When the approximately 1,000 teachers did not return, Chicago Public School officials warned that they would face “disciplinary action that could lead to termination.” In Pennsylvania, school districts also face many challenges presented by COVID-19, not least of which is the understandable hesitation and anxiety that many school employees feel when transitioning to in-person learning. So, then, how can school districts and staff members reach a middle ground?
On January 7, 2020, Pennsylvania officials encouraged the return of elementary school students to in-person learning for the second semester. They emphasized the need for strict enforcement of proper safeguards and safety protocols to prioritize the health and safety of staff and students. Department of Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine and Acting Secretary of Education Noe Ortega both recommended elementary school students and other targeted populations, such as students with disabilities or English learners, to be allowed to return to campus for the second semester.
While this recommendation is not intended for middle schools and high schools, all schools are still encouraged to implement strategies and procedures for the amount of people per classroom, social distancing, and any mitigation efforts.
Additionally, Dr. Levine and Noe Ortega emphasized that the decision to return to in-person instruction must ultimately be made a local level, based upon county and community conditions and other factors highlighted by local and state agencies.
Where public schools are deciding to return to some or all in-person instruction, there are multiple solutions to bridge the gap between administrations and families anxious for their children to return to school and concerned employees who have hesitations about the safety of teaching in a pandemic.
Some schools are considering extending the FFCRA through March 31, 2021. Although districts are not required to extend the FFCRA, doing so could help discourage sick employees from coming into work rather than use their accrued leave. Other schools s are providing paid leave benefits where employees are ordered to quarantine because of exposure while at work. Still other schools continue to provide opportunities for employees, where warranted, to work from home or from empty classrooms to decrease their risk of contracting COVID-19.
Regardless of the employment benefits that public schools may provide, all should focus on the health and safety protocols and conditions for their staff and students. By educating staff, students, and parents on their COVID procedures and policies, schools can help mitigate not only the fear, but the spread, of COVID amid the return to in-person instruction. School should take the necessary steps to ensure the safety of their schools and communities by adhering to state and local governmental and health agencies’ guidance.
Finally, it is important to note that public school districts should be wary about disciplining teachers who do not come into work because of a fear of coronavirus. As always, we recommend speaking with your solicitor when considering discipline in this case.
Bottom Line for Schools
Many fears and uncertainty surround the transition to in-person instruction, especially among public school employees. Schools should actively listen and have an open dialogue with its employees to identify any personal, professional, or legal issues. Schools must allow eligible employees to take any protected leave legally available to them under the FMLA and ADA.
Furthermore, schools should continue to stay up to date with and enforce the most recent recommendations and guidance from state and local health departments and the CDC. Open communication and a commitment to a safe workplace can help ease the transition for staff and students to in-person instruction during these times.
If you have a question, please contact your legal counsel or one of the Education attorneys at KingSpry.
School Law Bullets are a publication of KingSpry’s Education Law Practice Group. This article is meant to be informational and does not constitute legal advice.