Coronavirus FAQs: What Educational Institutions Need to Know

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 managing the risks associated with COVID-19.


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.
  • Prepare the facility for triage and isolation of patients potentially infected with COVID-19.
  • Develop protocols for triage and evaluation of potential COVID-19 patients using Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (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 CDC guidelines. While PPE remains 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.

Decisions regarding whether to cancel in-person events for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year, including commencements, should be made in consideration of local directives and in consultation with local health officials and the institution’s outbreak response team. Some institutions, like the University of Colorado Boulder, are tracking canceled events on a coronavirus updates webpage. See also, School Closures (What factors should schools consider when deciding whether and how long to close?).

Health care providers should make screening determinations. People who think they have been exposed to COVID-19 should review the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Coronavirus Self-Checker, which advises those experiencing symptoms to call their health care provider for medical advice. Older adults and people with serious chronic medical conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and lung disease should contact their health care provider early, even if their illness is mild. See also, Employment Practices (Can we ask employees questions related to COVID-19 symptoms?).

Depending on the jurisdiction, some institutions may have a duty to ask students about COVID-19 exposure. Consult with legal counsel before asking students whether they have been exposed. Laws that could impact your institution could include:

  • The Fair Housing Act
  • Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)
  • Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA)
  • The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) “Direct Threat” Exception
  • State negligence laws
  • State landlord and tenant laws

The The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention clarified in FAQs for K-12 administrators that K-12 schools are not expected to screen children, students, or staff to identify cases of COVID-19. The FAQs state “[i]f a community or school has cases of COVID-19, local health officials will help identify those individuals and will follow up on next steps.” See also, Employment Practices (Can we ask employees questions related to COVID-19 symptoms? and Can we send employees home, and under what circumstances?).

Students entering self-quarantine who are unable to return to their homes should be housed in quarters that are as isolated as possible from non-quarantined students who remain on campus. Consult with local health officials to identify appropriate quarters that meet medical and public health requirements. If the building is owned by a third party, consult with legal counsel to develop a memorandum of understanding.

Follow the mandates of any government-issued quarantines. Because COVID-19 is a federally quarantinable communicable disease, government agencies may declare quarantines by public order. For example, the city of San Francisco issued a public health order requiring residents to stay home except for essential needs.

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. See also, Employment Practices (Can we require an employee who has been off sick to provide a doctor’s note before returning after a pandemic?).

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.

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.

Yes, many online trainings are available, including brief instructional videos on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC's) YouTube channel. Here are a few other free online trainings using CDC information:

Employment Practices

Yes, according to the Department of Labor (DOL), employers may “encourage or require” teleworking “as an infection-control or prevention strategy” to combat COVID-19. However, institutions may not single out employees to work remotely based on factors such as their national origin. If an institution imposes a general teleworking requirement but some employees are unable to work from home, the DOL encourages the institution to “consider additional options to promote social distancing, such as staggered work shifts.”

For individuals who must be on campus to do their jobs, institutions should consider tactics to minimize contact among employees, such as (again) staggering shifts or moving work stations. If an institution must close down entirely or in part so that these employees’ services are not required, consult counsel and consider whether these employees may be eligible for alternatives to termination, such as paid or unpaid leaves of absence.

Some employees who are older or have underlying health conditions, including compromised immune systems or chronic problems such as diabetes, heart disease, or lung disease, are more susceptible to infection by COVID-19 or to becoming seriously ill if they are infected. Such employees may request telecommuting as a reasonable accommodation under the Americans With Disabilities Act. Even if your institution doesn’t have a teleworking program ─ or the employee isn’t eligible ─ it still may have to permit the accommodation. The answer depends primarily on whether the employee’s essential job functions can be performed remotely without causing the institution “significant difficulty or expense.” Institutions should consult an attorney about their obligations.

In these circumstances – involving a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) that provides no employer flexibility on issues such as scheduling and assigning work – an institution needs to consult counsel with experience in wage-hour laws to consider its options. Making unilateral changes to or ignoring the provisions of a CBA, even in an emergency situation, could result in unfair labor practice charges.

Your institution should review current faculty and employee handbooks, collective bargaining agreements applicable to unionized employees, and any individual employment contracts your institution has (such as with administrators or coaches). UE suggests performing these reviews in consultation with legal counsel.

