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Legal Issues

Coronavirus Special Concerns For Colleges And Universities - March 11, 2020

The spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) across the United States presents special concerns for colleges and universities, where students spend their days gathering in classes, dormitories, dining halls, and libraries. Many colleges and universities have reacted to the growing spread of COVID-19 by canceling in-person classes, and some are recommending that students do not return to campus after spring break.

What to do right now

Update Emergency Plans

Planning is key. Colleges and universities in areas where COVID-19 has not yet spread should review and update their emergency plans. As part of their emergency plan, colleges and universities should identify the level of absenteeism, in both the student and staff population, that would disrupt teaching.

To the extent possible, schools should make plans for remote and virtual learning options, including alternative plans for students who may not have access to a personal computer. Colleges and universities should also make communication plans to ensure staff, students, and parents are receiving regular, updated, and accurate information regarding the spread of COVID-19 and any action the school is planning.

Conduct routine cleaning

As with any other virus, routine cleaning is essential to preventing the spread of COVID-19. In the college and university setting, this is especially important due to the number of shared spaces students and staff encounter each day.

At this time, special disinfection procedures are not required, but colleges and universities should take extra care to ensure that common areas and high-touch surfaces are routinely cleaned with the appropriate cleaning product. Consider providing disinfectant wipes in common areas so students and staff can regularly wipe down surfaces. 

Monitor absenteeism

Colleges and universities should be aware of the normal patterns of absenteeism at this time of year and watch for increases. If a large increase in absenteeism occurs or if there is an influx of traffic in student health centers due to respiratory illness, the school should contact its local department of public health.

Make accommodations for sick staff and students

Colleges and universities should consider their policies related to sick leave and student absenteeism and ensure that they provide flexibility for students and staff to stay home when they are sick or need to care for someone else who is sick. Any requirement to provide a doctor’s note to excuse absences should be lifted at this time to ensure that students and staff are not unnecessarily utilizing healthcare resources or exposing themselves to other potentially sick individuals.  

Cancel or postpone planned trips and foreign exchange programs

The CDC recommends canceling or postponing all trips abroad. If a school has not done so already, any study abroad and foreign exchange programs should be suspended until otherwise instructed. Additionally, as COVID-19 spreads domestically, colleges and universities should consider canceling or postponing any domestic trips.

What to do if COVID-19 is identified in the school’s community

Consider if and when to cancel classes or switch to remote learning options

Many colleges and universities in states with more widespread cases of COVID-19 have already decided to cancel classes or switch to virtual or other remote learning options. Colleges and universities should work with their local department of public health to help make these decisions.

If COVID-19 spreads within the school’s local community, local departments of public health will likely recommend social distancing plans, which focus on maintaining six feet between individuals. Canceling college classes or implementing some form of remote learning is one of many methods of social distancing.

Utilizing remote learning options can help minimize the disruption to the academic year and keep students on track for graduation. However, remote learning may not be a realistic option for every school. When establishing and implementing remote learning options, it is important to ensure that the plan provides equal education options to the entire student body. Colleges and universities utilizing remote learning options must consider accommodations for students who do not have access to a personal computer or reliable internet access as well as those with disabilities who may have difficulty with remote learning platforms.

Develop a separate plan for faculty and staff

Even if classes are canceled, faculty and staff may need to remain on campus to develop lesson plans, provide electronic materials to students, and generally provide information and services to students who remain on campus. Faculty and staff should continue to practice social distancing by maintaining a distance of six feet between all individuals. If a faculty or staff member becomes ill, that person should leave campus immediately.

Faculty and staff remaining on campus should also receive training regarding how to best provide students with services while keeping themselves safe. Training should include information regarding preventing the spread of COVID-19 as well as what to do if they become aware of a sick student.

Take action to prevent large group gatherings

If classes are canceled, encourage students not to gather together in dorms, common areas, local restaurants, or coffee shops. Consider postponing any activities that would lead to large gatherings, such as extracurricular activities or campus events.

Plan for continuity of services

The simple fact is that colleges and universities provide more than just education services. As colleges and universities plan to cancel classes, they must also plan for continuity of housing, meal plans, and research. This includes plans regarding when to modify, reduce, and, if necessary, stop providing services. When possible, plans should prevent large gatherings while also providing students and staff with access to these services or some alternative. Limiting food services to grab-and-go meals is one recommended option. Local health officials can help make plans to ensure the safety of students and staff. 

Respond to cases of COVID-19 in on-campus housing

Some colleges and universities are encouraging students not to return to campus after spring break. For those schools that do have students who return to on-campus housing, the school administration should educate students regarding precautions to take to prevent the spread of disease. If a suspected case of COVID-19 is identified among residents, contact the local department of public health to coordinate a response.

Local health departments may not recommend moving the student to off-campus housing as this may only work to further spread COVID-19. Local health officials can provide information regarding how, when, and where to best move those students who do not require hospitalization. As part of emergency planning, colleges and universities should consider options for temporary housing should they need to move a student for self-isolation and self-monitoring.

The Big Picture

The spread of COVID-19 creates special planning considerations for colleges and universities. Many colleges and universities have already decided to cancel classes or switch to remote learning options.  If COVID-19 spreads to your community, work with the local health department to plan a response and determine if, and when, classes and events should be canceled. Ensure that you have a plan in place to decrease the interruption that may be caused by class cancellation, both by providing remote learning options and continuing to provide students with additional services when possible.  

Iowa schools with questions about COVID-19 should contact IDPH’s Center for Acute Disease Epidemiology at (800) 362-2736.

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