The national debate on the returning K-12 Education field and its students to the classroom is making headlines and consuming social media forums across the country. The stakeholders in this dialogue include students, parents, teachers, school staff and paraprofessionals, bus drivers, school administrators, legislators, governors and communities far and wide. Hanging in the balance are a broad range of personal and professional objectives, such as advancing student learning, creating safe learning environments, protecting medically vulnerable people, returning to a sense of “normal,” the importance of socialization for our children, and managing the extraordinary costs of re-opening schools. There are a variety of models for re-opening, but no one can say with certainty how they will play out over time.
Most K-12 schools are considering one of these approaches:
- Return students to the classroom full-time with safety precautions;
- Implement an e-learning structure using digital technology to hold virtual classes; or
- Develop a blended version of classroom and e-learning.
While we can’t mask the complexities of re-opening a K-12 school, or create a “one size fits all” recommendation for reopening, Gallagher can provide counsel on the key risk management, benefits, HR and insurance issues that you’ll need to address to get back to the classroom with confidence.
Assess the risks of reopening K-12 schools
Relying upon data, and tracking whether COVID-19 pandemic cases are spiking, flattened or trending downwards, is an important contributor to the decision to reopen. However, there are other factors that also need to be considered. They include whether K-12 education facilities can be safely prepared and maintained to protect the wellbeing of your employees and students, how each school will manage physical/social distancing, the use of personal protective equipment (PPEs) including masks, and plans and protocols for managing people who show symptoms. These important issues need to be reconciled on a building-by-building basis within the school campus or district.
Although our recommendations are straightforward, it’s not necessarily easy, and it’s not inexpensive. Many K-12 schools have old, outdated infrastructure, which may include inadequate HVAC systems, entry and exit limitations or small classrooms. Proper distancing during bus rides may be a challenge, and before- or after-school activities (including extended child care, athletics, and clubs) must also be considered. Safely resuming operations must incorporate frequent cleaning and disinfection, facility safety checks, the assessment of technology and security, new policies and procedures and training and communication in support of all safety initiatives.
For more details on the decision-making process and details to consider regarding reopening K-12 schools, please review the K-12 Education Five-Step Return to Workplace collection.
Manage teacher and school faculty wellbeing and benefits questions
Teachers, para-professionals, building staff, bus drivers, and coaches are a critical part of your success. Whether these roles are filled by employees or contractors, they will have questions about their wellbeing when schools reopen. Policies, procedures and controls need to be determined and communicated to ensure safety and instill confidence that your K-12 school will safeguard the total employee and organizational wellbeing of your workforce.
In addition to assurances that physical and emotional wellbeing of your teachers and staff in the workplace has been prioritized, your employees – will also likely have benefits questions that need to be answered before they return. There are specific implications for benefits if there were furloughs or if an employee experienced a life event that changed their employment status. Other issues may include COVID-19 and antibody testing, coverage requirements through the Families First Act, or questions about healthcare plan enrollment. These issues affect eligibility for benefits, how employees access healthcare and employee wellbeing. Being prepared to have two-way communications on these issues will help your employees gain confidence in returning to the workforce.
We’ve provided answers to these and more in our FAQ document, which was current with the rules and requirements through the end of July. It’s worth noting that another challenge of the COVID-19 crisis is keeping up with federal and state rules, which may change over time. We recommend that you regularly check for updates, incorporate changes as needed, and then communicate that to your employees.
Maintaining open communication and transparency is one of the most critical aspects of successful operations. Knowing the processes, protocols and assurances that are in place may ease some of the stress and uncertainty facing your school community, and communicating everything you are doing to ensure safety and security will help make reopening K-12 schools more successful.
Understand potential insurance implications
We recommend that you evaluate your K-12 school or district’s claims processes and insurance coverage before reopening. Having the right insurance coverage in place will protect and support the organizational wellbeing of your K-12 school or district. It would be wise to prepare for a potential increase in workers’ compensation and health benefits claims, for example, and the related questions that will arise from those claims. In relation to COVID-19, there are three notable lines of insurance coverage to review – Workers’ Compensation, General Liability and Cyber Liability.
If an employee becomes sick with COVID-19 after reopening a K-12 school, the question of whether that qualifies as a workplace illness will arise. The laws vary by state, so it’s important to know the rules in your jurisdiction. There may be benefits implications as well, including various leave policies and rules. We expect there may be an increase in liability claims, which could include a broad range of claims – from failure to educate (if you do not reopen), to accommodations (for students with disabilities), or exposure to the coronavirus (lack of policies and procedures, failure to protect, or athletic programs, for example). Exclusions related to contagious disease and pandemics are now commonly included, so understanding the nuances of coverage will be important going forward.
There has been a consistent increase in cyberattacks against schools, their service providers, and public agencies of all types (some of which interact with school operations). We recommend a careful review of your cyber policies to assure that you will be prepared when (not if) cyber criminals focus on your school.
As always, you should speak with your Gallagher team to ensure you have proper coverage in place and to understand the specifics of policy terms and conditions. Gallagher will continue to provide easy to understand, meaningful guidance you can use as pandemic conditions change. Our Return to Workplace Hub contains materials on reopening, as well as employer resources and FAQs on reopening guidance. Whether you are reopening your K-12 school after a lengthy closure, modifying current operations or considering new closures in response to emerging conditions, Gallagher is here for you, to help safeguard the wellbeing of your workforce and your organization overall with expert guidance and support.
The decision to reopen onsite learning is a complex issue that requires input from state and local leaders, as well as customization to meet your school or district’s particular needs. We cannot advise you whether you should or should not reopen. However, if you decide to proceed, we have generated this information for your review and consideration. It includes high-level ideas to consider as you move through the process of reopening and addresses some of the most frequently asked questions we have encountered. This generalized information does not take into account all of the unique and specific issues that may be involved in your school operations; please engage and collaborate with people who can provide that specific guidance. If you have questions about this information or your insurance coverages, benefits and HR concerns, please contact your Gallagher representative.