Coronavirus in Community Settings

The Coronavirus Disease 2019 (“COVID-19”) has sparked concerns throughout the country of a potential widespread outbreak. While the impact of the virus in America is currently low, “community spread” has begun in various locations throughout the country, including New York City. All forums that attract a large number of people, including schools, community centers, and houses of worship (“Community Settings”) need to begin to take reasonable precautions to minimize the risk of transmission. This article will provide several initiatives these Community Settings can take to help prepare for COVID-19 and its impact.

Communicate

One of the most important things Community Settings can do is to communicate their readiness to address this contagion. In an education setting, it is imperative that school administrators reassure parents and employees that the situation is being monitored closely and they are planning accordingly. The goal is to inform the community of plans to handle the virus, not to create fear or anxiety. Also, schools may consider having age-appropriate dialogues with students to ease worries.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) has released recommended strategies for schools to use in preparation for a COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S. Community Settings need to review these recommendations and make sure that they are following the guidance. If practices need to be altered, administrators ought to make the appropriate changes and communicate them to the community. Administrators need to allow members, parents, and employees to ask questions or share concerns. During this time of uncertainty, Community Settings need to be empathetic of concerns and provide support with a clear and open dialogue.

Each Community Setting also needs to appoint a team that will make decisions going forward (in conjunction with local or state authorities and counsel), such as closures. Also, have a plan in place in case the Community Setting is closed for a prolonged period or members, students or employees need to be self-quarantined at home. Additionally, each Community Setting needs to designate an email contact that can be reached to field questions from the community. You may also want to post regular notifications on your website or create a hotline to provide ongoing updates regarding closures or modifications to programming.

Providing community members and employees with clear and accurate information will help alleviate stress and reduce unnecessary fears about the virus. Further, it signals that you are on top of the issue and are operating with a plan.

Follow the Basics

Health professionals are emphasizing that the most important way to combat the coronavirus is to follow simple preventative measures. Community Settings are encouraged to inform their students and employees to follow basic practices to prevent the spread of germs and illness throughout the school. Individuals should cover their noses and mouths with a tissue when sneezing or coughing or use the bend in their elbow. It is also recommended that people avoid touching their eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands. Although shaking hands is a common greeting or introduction, during this time it is advisable to avoid shaking hands.

The CDC recommends that people wash their hands frequently with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer than contains at least 60-95% alcohol. Community Settings can provide these products to help promote hygiene. They may want to post signs in all bathrooms regarding the importance of washing hands to combat the virus.

Members, students or staff who show up sick or become sick during the day should be sent home as soon as possible. Individuals who sick are to be kept away from healthy persons until they leave. If someone develops a fever, a cough, or an upper-respiratory illness, that person should stay home and not return until they are free of fever and other symptoms for at least 24 hours, without the use of fever-reducing or other symptom-alleviating medication. Employees must follow the relevant sick leave policies for reporting time off for illness.

Community Settings need to routinely clean all frequently touched surfaces, such as desks, light switches, countertops, and doorknobs. There is no need to buy specialized disinfectant products – the cleaning agents that are normally used to clean these areas will likely kill COVID-19. These locations may also want to provide disposable wipes so that members, students, and staff can clean common surfaces (e.g., keyboards, desks, remote controls) before each use.

Reevaluate Lunchroom Practices

Community Settings need to educate their food service providers on additional measures that will be taken to combat the virus. This includes reconsidering how food is served, such as self-service food stations which share common utensils. In addition, administrators may want to review providing celebratory treats or snacks in the classroom. It is best that any snacks given are individually wrapped to avoid contamination.

Reassess Field Trips

While the CDC has not recommended canceling domestic trips, Community Settings may want to reconsider trips to tourist areas that experience a substantial number of visitors. If a school decides to proceed with an already scheduled field trip, it should be prepared for some parents to hold their children back. In that case, a school may need to prepare school-based alternatives for those students.

Follow Travel Advisories

The U.S. State Department and CDC has issued travel advisories for several countries that have experienced COVID-19 outbreaks. The State Department lists China at its highest advisory level, “Level 4: Do Not Travel” due to the “rapidly spreading outbreak” of COVID-19. Other countries and territories that have raised travel advisories due to the virus are South Korea, Hong Kong, Mongolia, Italy, Iran, Japan, and Macau.

It may be prudent for your security representative at the entrance of your building to screen anyone who has recently returned from travelling to an area that has experienced an outbreak of COVID-19, or have had exposure to someone returning from travel to an affect region. These individuals must wait 14 days (the suspected incubation period) before entering your building in order to limit potential exposure to others.

