August 29, 2022

Are We There Yet? COVID-19 Policy Considerations as Independent Schools Approach a Return to Normalcy

6 min

As the 2022-2023 school year begins, independent schools should revisit their COVID-19 protocols. The newer COVID-19 variants have proved to be milder than the original strain, justifying shorter self-isolation periods for affected individuals and a relaxing of federal, state, and local COVID-19 guidance.

In addition, on August 11, 2022, the CDC issued updated operational guidance for K-12 schools for the 2022-2023 school year that removes previous recommendations, which proved to be difficult to implement in practice, such as cohorting, quarantining in the event of exposure to COVID-19, and testing. As independent schools approach a return to normalcy, they would be wise to review their student and employee handbooks to ensure that they reflect applicable federal, state, and local guidance and best practices. Below we have outlined some relevant issues that independent schools should consider when finalizing their COVID-19 policies for the upcoming school year.

COVID-19 Health and Safety Protocols

In accordance with updated CDC guidance for K-12 schools, independent schools should consider updating their COVID-19 health and safety protocols for the upcoming school year. Key updates to the CDC's guidance for K-12 schools are summarized below.

Quarantine No Longer Required for Exposures. CDC guidance no longer requires students and employees to quarantine after being exposed to COVID-19. Instead, these individuals should wear a well-fitting, high-quality mask (e.g., N95) for 10 days and get tested for COVID-19 at least 5 days following their last exposure (even if they are asymptomatic).

Isolation Guidelines for Symptomatic Individuals. Individuals who develop symptoms of COVID-19 during the school day are strongly encouraged to wear a well-fitting mask and isolate from others until they can be picked up or leave campus. Symptomatic individuals and those who test positive for COVID-19 should stay home for at least 5 days. Asymptomatic individuals may end isolation after day 5, while symptomatic individuals should continue to remain at home after day 5 until they are fever free for 24 hours (without the use of fever-reducing medication) and until their symptoms have improved.

Masks Encouraged, but Not Required. The CDC strongly encourages students and employees to wear a mask indoors if they live in a community where COVID-19 transmission levels are high. The guidelines also encourage individuals to wear a mask when they are in the school nurse's office or other healthcare settings.

Testing Programs No Longer Recommended. The CDC no longer recommends that schools conduct routine COVID-19 screening for students. However, in areas where COVID-19 transmission levels are high, the CDC suggests that schools may implement screening testing for students and staff participating in high-risk activities (for example, close-contact sports, band, choir, theater); at key times in the year, such as before or after large events (such as prom, tournaments, group travel); and when returning from school breaks. In any screening testing program, testing should include both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals.

Communicable Disease Policies and Absences

In place of specific COVID-19 quarantine protocols, many independent schools are adopting or revising their employee and student handbooks to include a general communicable disease policy that encourages individuals to stay home when they have a cold, flu, or COVID-19, or if they are experiencing symptoms of respiratory and gastrointestinal infections, such as a cough, fever, sore throat, vomiting, or diarrhea. Such a policy should give independent schools flexibility and discretion to modify requirements and guidelines if needed or required based on the changing landscape. Incorporating this policy into the handbooks promotes the health and safety of students and their families by preventing individuals from spreading contagious illnesses among the school community.

Although schools no longer need to account for lengthy quarantine periods for infected individuals, they should still encourage sick individuals to stay home until they are no longer contagious. Accordingly, independent schools should review their sick leave policies to ensure that they support employees caring for a sick family member and allow employees themselves to stay home for the duration of their illness. Schools should also provide excused absences for students who are sick, avoid policies that incentivize coming to school while sick, and support children who are learning at home if they are sick.

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), which required employers to provide paid leave to employees affected by COVID-19, is no longer in effect. Similarly, many state COVID-19 paid leave laws have also expired. Independent schools should seek advice to determine whether applicable state and local COVID-19 leave laws are still in effect and modify their sick leave policies accordingly. In the absence of available paid sick leave under applicable law or the school's policies, independent schools should be flexible in providing additional, paid or unpaid leave to employees for documented COVID-19-related reasons.

COVID-19 Vaccination Policy Updates

The landscape of COVID-19 vaccinations has shifted significantly in the past year. Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines are now available for all individuals aged six months and older, making all students eligible to be vaccinated. Independent schools that have implemented student vaccination policies may consider updating their policies to address vaccinations for younger students and establish a timeline for these students to be vaccinated and to collect proof of vaccination.

Some jurisdictions, such as the District of Columbia, have added the COVID-19 vaccination to the list of student vaccinations required for school entry. Independent schools in these jurisdictions are required to mandate the COVID-19 vaccine for the 2022-2023 school year, subject to exemptions permitted under applicable law. If they have not done so already, these schools should develop a student COVID-19 vaccination policy and a procedure for ensuring that all students comply with this requirement prior to the first day of school.

Additionally, the CDC also updated its definition of "fully vaccinated" as being "up to date" or having received all doses of a primary series of a COVID-19 vaccine and all boosters recommended for the individual, when eligible. Independent schools that require employees and/or students to be vaccinated should consider adopting the CDC's updated vaccination guidance to require eligible individuals to receive one or more booster doses if they have not already done so.

Finally, many states have implemented leave laws providing employees with paid leave to get the COVID-19 vaccine or a booster dose, or to take their children to get the COVID-19 vaccine. For example, New York extended its paid COVID-19 vaccination leave law through December 31, 2023. Therefore, New York schools are required to provide employees with up to 4 hours of paid leave per dose to receive a COVID-19 vaccine dose or booster, or to take their child to receive a COVID-19 vaccine dose. Independent schools are encouraged to review applicable state laws and update their vaccination policies accordingly. In the absence of a state law requiring them to provide paid leave for the COVID-19 vaccination, independent schools should consider providing paid leave for employees to get vaccinated as a matter of school policy to promote the health of the school community.

Handbook Flexibility

Finally, it would be wise for independent schools to hardwire into their handbooks the flexibility to modify or implement new health and safety-related protocols during the school year to address COVID-19 and other health-related developments. As applicable health and safety guidelines for COVID-19 are constantly evolving, the school's policies must evolve as well.

The Venable Independent School Law team is available to review handbooks and update any school policies. Independent schools with questions are encouraged to contact Caryn Pass, Grace Lee, Janice Gregerson, Ashley Sykes, or Imani Menard.