For administrators and staff of institutions of higher education (IHEs), "summer break" may not be the vacation they want it to be—while the summer months may seem slower when most students are away, this time still provides an important opportunity to roll up your sleeves and review and overhaul school policies and protocols before the fall term begins. In the calm before the fast-approaching 2022-23 academic year, IHEs should take stock of existing policies or protocols and revise them to enhance efficiency and safety and bring them into legal compliance, if necessary. Below is a non-exhaustive list of general items IHEs should consider in the coming weeks:
- Review Campus Safety Policies and Procedures: School safety is at the forefront of everyone's mind, and it is more important than ever to have effective safety plans in place that are clearly communicated to campus security and campus community members. Now is the time to review safety and security policies, protocols, and campus resources and infrastructure and, after consulting with professionals, implement new measures to enhance campus safety. IHEs should also ensure that safety policies and procedures are effectively communicated to the entire campus community, including training employees and students on relevant policies, procedures, and available resources.
- Review COVID-19 Practices and Protocols: Most IHEs are open for in-person learning and activities again, and it is crucial for the administration to have clear plans for how to communicate and enforce its health and safety policies before students return to campus in the fall. IHEs should also have contingency plans in place in case the campus community or surrounding region experiences a spike in COVID-19 cases after the academic year begins. IHEs should proactively consider whether there is a certain threshold of new COVID-19 cases that would cause some or all campus facilities or programs to increase COVID-19 restrictions, what those restrictions might be, and the circumstances that may make a return to remote learning necessary. IHEs should consider these thresholds carefully and craft a contingency plan ahead of the fall term, so that they can quickly and seamlessly implement new restrictions or enforce a stricter campus health and safety policy, if necessary.
- Review Cloud Platforms and Data Storage Systems for Privacy and Data Security: Existing and emerging online and cloud-based data applications are vital resources for IHEs to utilize in modern education, particularly with the increased importance of remote learning capabilities. However, with those resources also comes the prospect of serious privacy breaches and, in more extreme cases, even data hacking attempts. IHEs maintain vital and confidential information of their employees and students. Thus, it is critical that IHEs' information and technology departments review best practices and make certain all administrators and staff know and understand school data security and retention policies. The summer is also a good opportunity to ensure all existing and incoming employees with access to student data are fully trained on privacy and data use compliance, including FERPA and other jurisdiction-specific privacy laws, before the new academic term begins. As the landscape of technology continues to change, IHE employees should be refreshing their training annually.
- Keep an Eye on New Guidance and Know What Regulatory Changes May Be Coming: IHEs should always engage with counsel before embarking on a complete overhaul of student-facing policies to ensure that the policies have longevity under federal, state, and local law and regulations. Accordingly, IHEs should be monitoring trends, regulatory updates, and new guidance promulgated by the Department of Education and enforced by the Office of Civil Rights (OCR), as well as new guidance at the state or local level. For example, the Biden administration recently released its proposed new Title IX rules that, if implemented, will require substantial changes to Title IX policies that were promulgated under the prior administration. Similarly, OCR has received an increased number of complaints in the past several years, and there has been a trend in OCR enforcement that indicates increased scrutiny of single-sex and targeted-sex scholarships and programs under Title IX. This may indicate that IHEs' existing programs or scholarships could be more susceptible to OCR investigations. IHEs should review their programs carefully and avoid the pitfalls that can invite these investigations.
Should your IHE have any questions regarding how to approach review and revision of its policies or procedures, please contact the authors of this article or any other member of Venable's Higher Education or Labor and Employment Groups.