Coronavirus FAQs Part 1: Campus Health, School Closures, International Issues

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 pressing member questions about campus health, school closures, and international issues associated with COVID-19.

Campus Health

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.

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.”

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.

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:

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

By Melanie Bennett, JD, risk management counsel

More From UE
Coronavirus Part 2: Employment Practices
Coronavirus Part 3: Emergency Response, Remote Operation, Return to Campus
Responding to the Coronavirus Outbreak

Additional Resources
National Strategy For The COVID-19 Response and Pandemic Preparedness
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