Back to School

This post first appeared on Risk Management Magazine. Read the original article.

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outdated equipment and lack of funding to make the necessary changes to meet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

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.”

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