightened levels of student and staff absenteeism. Consider reviewing policies related to incentives or penalties for numerous absences. With respect to students, flexibility may be necessary relative to completion of homework or tests. With respect to staff, consider suspending “perfect attendance” incentives or similar mechanisms designed to reward (or punish) absences.
Administrators should also re‑familiarize themselves with how their school district’s insurance coverage treats factors likely during a pandemic, including school closures and excessive employee absenteeism.
Question 5: Any other policies?
Answer: School officials are advised to review and re‑familiarize themselves with their school district’s communicable disease policies and regulations/procedures. A communicable disease policy or (more likely) regulation/procedure should direct school district administrators to contact the applicable local health authority (see the Resources section below) for consultation and clarification relative to any exclusion and re‑admittance procedures applicable.
The policy or regulation/procedure should also clearly communicate that confidentiality is vital when contacting a local health authority or notifying any other person or school official. The name of the affected student or employee should not be communicated unless necessary to protect the health of students and staff, prevent further transmission of the disease, or diagnose and care for the affected individual, or as otherwise permitted by law.
Question 6: What about unionized employees?
Answer: School districts should be proactive in anticipating the impact a health crisis may have on unionized employees. To that end, administrators should establish contingency plans with union representatives at this time. Review collective bargaining agreements to determine whether there are any limitations or barriers relative to the use of position substitutes – particularly for any position where there is already a need for employees (e.g., bus drivers). If there are limitations or barriers, consider meeting with union representatives relative to a potential agreement addressing those limitations, if the need arises. School districts should also consider whether sick leave banks will need to be amended to accommodate employees impacted by the virus.
Question 7: Will my school district be penalized for closing due to widespread illness?
Answer: Section 101 of the State School Aid Act allows school districts to be forgiven for the first six days (or equivalent number of hours) for which pupil instruction is not provided due to conditions beyond the school district’s control. MCL 388.1701(4). School districts may request a waiver from the Superintendent of Public Instruction for an additional three days beyond the first six days. Forgiven time is most commonly used for snow days, but the statutory language also permits forgiven time to be used during an epidemic.
There are currently no specific, additional protections for schools closed due to the Coronavirus. However, administrators may look to particularly harsh past winters to understand how an epidemic would be treated, including the likelihood that the Legislature would take action to forgive any other additional days of instruction canceled due to an epidemic. In any event, state and local health and educational authorities will almost certainly remain in constant contact with school districts as circumstances develop.
Question 8: Can my school district temporarily prohibit employees/students from attending school when they return from out of country or live in a residence with a person who has been exposed to Coronavirus? What about enrollment of foreign exchange students or foreign nationals?
Answer: The Revised School Code generally requires compulsory public school attendance for children above age 6. MCL 380.1561. Consistent with the spirit of the law and the wider array of civil rights laws, administrators should remind the school community of their school district’s non‑discrimination policy. Messages to the community should stress that the virus is not connected to race, ethnicity, or nationality. School officials may not act based on stereotypes related to protected classes or where employees/students have recently traveled. Additionally, administrators and staff must remain vigilant in identifying and neutralizing any bullying that may occur due to myths, misconceptions, and stereotypes, particularly for students from foreign countries impacted by the virus or of a race associated with those countries.
If an employee or student has been verified to have contracted the virus, school officials should work with their state and local health authorities to determine quarantine requirements in effect at that time. The CDC has indicated that U.S. citizens, residents, and their immediate family members who have been in certain parts of China may enter the U.S. – but could be subject to a possible quarantine of up to 14 days.
Question 9: Should my school district request that employees/students returning from areas impacted by the Coronavirus test “negative” on a COVID‑19 test kit?
Answer: At this time, it is not readily apparent that health authorities have at their disposal a sufficient number of test kits to make such a request reasonable. Again, if employees or students are at an elevated risk of contracting the virus, school officials should work closely with their state and local health authorities to determine the proper process to ensure the virus is not spread in the school community. Quickly‑changing circumstances may result in one or more modifications to such processes.
Question 10: How does Coronavirus impact planned school trips?
Answer: School trips to any foreign area under a travel ban, where travel is not likely to be possible at the time of the trip, should be canceled or postponed. School officials should also strongly consider canceling or postponing planned school trips to foreign countries otherwise impacted or at risk of being impacted by the virus, regardless of whether travel is likely to be possible. As the virus more broadly impacts the U.S., trips to infected domestic areas should be treated in a similar fashion.
Where funds have already been allocated or expended relative to such trips, school officials should review any applicable insurance policies and determine the extent to which potential financial losses may be recouped. Similarly, school officials should discuss the impact of a cancelation/postponement with affected families. Whether a school district would be liable for any losses sustained due to cancelation or postponement will be a fact‑specific matter that should be discussed with legal counsel on a case‑by‑case basis.
Question 11: Should my school district implement online learning methods for students?
Answer: School districts must provide equal access to education for all students. Whether any individual school district can meet the needs for all students from an online or alternative learning standpoint is a question answered on a case‑by‑case basis. If a school district is negatively impacted by the virus but does not have sufficient resources to ensure all of its students have equal access to online or alternative learning methods, the school district should consider canceling school and extending the school year by an equal number of days.
If a school district can ensure equal access for all of its students via online or alternative learning methods and chooses to implement that method, school officials should contact legal counsel to ensure compliance with Michigan and federal laws related to online or alternative learning.
School officials should discuss whether online or alternative learning is likely to occur at the school district and, if so, should take steps to plan for any such contingency, including approval of any Board of Education policies or administrative regulations necessary to implement such a plan.
Ultimately, the Coronavirus situation is still in its early stages and will necessitate flexibility from school districts and administrators. The key takeaways at this juncture are as follows:
- Remind students and staff to take everyday precautions to avoid the Coronavirus in a manner similar to how they would avoid the cold or the flu
- Keep open channels of communication with the Michigan Department of Education and your local and state health authorities for any developments
- Similarly, be transparent with the school community and provide assurances that school officials are closely monitoring the virus and planning for any necessary contingencies
- Review absence policies, attendance incentive policies, and sick leave policies, and work with union representatives to plan for any necessary contingencies
- Ensure students and staff are treated equally irrespective of their race, ethnicity, national origin, or where they have traveled; be mindful of potential bullying
- Consider whether planned school trips should be canceled or postponed
- Discuss potential consequences in the event of extended school closure, and plan for that contingency
We encourage school districts to contact education, health, and legal professionals during this time to the extent necessary. We remain optimistic that precautionary measures, both locally and nationally, will moot the need to resort to contingency plans. In the event the Coronavirus does have an adverse impact on schools, students, and staff, a well‑formed plan and its execution will help your school district mitigate much of the potential harm.
Additional resources may be accessed below.