Back to School

Lori Widmer


September 1, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced educators and risk professionals to rethink school operations to protect the safety and health of students, faculty and staff.

In March 2020, governors in 42 U.S. states imposed restrictions on residents’ movement as COVID-19 spread across the country. Even before states began issuing stay-at-home mandates, colleges and universities were canceling classroom instruction and shutting down campuses. Some were responding to students or faculty testing positive for COVID-19 while others were attempting to stay ahead of any potential outbreak.

Soon, K-12 schools were emptying classrooms and either canceling the school year or moving classes online. Public and private schools alike were forced to find alternate ways to reach a student body without universally reliable access to the internet. Educators in the United States are hardly alone in facing this situation—UNESCO reported that school closures have impacted 60% of the world’s students, with over 100 countries shutting schools nationwide due to the pandemic.

As the new school year begins to ramp up, academic institutions have been tasked with determining how to deliver education and other much-needed services to their students amid the ongoing pandemic. Administrators and educators must decide whether to open schools for classroom instruction or beef up technology and conduct online classes, be it for the short or long term.

Whatever each institution’s decision, education will likely look nothing like it did last year. Classrooms are now potential vectors for the virus to spread among students, faculty and staff alike, and campuses represent potential epicenters of future outbreaks.

Some educational institutions must also rethink what they can do to accommodate student safety within their current buildings. Many must confront infrastructure limitations, outdated equipment and lack of funding to make the necessary changes to meet best practice guidelines like ensuring physical distancing. As the entire academic experience is being revamped and reframed around a global pandemic, many uncertainties still loom.

Educators and administrators have had to prepare to bring students back to class in this extremely challenging environment. Evolving science, changing federal government decisions, and conflicting state and local mandates have created a landscape that is constantly in flux, and risk professionals at schools have had to develop, amend or scrap plans on the fly to keep up. Additionally, even if schools and campuses reopen, they must be prepared for rapid changes that could mean they must shutter again.

Trickle-Down Confusion

Whether schools open now or later, preparing classrooms for students to return means mitigating health risks above all else. As administrators and risk professionals tackle when and how to resume on-campus operations, health and safety questions should be considered at the regional level. “You want to look at what public health officials and the local and state governments are saying,” said Melanie Bennett, risk management counsel at United Educators. “Are they recommending that schools reopen in your area? That is the absolute starting point.”

Yet even answering that question has been a difficult task. Political infighting and conflicting priorities have resulted in upheaval at most levels of government. In Georgia, the governor recently sued Atlanta officials for mandating mask use, claiming that city officials were defying state-level executive orders by requiring masks use. In Iowa, mayors defied the governor’s orders and mandated public mask use. Despite the pandemic affecting the entire U.S. population, some politicians have drawn partisan lines around these issues, turning public health into political spectacle.

Institutions are trying to create sound reopening and safety plans, but changes at the governmental level have been swift and often contradictory. “Things can change literally overnight with decisions from the county that you have to react to or state decisions,” said Samuel Florio, director of risk management and compliance for Santa Clara University. “It’s unlike any other risk management scenario that I’ve been involved in.”

This has forced many institutions to quickly adapt and revamp their plans. “You have to be nimble and be able to react, and realize that the decision you’re making right now could be completely different in 12 hours,” Florio said. In July, for example, the Trump administration announced plans to revoke visas for international students not attending in-person classes, such as those enrolled at universities that moved courses online. Universities had to scramble to figure out how to support students facing visa uncertainties and how to facilitate having some return to campus if necessary to stay in the country. Less than a week later, the government reversed course on these proposed restrictions.

Preparing to Reopen

After assessing the legality of returning to the classroom, the next step is determining when it will be safe to do so. What that entails will differ for each institution. The developing nature of the pandemic makes it extremely difficult to create a risk management plan that encompasses all of the most up-to-date information.

Start by following CDC guidelines and information coming from entities such as the National Governors Association, advised Cole Clark, managing director of higher education for Deloitte. He suggested that institutions build a plan “that is flexible, that can be changed and molded as conditions and information change, and that has a set of risk-based triggers for a return to campus.”

According to Dorothy Gjerdrum, senior managing director of Gallagher’s public sector practice, that plan should also answer  certain key questions. “What are you going to do to prepare facilities, keep physical distancing, and make sure you are in alignment with state laws or local ordinances? How do you prepare your people to go back? How will you keep them safe once they are there? Also, you need look at any potential issues around supply chain for providing necessary materials,” she said.

When schools do open, institutions will need to communicate each step of the process. “Whatever schools are putting into their policies, they should all make sure that they are providing training and education for everyone on the new policies and procedures,” Bennett said.

That includes training teachers and educating students and parents about available instruction options. Steven C. Holland, chief risk officer at the University of Arizona, said his institution has planned four teaching modalities. Level one is face-to-face instruction, level two is a hybrid of face-to-face and online components, level three is synchronous (or live-streaming) instruction, and level four is asynchronous (or recorded) instruction.

Hybrid and online configurations have created the most logistical challenges for institutions. When the initial pivot was required in March, many institutions had to overcome infrastructure shortcomings in real time. Fall may bring better clarity and preparation. “The summer months allowed schools to evaluate the results from the spring and further improve their infrastructure in anticipation of the potential need for distance learning in the fall,” Florio said. That includes supporting students around the world. For example, a number of colleges and universities are adopting synchronous and asynchronous learning modules to help reach students in different time zones.

