COVID-19 and Schools

Back to School: 3 Key Risks Worth Evaluating

By Dorothy Gjerdrum and Byron Given

Across the country, K–12 school administrators, teachers and staff are preparing to return to school in the midst of continued uncertainty. As COVID-19 continues to evolve, conflicting positions on mask mandates and safety requirements have spilled out of school board and PTA meetings into the national discourse, complicating decision-making at every level. The ongoing pandemic has created new risks, and elevated others — all of which pose challenges to K–12 operations. Three key risks — COVID 19 and Mask Mandate Decisions, Cyber Security and Teacher Retention and Workplace Stress — should be considered before the first bell rings this fall. Awareness and management of these risks will minimize potential disruptions and support a successful school year.

COVID-19 and Mask Mandate Decisions

School boards and administrators face a multitude of opinions and pressure from parents and constituents (including staff and teachers) as they weigh decisions about masking up and COVID-19 safety procedures. Infection rates, hospitalizations and deaths vary from state to state, so widespread, nationwide decisions are not feasible. Conflicts between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (the CDC) and state and local governments (including schools) regarding mask mandates are creating lots of media coverage and fueling inconsistent responses across states. Local community culture, values and politics also influence the conversation and outcomes. In light of these influences, what key factors do decision makers need to consider? The first step is to identify and acknowledge these influences; the best risk management decision must be made within the context of all of these considerations.

COVID-19 safety procedures extend beyond mask mandates, of course. Schools should continue to sanitize facilities, encourage (or mandate) hand washing, reinforce the message to stay home when sick, practice appropriate distancing and maintain any other protective measures put in place during the last school year. Key facility considerations include air quality and ventilation, the physical setup of classrooms and regularly disinfecting high-traffic areas. Some key operational considerations include student transportation; athletic participation; field trips and special events; a plan for responding to students, teachers or staff who become ill (or a high rate of community infections); and plans for ongoing support of hybrid or distance learning. In communities with high rates of infection or hospitalization and low vaccination rates, or if the space is occupied by people at increased risk of severe illness, school-use policies should be reviewed and updated and then communicated to district employees, students, parents and the community.

In all cases when evaluating risk, it’s important to use current, best-available information to inform a district-wide plan of operations. Review state and local mandates and then consult with health experts and safety or risk management staff to prioritize the risks in your district. Creating an appropriate plan and response protocols need to be customized to your district’s specific risks and operations. Clear guidance, transparency and good communication on the expectations and rules are critical for the entire community, not just the school. And don’t forget to refresh your plans for hybrid learning in case you need to change operations at any time during the school year.

Skyrocketing Cyber Security Threats

Cyber security is a key risk that has increased in its threat level during the pandemic. Cyber and ransomware attacks targeting school systems have risen dramatically in recent years, and distance learning and hybrid teaching only heighten that risk. Relying upon students, parents and teachers to use only secure networks and observe all security protocols has been a tall order for many districts. Continued cyber threats like phishing and malware, as well as increased ransomware demands, have pushed underwriting requirements and insurance premiums in this sector. Premium increases of 25–50% were not uncommon during the recent renewal cycle, as well as increased insurance requirements (such as multi-factor authentication, phishing and ransomware training and security audits and testing).

Heightened attention to this critical risk has never been more important. Using insurance underwriting questions as a guide to prevention efforts is a good starting point. From there, consider a cyber-security audit to identify weaknesses and prioritize risk prevention efforts. That’s especially important since most districts have limited resources to work with, including money, staff and time. Cyber security is a risk is largely unseen (unlike a hole in the sidewalk or a mask requirement), but it is critical to your operations, and it deserves risk management prevention and support.

Teacher Retention and Workplace Stress

One in four teachers plan to leave their job this year, up from one in six before the pandemic, according to a new report from the nonprofit RAND Corporation. Retention strategies and resources for teachers experiencing increased stress are a key focus for schools as they seek out ways to help teachers feel more comfortable and confident in the classroom.

School officials should review, update and watch out for potential mental health issues. Facilitating new discussions around the identification of staff — or students — who may be struggling as they return to the classroom can make a significant difference. And ensuring there are appropriate counseling or social services available to them is an important way to address any stress they may be experiencing. Not only will proactive, protective health practices help support faculty and staff, but having these resources readily available may mitigate potential Workers’ Compensation claims.

While decisive action may or may not bring unity to a community with differing opinion, it can protect a districts’ faculty, staff, students and community — and your School Board. It is imperative that School Officials are working with an insurance brokerage, legal and risk management team specializing in K–12 school and geography. As the school bells start ringing and the classroom doors open, a strong team that understands current and emerging risks can make a big difference to a school’s safety and bottom line.

To access Gallagher’s extensive library of COVID-19 guidance for K–12 schools, visit https://www.ajg.com/us/coronavirus-covid-19-pandemic/.

For CDC guidance, visit https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/schools-childcare/K–12-guidance.html.

Dorothy Gjerdrum is the Senior Managing Director, Public Sector & K–12 Education, at Gallagher. Byron Given is the Area Senior Vice President, Public Sector & K–12 Education, at Gallagher.

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