Coronavirus FAQs Part 3: Emergency Response, Remote Operations, Return to Campus

United Educators (UE) understands that the coronavirus (COVID-19) is causing unprecedented challenges for schools, colleges, and universities. As schools face both short- and long-term challenges related to students being away from school, staff adapting to online instruction, and revered traditions unable to continue, we’re here to help. Here are UE’s answers to some of the most common member questions about emergency response, remote operations, and return to campus.

Emergency Response

UE created a COVID-19 landing page with a list of current resources. For additional guidance on implementing emergency preparedness protocols, conducting tabletop exercises, and managing crises, see UE’s emergency preparedness resources:

Schools and colleges choosing to 3D print COVID-19 response resources should establish an oversight group that includes school leadership. The group should seek input from scientists, medical experts, and legal counsel who can advise on medical and legal considerations. When choosing the product, work directly with health care facilities or government aid agencies to identify needed supplies, and follow your institution’s 3D printing policy. With the help of your institution’s legal counsel and broker, review applicable insurance and legal obligations. For more in-depth 3D printing recommendations, see UE’s Risk Management Guidance for 3D Printing.

Colleges and universities considering sharing facilities with hospitals, relief agencies, and localities should work with the institution’s broker and legal counsel to review applicable insurance and legal recommendations. With the help of legal counsel, create contracts with each hospital or government agency using the facilities, spelling out each party’s responsibilities. Ensure facility sharing planning includes a review of relevant memoranda of understanding (MOUs), insurance policies, and university policies. For additional information on facility sharing, see UE’s Sharing Campus Resources During the COVID-19 Pandemic.

Campus-wide communications about the outbreak should come from school leaders such as the president or head of school. Establish an outbreak communications committee to develop key messaging and oversee campus and department alerts. The committee should include representatives from the administration, communications, health services, and legal counsel. For communications recommendations, review the American College Health Association guidelines on preparing a COVID-19 event communications plan.

Department of Education guidance released on April 3, 2020, clarifies that institutions can satisfy the emergency notification requirements of the Clery Act for the COVID-19 pandemic by releasing a single notification to students and employees and creating a COVID-19 banner at the top of the institution’s homepage. Both the Clery notification and the banner should include information on the pandemic, health and safety precautions, and links to public health COVID-19 resources from health care providers, state health authorities, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Send the COVID-19 Clery notification through the regular means of communicating emergency notifications.

The new guidance also clarified that the Clery Act does not require institutions to give regular, ongoing updates on COVID-19 or to proactively identify positive COVID-19 cases within the campus community. Further, institutions are not required to release Clery Act notifications for positive COVID-19 cases among individuals who are not attending classes, working, or living on campus.

Yes, privacy laws still apply during the national emergency. The Department of Education released a FERPA & Coronavirus Disease 2019 FAQ with the following guidance:

  • Generally, parents and eligible students have to provide consent before an institution discloses personally identifiable information (PII) from student education records to individuals without access to that information.
  • Prepare the facility for triage and isolation of patients potentially infected with COVID-19.
  • Student health records the institution maintains may be disclosed without consent to public health departments if the institution believes that the virus that causes COVID-19 poses a serious risk to the health or safety of an individual student in attendance at the institution.
  • Generally, institutions may disclose to students and parents that student(s) in attendance at the school are out sick due to COVID-19 without prior written parental or eligible student consent. Schools need to ensure that the disclosed information is in a non-personally identifiable form.

For an example of a non-personally identifiable campus communication, see Rice University’s Feb. 29, 2020, campus alert notifying the community of a possible exposure to the coronavirus.

Follow the American College Health Association (ACHA) COVID-19 guidelines for student health services including:

  • Train clinical and non-clinical staff to implement infection control procedures.
  • FERPA allows institutions to release PII without written consent if knowledge of that information is necessary to protect the health or safety of a student or other individuals. Determinations under the health or safety emergency exception must be made on a case-by-case basis and take into account the totality of the circumstances pertaining to the threat. Within a reasonable period of time after a disclosure under the exception, the institution must record the articulable and significant threat that formed the basis for the disclosure and the parties to whom information was disclosed into the student’s education records.
  • Develop protocols for triage and evaluation of potential COVID-19 patients using CDC guidelines.
  • Develop an internal and external communication system regarding the arrival of a potential COVID-19 patient.
  • As much as possible, stock personal protective equipment (PPE) in accordance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines. While PPE remain in short supply, refer to the CDC’s interim infection prevention guidance for health care settings, with recommendations of acceptable alternatives and more flexible use considerations.
  • Implement environmental infection controls that are appropriate to the emerging viral pathogens that cause COVID-19. CDC recommendations include ensuring consistent and correct use of environmental cleaning and disinfection procedures; routinely cleaning and disinfecting surfaces; using dedicated medical equipment when caring for patients; and managing laundry, food service utensils, and medical waste in accordance with routine procedures.
  • Review and implement surge care plans, including suspending routine care to focus on COVID-19 patients, exploring telehealth capabilities to assess and treat patients, and developing continuity of operations plans to allow for continued services.