Because multiple federal and state laws may apply, UE strongly recommends consulting with counsel about which laws impact your institution.

On March 18, 2020, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) became law. Among other things, it requires smaller employers – those with fewer than 500 employees ─ to provide emergency paid sick leave to employees who can’t work (including telework) and emergency paid Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) benefits. Those provisions become effective April 2, 2020, and expire Dec. 31, 2020. Congress is considering further legislation, and some states are passing their own laws. During the pandemic, both federal and state legislative changes may be rapid and seeking legal advice is essential. For more information on the FFCRA, review the Department of Labor’s FFCRA Fact Sheet and FFCRA Questions and Answers.

In addition, institutions still need to comply with a host of other federal and state laws ─ regardless of the emergency caused by COVID-19 – and should consult counsel about continuing to meet these obligations. Applicable laws may include (but are not limited to):

  • Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, and equivalent state laws
  • The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), and equivalent state laws
  • FMLA, and equivalent state laws
  • The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), and equivalent state laws
  • The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), and equivalent state laws
  • Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act
  • The Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act, and equivalent state laws
  • The Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act, and equivalent state laws
  • The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), for unionized faculty or staff
  • The Employee Income Retirement and Security Act (ERISA)
  • Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA)
  • The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA)
  • The Equal Pay Act (EPA)
  • The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA)

Whether to conduct layoffs or furloughs is a business decision for the institution, but UE strongly recommends consulting an attorney with appropriate expertise before making that decision ─ and continuing to seek legal advice during any layoff process. State laws may come into play. For example, some states require accrued vacation time to be paid when employment is terminated (but usually not if employees are furloughed, since they may be called back to work). In addition, be careful to follow any internal policy and procedure your institution has adopted governing layoffs, including how employees are selected for layoff. This is especially important if you need to lay off tenured faculty, who usually have specific rights through a faculty handbook or individual contracts.

Regarding pay, institutions should examine all handbooks, employment agreements, and collective bargaining agreements to determine any contractual obligations they might have to pay employees who are not working. In addition, check your institution’s written policies on paid time off/paid sick leave, accrued vacation time, and the like, to determine employees’ entitlement to pay if they are temporarily unable to work.

Otherwise, under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), employers are allowed to pay “nonexempt” employees – those entitled to overtime pay ─ only for the hours they actually work. “Exempt” employees usually receive salaries and are entitled to their full base salary for a designated work period in which they perform any work. In addition, states have their own versions of the FLSA and because these may have different rules, it’s important to consult an attorney licensed in your institution’s state – again, the attorney should have experience in wage-hour laws.

Yes. Now that the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared COVID-19 a pandemic, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) makes clear that employers covered by the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) may ask employees who appear to be ill if they have symptoms of the virus (such as cough, fever, chills, or respiratory issues).

The EEOC also states that because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other public health authorities have recognized COVID-19 is widespread in communities, during the pandemic employers may take employees’ temperatures. Normally, this would be considered a “medical examination” that, with limited exceptions, is prohibited by the ADA. However, the agency cautions that not everyone with the coronavirus develops a fever. In other words, taking temperatures alone is not a reliable way of determining whether individuals may be infected with COVID-19.

Consistent with the ADA, employers must treat all information related to an employee’s illness (whether from COVID-19 or not) as a confidential medical record. See also, General (Who should get a coronavirus screening? and Should we ask students if they have been exposed to COVID-19?).

Yes. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, if employees have symptoms consistent with either COVID-19 or the seasonal flu during a pandemic outbreak, you can require them to stay home or to return home after they arrive at work. In addition, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration instructs employers to “ [i]immediately isolate people suspected of having COVID-19.” The Department of Labor also recognizes that during a pandemic, employees may be sent home if they show symptoms, but it notes that employers must apply neutral, uniform criteria to everyone and avoid making decisions based on national origin, race, or any category protected by federal or state law. See also, General (Can an institution instruct students to go home?).

Yes, although the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission notes that health care providers may be too busy during and immediately after a pandemic to provide this documentation. It suggests employers consider other means of obtaining satisfactory proof of the employee’s fitness to return, such as an email from a local clinic certifying that the employee does not have the pandemic virus. Alternatively, because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and public health authorities generally agree that the incubation period for the coronavirus is no longer than 14 days, institutions might consider allowing employees who show no symptoms for a certain amount of time (such as two weeks) to return to work without requiring medical documentation. See also, General (What actions should we take in relation to students returning from breaks or school closures?).