With spring break around the corner for many schools, many community families have upcoming travel plans. It would be best if students or staff that return from these affected areas or had close contact with someone who returned from these areas remain home for 14 days after returning. If administrators make the decision to self-quarantine individuals who may have been exposed, they need to clearly communicate this policy to parents and staff. In addition, the school may request that parents disclose the location of any travel during spring break in order to assess whether a self-quarantine is required. We recommend schools also consult with legal counsel before enacting any of these measures.

Prepare for Distance Learning/Telecommuting

School administrators need to implement contingency plans in case a school needs to close for an extended period of time or staff, or students are quarantined. Some examples of measures that can be taken include providing access to classroom content online and allowing for remote instruction via the internet. If a school utilizes an online distance learning platform, its staff needs to ensure that students have access to equipment necessary to access it (tablets, laptops, internet, etc.). If a school has not already done so, begin training students and staff on how properly use the platform.

If a closure is necessary for other Community Settings, see if you have the capability to facilitate group video communications so that staff can connect with each other in a more personal manner.

Prepare for Staffing Issues

In the case that an outbreak of coronavirus leads to staffing issues, Community Settings need to create contingency plans for coverage. Schools may want to review staff experience and competencies to ensure that proper coverage is afforded to students even if there is a substantial disruption to staff.

If you have any questions on disability or leave policies in relation to the virus, please contact us so we can discuss the matter.

Modify Worship Practices

With the coronavirus outbreak growing throughout the country, houses of worship have begun taking measures to prevent the spread of the virus in churches, synagogues and mosques. Worshippers have been encouraged to forgo handshakes and hugs, instead opting for “elbow bumps.” Communal cups used for communion have been eliminated from masses in an attempt to stop the spread of germs during the outbreak. Some houses of worship are even mulling webcasting services until the situation is under control.

Evaluate Public Transportation

As COVID-19 begins to spread, there are concerns about the use of public transportation. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (“MTA”) has begun cleaning all subways, buses, and commuter trains with industrial-grade disinfectant every 72 hours. With millions of commuters using public transportation every day, many people are worried about spending time in such close proximity to others. As community spread of the virus grows, more people are driving to work to avoid crowded commuter trains, subways and buses during rush hour. Community Settings may consider expanding flextime for their workers and those that use their facilities in an effort to reduce the crowds on public transportation.

Avoid Discrimination

In the wake of COVID-19, there have been numerous racist attacks against individuals of Chinese or Asian descent throughout America.

Community Settings need to be vigilant in ensuring that their members, students and staff are protected from any bullying or discriminatory conduct. Actions such as refusing to interact with individuals who are of Asian descent could lead to discrimination complaints. Community Settings that allow or tolerate discriminatory conduct or hostility towards Asian students or staff can create potential legal liability.

In addition, in preparing for COVID-19, Community Settings are best to not establish any policy that disparately impacts employees of Asian descent. Rather, any actions they take need to be based on whether an individual has potentially been exposed to the virus, not their national origin or ethnicity.

Create a Communicable Illness Policy

With the concern that COVID-19 may become a pandemic, it is crucial that Community Settings have a communicable illness policy in place for their staff. The policy should address communicable illnesses generally and not just COVID-19. A strong communicable illness policy outlines obligations for reporting illness, how staff can minimize their exposure to the illness, reference the sick leave policy, procedures for travel restrictions during an outbreak, rules for when staff must not report to work, and a communication plan in the case of an outbreak.

A communicable illness policy outlines a school’s emergency protocol in the event of a widespread outbreak. Having this policy in place lets staff know you have prepared for the situation and their wellness is a priority.

Additionally, schools may want to create a similar policy to distribute to parents. Let us know if you need our assistance to draft a communicable illness policy.

Bottomline

As of now, COVID-19’s ultimate impact in America is unknown. Because an outbreak of some sort is inevitable, Community Settings are especially vulnerable and need to exercise precaution and forethought in dealing with this virus. Being caught unprepared can have severe ramifications on these locations and the localities which they serve. Even if the worst-case scenario is avoided and COVID-19’s effect is minimal, it is better to be prepared and have a practical and comprehensive plan in place for dealing with widespread illness, both now and in the future.

Jules Halpern Associates LLC

Workplace and Education Law Advisors

Jules Halpern Associates LLC
JULES HALPERN ASSOCIATES LLC is a boutique law firm committed to serving our clients in all facets of their workplace issues. We provide personalized, practical advice that resonates with our clients’ business objectives.
212-658-9313
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Jules Z. Halpern

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