Review the CDC’s Resources for Clinics and Healthcare Facilities for additional, up-to-date information.

Remote Operations

Ensure that all faculty are trained on the technological tools for teaching. Use a collaborative approach in researching and implementing new technologies for online instruction.

It’s especially important for faculty to be proficient in the features that control how students access and utilize the virtual classroom. Safety and security of the platforms is important so that unauthorized users do not gain access. Give attention to whether the teaching platform will allow video or audio recording. Many schools disable these functions and others, especially where minor students are involved. Train faculty on how the institution’s policies (especially those related to student conduct, online safety, accessibility, privacy, and cyber security) apply to online instruction. Keep in mind that the institution still must comply with FERPA during online instruction. For more information about teaching remotely, see resources the University of Washington compiled.

Yes. Disability laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, still apply during a national emergency. Your institution is responsible for providing accessible learning to its students. This may involve new or updated disability accommodations for some students. Communicate clearly with students (and parents, in the K-12 realm) about who they can contact for disability accommodations, and make sure faculty are aware of these contacts so they can direct students in need. Review all virtual learning platforms to ensure they meet the institution’s required accessibility needs. For more information on the applicable laws and technology recommendations, review the Department of Education Office for Civil Rights’ Short Webinar on Online Education and Website Accessibility and UE’s website accessibility recommendations.

As institutions transition to remote learning, many students with disabilities might seek updated or new accommodations such as extended test time or technological modifications as they learn remotely. Students with disabilities are legally entitled to receive accommodations in their education program, and faculty members must implement the approved accommodations. It is crucial to remind your faculty how to properly react and respond.

Educate faculty about the disability services office’s role, examples of common accommodations, and how to provide approved accommodations for students in class while maintaining confidentiality. Emphasize to faculty and students the importance of working through the disability services office to determine appropriate accommodations and address any issues that may arise. For more information, see UE’s blog on Managing Faculty Who Resist Disability Accommodations Requests and UE’s training course on Accommodating Students with Disabilities.

The institution’s policies regarding protection of minors also should apply to online interactions and virtual instruction.

Schools should continue the same precautions as they would on campus, including:

  • Limit or forbid one-on-one interactions with minors in a private setting.
  • Define allowable communication between teachers and students (for example, do not allow electronic communication with minors except when there is a clear educational purpose, and recommend copying the parent on all communications).

Additionally, schools may wish to use communication platforms that allow the school to archive activity. For more information on protecting minors, see UE’s checklist series for K-12 and Higher Ed and UE’s Protecting Children Learning Program.

The institution’s existing conduct rules and codes should apply to the online environment as well. Consult with legal counsel to determine whether the rules should be supplemented to address the virtual learning environment and notify the school community about any additions or changes.

Reiterate that school policies against harassment and discrimination remain in place. Continue to respond to and investigate reports of misconduct, even when it occurs over a remote learning tool. Send campus communications condemning severe or pervasive incidents of discrimination affecting the campus community. For example, Pace University released a non-discrimination and mutual support notice on the university’s COVID-19 webpage. For additional information for K-12 schools, see UE’s blog on Combating Cyberharassment at K-12 Schools.

Yes. Investigations and adjudications, including those in compliance with Title IX requirements, should proceed to the extent possible using remote technology. Consult with legal counsel to resolve any investigation or adjudication challenges that may arise and ensure federal, state, and local laws and regulations are followed. UE recently released a podcast that focuses on conducting Title IX investigations remotely. UE’s full Title IX resources can be found at www.edurisksolutions.org/titleix/. The State University of New York also has created a webpage with advice and resources for remote proceedings.

Sometimes state or local health orders will determine whether research labs continue operation. In other cases, institutions must decide whether nonessential research should be paused, labs should be shut down, resources should be shifted, or research can continue with social distancing measures. Some institutions have explained they voluntarily shut down labs to avoid well-intentioned researchers and students from continuing work while exposing themselves to health risks. For more details on how research universities are responding, see Inside Higher Ed’s article Extraordinary Measures and the Council on Governmental Relations’ website and FAQs.

