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    Responding to the Coronavirus Outbreak

    Regardless of whether your K-12 school, college, or university has students, faculty, or staff traveling abroad, you are probably deeply concerned about the recent outbreak of the coronavirus. To understand more about the new strain of the virus (COVID-19) and what steps your institution can take to manage the risk both domestically and abroad, use the information outlined below. 

    Understand Coronavirus and its Risks 

    In January 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that a new coronavirus was identified in Wuhan, China. Since that time, the virus has spread rapidly resulting in a growing number of deaths and confirmed cases in China and other locations, including the United States. For current case numbers and locations, see this map from the Johns Hopkins Center for Systems Science and Engineering.

    With no vaccine or treatment currently available for the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the State Department have cautioned against travel to countries with significant outbreaks. Institutions can keep current on this rapidly evolving situation by regularly consulting the following organizations:

    • State Department — Use the travel advisories and map to identify State Department cautions by region and date. The map also provides embassy information and locations.
    • CDC — The CDC’s coronavirus index page provides an easy-to-understand medical overview of the developing outbreak from a U.S. perspective. Review the travel health notices for the CDC’s current health-based travel recommendations.
    • WHO — The WHO’s coronavirus index page provides medical recommendations and resources from an international perspective. Review situation reports for current outbreak information and travel recommendations.

    Manage Risks at Your Campus

    To prevent transmission on your campus — regardless of whether students, faculty, or staff are returning from affected regions — and plan for a potential outbreak response, consider the following actions:

    • Identify an outbreak response team with representatives from health services, housing, security, communications, food services, academic affairs, and legal counsel. Team members should have defined roles and responsibilities for preparedness, response, and recovery planning.
    • Review your outbreak response plans. In its school and business response guidance, the CDC makes the following recommendations:
      • Ensure the plan includes strategies to reduce the spread of disease.
      • Ensure the plan emphasizes common sense preventive actions for students and staff. For a list of preventive actions, see the section below (Prevent Coronavirus Transmission on Campus and Abroad).
      • Develop information-sharing systems with partners, including local schools and health officials, to share disease surveillance and response efforts. Engage state and local health departments to confirm channels of communication and methods for disseminating local outbreak information.
      • Actively encourage sick students and staff to stay home and establish procedures to send students and staff who become sick at school home as soon as possible. Keep sick students and staff separate from healthy people until they can leave. Share resources with the school community to help families understand when to keep children home.
      • Monitor and plan for absenteeism. Alert information-sharing partners about large increases in absenteeism that appear due to respiratory illnesses. Encourage students and staff to stay home when sick.
      • Use cleaning products to routinely clean frequently touched surfaces. Some institutions are closing for one or more days to thoroughly clean and disinfect their campuses. For example, several schools in the Mukilteo School District in Everett, Wash., closed for a deep cleaning after a parent tested positive for COVID-19.
      • Create communications plans for use with the school community.
      • Determine if, when, and for how long schools with cases of COVID-19 may need to be closed to stop or slow further spread. For example, several schools in Washington have temporarily closed for predetermined periods of time.
    • Review your business continuity plans. CDC guidance for businesses and employers makes the following recommendations:
      • Plan to minimize exposure between staff, students, and the public if public health officials call for social distancing. Explore whether you can establish social distancing strategies such as online learning to increase physical distance and allow students and staff to work from home. For example, many schools are exploring remote learning options.
      • Identify essential business functions required to maintain business operations. Plan for how your institution will operate if there is increasing absenteeism or programs are interrupted.
      • Put in place authorities and establish procedures for altering business operations (possibly changing or closing operations in affected areas) and transferring business knowledge to key employees. For example, many higher ed organizations are cancelling or modifying annual meetings and tournaments to minimize the number of large meetings, especially in outbreak regions.
      • Establish a process to communicate business information to staff.
      • Define what level of absenteeism will disrupt continuity of teaching and learning. Determine how you will operate if staff absenteeism spikes from those who are sick, those who stay home to care for sick family members, and those who must stay home to watch their children if dismissed from school.
    • Consider postponing or canceling student foreign exchange programs, per CDC guidance.
    • Consider alerting the entire campus community about the coronavirus risk, preventive measures, and screening requirements. Advise travelers to contact their primary care provider prior to arriving to the provider for a coronavirus screening, allowing providers to prepare for the visit and take transmission prevention precautions. Here are a few sample school advisories:

    Manage Travel Risks

    United Educators (UE) recommends not sponsoring travel to regions where a CDC Level 3 Travel Alert is in effect. Additionally, if your school’s students or staff are travelling within regions where a CDC Level 3 Travel Alert is in effect, UE recommends:

    • Providing transportation options back to the U.S. for students and staff in outbreak regions. Consider the same for students or staff in nearby countries.
    • Stating in writing that remaining in these regions is completely voluntary and that a student’s program or a staff member’s job does not depend on it. In consultation with legal counsel, consider drafting a release specific to the outbreak for anyone who then chooses to stay in these regions. Discuss the release when speaking about the outbreak and its potential effects with students or staff in these regions.
    • Reading UE’s Preparing for Medical Evacuations Abroad for help identifying current insurance coverages and resources if students or staff remain in the region. If students or staff plan to travel to the region despite warnings, read UE’s Heightened Vigilance Required in Study Abroad Risk Management for waiver and insurance recommendations.

    Deciding whether to allow students or staff to travel to regions that don’t have a CDC Level 3 Travel Alert is a business decision of the institution. 

    UE recommends institutions making these decisions take the following actions: 

    • Consult with legal counsel and international travel service providers (such as International SOS) regarding the potential standard of care in your school’s jurisdiction and about what other institutions are doing. For example, it’s worth discussing the CDC’s recently issued guidance that higher education institutions consider canceling all foreign exchange and study abroad programs.
    • Send parents, students, and staff informational letters identifying the worldwide risk of coronavirus but noting the region’s current unaffected status. Document your school’s ongoing efforts to track spread of the virus and emergency plans in case infections occur in the region.
    • Draft a release specific to the outbreak and its potential effects.
    • Conduct ongoing monitoring of the worldwide and regional coronavirus outbreak. Update travelers on any change. When CDC levels advance, offer travelers within the region transportation options back to the U.S.

    Prevent Coronavirus Transmission on Campus and Abroad

    The WHO makes the following recommendations to reduce the general risk of transmission of acute respiratory infections including coronavirus:

    • Avoid close contact with people suffering from acute respiratory infections.
    • Wash hands frequently, especially after direct contact with ill people or their environment.
    • Avoid unprotected contact with farm or wild animals.
    • Practice cough etiquette (maintain distance, cover coughs and sneezes with disposable tissues or clothing, and wash hands).
    • Enhance standard infection prevention and control practices when in health care facilities — particularly in hospital emergency departments. 

    Evaluate Liability Risks

    Depending primarily on state negligence law, K-12 schools and higher ed institutions may have a duty to warn against known health risks on campus and abroad. Also dependent on state law, schools and institutions may have a duty to take reasonable preventive measures on campus against the transmission of known health risks.

    UE recommends consulting with local counsel for specific advice on your institution’s potential liability to students and employees in the context of the coronavirus.  

    More From UE

    Preparing for Flu and Other Pandemics

    Assessing Safety of Travel Abroad

    Other Resources

    NAIS — Understanding Coronavirus: What Schools Need to Know

    Inside Higher Ed — Preparing for Coronavirus

    By Melanie Bennett, JD, risk management counsel