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The risk of opening schools: Flexibility, planning needed

Posted On: Jul. 15, 2020 7:00 AM CST

school COVID-19

With President Donald Trump calling for campuses to welcome students in the fall and numerous large school districts around the country announcing that online-only schooling will continue, risk management teams are grappling with how to safely proceed amid the coronavirus pandemic.

While various studies have found that most children are minimally affected when they contract COVID-19, the safety of teachers and other school workers is a growing concern.

The political controversy over school openings is taking place against a backdrop of surging infection rates in some regions and decisions by some states to dial back to previous shutdown levels.  

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on May 19 issued guidance to schools, which includes social distancing and cleaning protocols, but teachers unions have argued that the guidance may not be practical or is cost-prohibitive for already strapped school systems.

For example, the CDC’s call for improved ventilation systems in schools poses a challenge, because many schools have outdated systems, said Heather Sorge, campaign organizer for Healthy Schools Now, an initiative of the New Jersey Work Environment Council in Trenton, which on Thursday released a statement calling for more guidance and resources.

“By their nature, schools are an environment conducive to the spread of illnesses, including COVID-19,” the statement reads. “They are densely occupied for long periods and have a well-documented history of deferred maintenance which has resulted in well-known problems with ventilation and indoor air and plumbing, and challenges in cleaning.”

School districts have few concrete options, experts say.

“Whatever you see I can promise it will change,” said Dorothy Gjerdrum, St. Paul, Minnesota-based senior managing director public sector K-12 with Arthur J. Gallagher & Co. “Everybody is worried how we are going to do this. There is a tremendous amount of uncertainty about it.”

Safety guidelines created by EduRisk Solutions, which provides policyholders of Bethesda, Maryland-based reciprocal risk retention group United Educators Insurance with risk management resources, contain information on health and safety, containment and surveillance of the virus, and other risk management issues such as liability waivers.

Specifically, the guidelines include providing teachers and support staff with personal protective equipment, requiring that students wear face masks, limiting the number of students in classrooms, and cleaning surfaces at least twice per day.

Monitoring local and CDC guidance is important, said Melanie Bennett, risk management counsel for United Educators. “Schools that have decided to resume on campus should really take a look at health and safety in their area,” she said. “What are governments saying? Does the municipality have sufficient public services for reopening?”

Flexibility and planning will be key, said Matt Hinton, a New York-based partner with Control Risks Group Holdings Ltd., which provides risk management services to K-12 districts, colleges and universities, and other organizations.

Control Risks is applying some of the same protocols for opening up schools as were applied to businesses post-shutdown, he said, adding that schools have an advantage in looking at how businesses managed the risks and are continuing to do so.

He advises a “scenario analysis” that takes into account best-case and worst-case scenarios that can guide schools in creating plans for what could happen if certain triggers occur, such as an uptick in infections. “If infections hit a certain level, transition to online,” he said, adding that preparing for options allows schools to better handle the risk of spread. 

“You can potentially get ahead of those triggers and be proactive instead of reactive,” he said.

Infections among teachers is also a concern, as is helping to cover medical costs and loss of income in the event of a prolonged sickness — cornerstones of workers compensation insurance, which teachers unions nationwide want addressed before schools open, according to media reports.

COVID-19 infections are most problematic for older people and those with comorbidities such as diabetes and heart disease. On the peak day of reported COVID-19 deaths on April 18, CDC data revealed that 13,318 deaths were among people 65 or older compared with 3,059 deaths among those between 25 and 64 years old.  

Two states — California and Illinois – have laws stating that workers who contract COVID-19 presumably caught it at work, clearing the red tape for a workers comp claim. Traditionally, though, infectious diseases are not covered by workers comp.

Data on workers falling ill in states that allow for COVID-19 workers comp claims is limited, although some third-party administrators have begun tracking claims.

Concord, California-based third-party administrator Athens Insurance Service Inc. released a report July 8 that found that among all COVID-19 claimants — most of which came from health care workers in California — 2.7% of the cases involved hospitalization, and 0.03% resulted in death.

Douglas Gibb, executive vice president of workers compensation for Athens, said “most of the people have had minimum symptoms and get better.” The TPA provides services for schools statewide and could see an uptick in cases with openings, he said. “We are making (schools) aware of what we are seeing on a claims front.”

Corvel Corp., an Irvine, California-based TPA, reported that COVID-19 claims resulting in hospitalization make up less than 5% of claims.

“The number of COVID-19-related deaths is very low thus far and less than 1% of the claims reported,” said Michele Tucker, Corvel’s vice president of enterprise operations.

Schools-specific data on infections is also hard to come by, as most schools shut down in mid-March. The New York City Department of Education on June 22 released a statement that 75 of its school-based employees, including 31 teachers, had died in the pandemic. Schools closed March 16, as New York was a hotbed of COVID-19 infections. The district employs 75,000 teachers and 135,000 workers overall; the deaths were reported by families, according to the department website.