Whether to close your campus and provide reimbursements is a business decision for each institution to make in consultation with legal counsel. Considerations in that determination include the impact on students and the potential for financial and reputational harm to the institution.

Some institutions may have a legal duty to reimburse students for canceled campus housing contracts. With legal counsel, review campus housing contracts for cancellation, reimbursement, epidemic, and force majeure language.

Institutions can allow students to remain on campus but must keep in mind that this will require support from the school. To allow for social distancing, consider consolidating emergency housing into one or more buildings on campus ─ especially if residence halls with private rooms are available. Work with legal counsel to determine whether to draft a waiver for students and/or parents of minors who are staying on campus. Waivers should be tailored to include any risks not already stated in existing housing contracts and waivers, including the potential for contracting COVID-19. For more information on drafting waivers, see UE’s resources Checklist for Drafting Effective Releases and Waivers: Getting One Consent at a Time.

Review residence hall staffing, dining options, health care availability, campus security, cleaning, and other services, and make students aware of what will be available. Determine whether new rules are necessary to address safety precautions, prohibited gatherings, illness, or other issues. Update the remaining students about any new policies. The institution also may need to create procedures in case on-campus students become ill or show signs of COVID-19. Remain in frequent contact with students on campus and keep them abreast of changes and campus developments.

Consider implementing remote options for campus health and mental health offerings in accordance with state legal and licensing requirements. Traditionally, the HIPAA Security Rule and state laws strictly limit circumstances in which telemedicine is acceptable. However, federal and state governments are creating some exceptions during the pandemic. For updates on policy changes, visit the website for ATA (a telehealth organization) and the Federation of State Medical Boards.

For more information on supporting students’ physical and mental health needs, review resources from the Jed Foundation, the Higher Education Mental Health Alliance, and the Annals of Internal Medicine. For examples of university telehealth programs, see the University of South Carolina and the University of Mississippi.

Return to Campus

When to return to campus is a business decision for each institution. When deciding whether to reopen, consider:

  • Has the local, state, and federal government removed relevant stay home orders and recommendations?
  • Have public health officials recommended that schools and nonessential businesses return to work?
  • Is COVID-19 testing widely available?
  • Is a COVID-19 vaccine available?

Before reopening campus, revise school pandemic policies and practices to incorporate Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations for schools and colleges. Include and implement current prevention recommendations regarding sanitization, physical distancing, and vaccinations.

Institute a systematic school sanitization using Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) cleaning and disinfecting recommendations. Prioritize spaces used by COVID-19 patients, especially frequently touched surfaces.

Before students and staff return to campus from school breaks and closures, UE recommends sending out communications about the status of the community outbreak, risk management actions by the institution to prevent transmission, and prevention recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health officials. For example, Villanova University and Florida International University released press releases in late February 2020 when students returned from study abroad programs.

For many institutions, a phased return may help gradually restart normal operations while allowing for physical distancing. Students and employees who return to campus likely will require additional school support as a result of the pandemic. For instance, anyone who contracted COVID-19 may need ongoing physical health care. Societal stress created by the pandemic and distancing may increase mental health care requirements. Regular reporting mechanisms, such as sexual misconduct reporting, also may show increased numbers from community members who paused their regular reporting during the emergency. By gradually allowing students and employees to return to campus, schools can better identify community needs and provide support.

Whether to implement a waiver for students returning to school post-pandemic is a business decision for each institution to make in consultation with legal counsel. Although waivers may release institutions from potential liability, enforcement varies greatly by jurisdiction and the waiver’s underlying subject matter. Additionally, when dealing with minor age students, courts are traditionally reluctant to enforce a waiver. For additional guidance, see UE’s Checklist: Drafting Effective Releases.

Waivers are not a substitute for sound risk management practices. Continue to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations and other prominent guidance about how to minimize the risk of transmission.

By Christine McHugh, JD, senior risk management counsel, and Melanie Bennett, JD, risk management counsel

More From UE
Coronavirus Part 1: Campus Health, School Closures, International Issues
Coronavirus Part 2: Employment Practices
Responding to the Coronavirus Outbreak

Additional Resources
The President’s Coronavirus Guidelines for America
Department of Education: COVID-19 Information and Resources for Schools and School Personnel
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): Guidance for Institutes of Higher Education
CDC: Guidance for Schools and Childcare Settings