In general, no. Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, employees can refuse to come to work only if they believe doing so would put them in “imminent danger,” a high standard that means an immediate risk of “death or serious physical harm.” Very few, if any, educational workplaces are likely to present this level of risk to employees due to the coronavirus.

However, UE recommends applying more flexible standards for employees who are especially vulnerable to COVID-19 or who run a high risk of becoming seriously ill if they contract the disease. See also, Employment Practices (If an employee requests teleworking as a reasonable accommodation because of the coronavirus, do we have to allow it?).

School Closures

Representatives from the campus outbreak response team and business continuity team should be involved in conversations about school closures. These should include representatives from the administration, health services, and legal counsel. When making closure decisions, schools also should consult with local health officials to learn more about the outbreak’s spread within the community.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released the Consideration for School Closure recommendations, factors for consideration, and decision tree. The CDC recommends that schools consider closing under these circumstances:

  • Confirmed person with COVID-19 on campus
  • Substantial community spread of the COVID-19 outbreak

The CDC recommends considering the following factors when determining closure lengths:

Closure length Factor
Several days Brief closures allow for cleaning but do not have a large impact on social distancing
About two weeks Short-term closures allow for increased social distancing and cleaning but may not be impactful on overall community transmission.
About four weeks Medium-term closures allow for more protection for older staff and students and staff with underlying medical conditions but may result in more students congregating outside of school and increased risk to older adults and those with co-morbidities who are providing child care.
Eight or more weeks Long-term closures may decrease overall community transmission and provide substantial protection for older staff and students and staff with underlying medical conditions. However, long-term closures also may result in more students congregating outside of school and increased risk to older adults and those with co-morbidities who are providing child care.

Possibly. Courts may look at what other institutions did in the same or similar circumstances when deciding appropriate standard of care. Be sure to document the institution’s thought process around its decision to remain open or to close (for example, what it knew and when). Remember that costs or loss of money, particularly when juxtaposed with human safety, are not good reasons to hold an event or remain open.

Possibly. The school likely has a duty of care for students allowed to live in student housing during a closure. With the help of counsel, consider implementing waivers or assumption of risk declarations for students who voluntarily remain in school-owned housing. See also, School Closures (What factors should schools consider when deciding whether and how long to close?) and International Issues (How can schools help international students and other students who are unable to go home?).

Probably. With legal counsel, review enrollment and student housing contracts for force majeure, cancellation, epidemic, and school closure language that allows for non-performance or modified performance.

See also:

  • International Issues (How can schools help international students and other students who are unable to go home?)
  • General (Our institution moved to online learning for the remainder of the semester. Should we reimburse our students for their campus housing expenses?)
  • Employment Practices (Can we send employees home, and under what circumstances?)

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.

Yes. Disability laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, still apply during a national emergency. 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.

International Issues

In March 2020 the Department of State issued a Level 4 Do Not Travel global health advisory warning all U.S. citizens to avoid travel abroad. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention also continues to release new Level 3 travel health notices discouraging nonessential travel to outbreak locations including most European countries. In light of these federal advisories, UE recommends that institutions with U.S.-based students or employees overseas on study abroad programs work to bring them back as soon as possible.

Schools can work to find housing for students who cannot return home, even if the campus is closed. Campuses may allow students to use residential housing on an emergency basis or place students with local homestay options. If students remain in residential housing on an emergency basis, provide an informational letter addressing outbreak risks and prevention. Consult with legal counsel to determine whether an assumption of risk form or waiver also may be appropriate. If students are placed with local homestay options, review UE’s Youth Homestay Placements for safety recommendations.

Crisis Communications

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.

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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Investigations and Adjudications

No. Investigations and adjudications should proceed to the extent possible using remote technology. The State University of New York created a webpage with advice and resources for remote proceedings. Continue to follow federal, state, and local laws and regulations when conducting student and staff investigations and adjudications.

By Melanie Bennett, JD, risk management counsel and Hillary Pettegrew, JD, senior risk management counsel

More From UE
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