On college campuses, schools are making investments in technology that will improve internet access and enhance cybersecurity infrastructure and procedures. Campuses that are limiting available housing due to social distancing concerns are also creating more spaces with internet access that can accommodate a limited number of students, such as areas within libraries and student unions. “Further, since outdoor activity seems to result in limited virus transmission, many universities are improving their outdoor spaces for seating and some are creating outdoor learning environments,” Florio said.

These kinds of measures may help ease some of the concerns students have about returning. According to a survey released in August by higher education research and marketing firm SimpsonScarborough, just 25% of returning college students feel strongly that their schools would take the necessary safety precautions to protect them from COVID-19. Three-quarters of incoming freshmen are worried they will contract COVID-19, and only 34% of returning students feel safe living in residence halls. As a result, 40% of incoming freshmen interested in four-year residential colleges say they will likely not attend in the fall, and 28% of returning students may not come back to campus either. Addressing safety concerns will be critical for educating millions of students, and for ensuring the success of academic institutions as businesses.

Monitoring Safety

To create a safer learning environment, risk managers should build on the best practices they have already developed. Start with basics like threats to revenue, reputation and compliance. From there, Holland said, “identify those risk topics where you think you can truly help the institution succeed and move forward with its strategic goals.”

One of those topics may be how students at the K-12 level will get to school. Bus operations will have to change as physical distancing protocols will likely reduce the number of students allowed on each bus. In addition, students may have to wear a mask and board the bus from the back to fill seats while minimizing exposure, Gjerdrum said.

Bus schedules may also have to change. Some districts, for example, are considering splitting the school day into morning and afternoon sessions to allow students to attend in-person classes at least part of the week, she said. That would require additional buses to run more frequently during the day to accommodate multiple rounds of pick-up and drop-off, adhere to capacity limitations, and allow time for cleaning between trips.

Once in school, students will need to distance as much as possible. Gjerdrum recommended having fewer students per class and keeping students in the same room. “That way, if someone in the group gets sick, you can isolate that group,” she said.

Voluntary health screening processes can help assess whether students are sick and may be useful in limiting spread of the virus. Holland said the University of Arizona is using an app that allows the university to track students through methods like logging Wi-Fi access. The opt-in technology allows for quick notification of a student’s exposure to someone who has tested positive, also referred to as contact tracing. “If I become COVID-positive, public health authorities have access to a database that would say you were in the same restaurant at the same time I was,” Holland said. “They may then reach out to you to see if you’re having symptoms.”

His campus is also adopting daily health screening in the form of a text-based questionnaire that asks users to answer questions about symptoms like fever. The technology clears healthy people to go to school and sends information on treatment options to people with symptoms, Holland said.

While helpful, such health screenings are not foolproof. That is why Holland believes following health guidelines, such as requiring mask use, is critical to reducing the spread on campus and in classrooms. His institution is empowering faculty to enforce compliance. “If you have a student who refuses to wear a mask, and they don’t have a medical basis or an accommodation reason why they can’t wear it, you need to have the authority to tell them they can’t be in your class,” he said.

Guideline enforcement and wellness checks are especially important for the most at-risk segment of a school’s population: faculty and staff. Schools should support their employees and find the best work arrangements to ensure their safety. “If they feel they’re not comfortable or able to come back to work, we want to support that and help them get through that process,” Florio said.

Many institutions are allowing administrators to work from home when they are able, and allowing faculty to teach in the way that makes the most sense for them. Some may have family members at home with conditions that put them at higher risk. When building any plans for reopening, risk professionals should be understanding of such needs and should consider the potential harm that could result from each course of action.

According to Holland, rethinking how learning can take place safely will prove especially critical if campuses must close again. Making any decisions about closures will require ongoing monitoring. To that end, his team is working on identifying different stages of response based on the status of the pandemic in the community. “We’re identifying metrics that we want to watch over time, like the number of new cases, and we’re identifying close contacts when we have a person who reports a positive case, and what percentage of those close contacts also develop symptoms or end up testing positive for COVID,” he said. This will help them adjust procedures and protocols as necessary.

All About Balance

The balancing act between traditional classroom instruction and the health of students, faculty and staff is actually not so far outside of normal risk management practices. Institutions that have adopted robust enterprise risk management practices are best prepared to handle pandemic-specific issues, Clark said. However, too many institutions will struggle, particularly at the college level. Many will have to play catch-up with ERM, which could put them behind the curve in terms of being prepared for pandemic-related issues. “It has been a real eye-opening moment for higher education risk managers, and shined a spotlight on the importance of developing a true enterprise approach to risk,” he said.

Amid it all, risk managers still have to perform the same tasks they did prior to the pandemic. That is where establishing an oversight team to handle pandemic-related issues could be beneficial. Bennett suggested the team should comprise key participants from health services, housing, facilities, academic affairs and communications departments in addition to risk management and legal counsel. “There will be sub-teams under that doing a lot of the work, but you need that oversight group watching everything that is happening,” she said.

Communication and information-sharing among risk professionals at different institutions will be critical to the success of new practices. “Risk managers are really overwhelmed this year with the amount they have to do and the amount of information coming in,” Bennett said. “The more that we can talk to each other and tell each other about the best practices that we’re seeing and experiencing, that is going to be really helpful this year.”

Lori Widmer is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer and editor who specializes in risk management and insurance.