Risks abound for every industry, but schools servicing students K-12 must be certain to review these exposures now that the novel coronavirus has disrupted learning across the country.
When the novel coronavirus first caused organizations to shut their doors, schools across the country complied quickly. Safety was a top concern.
But so was education.
"The impact of having the schools close, from an educational and developmental impact, is real," said Robert Groff, assistant vice president of underwriting for Philadelphia Insurance Company. Schools were forced to move from a brick-and-mortar classroom setting to virtual learning environment overnight. "Some students didn't have access to computers or virtual capabilities, so there was a lot of disruption to education to contend with at the beginning," he explained.
Now that the pandemic has remained a prevalent force well into the new school year, Groff said that there are several other risk factors schools are trying to manage. Virtual learning is a big challenge to overcome, especially with the added vulnerabilities cyber can bring. Additionally, schools and their risk mitigation teams are having to adapt to new or updated state and local health recommendations on almost a weekly basis. They need to be prepared for the intermittent closures in the event of future outbreaks.
"Some schools have had to limit class sizes while others have moved to a virtual/in-class hybrid model," said Groff. Some, still, are continually pushing back the start date of the 2020-21 school year.
The financial impact of all these changes is yet to be seen, but Groff believes it will be significant. Schools now require additional cleaning supplies, new barriers and personal protective equipment for students and faculty alike.
"Some have had to upgrade their ventilation systems and implement other changes to infrastructure that are necessary to keep the students and faculty safe," Groff added.
Here are just three areas of heightened risk being driven by the pandemic that could lead to potential financial strain, and how schools can address such exposures.
1) Virtual learning opens the door to several liability issues, as well as potential safety threats.
Robert Groff, Assistant Vice President of Underwriting for Philadelphia Insurance Company
Moving to virtual learning, even on a hybrid model, has proven challenging. The first hurdle schools had to overcome was guaranteeing all students had access to the internet and a computer. The second hurdle was guaranteeing a safe connection between student and teacher.
"There has definitely been a bigger emphasis placed on cyber security," Groff said.
Protecting students' personal information is paramount to keeping that virtual connection secure during online learning. But, Groff added, personal information isn't the only vulnerability students can face.
"Schools needs to be cognizant of the potential for sexual abuse via online learning," he said.
Not all abuse requires touch. "Children and teens can still be groomed and manipulated into sexual activity through online communication applications," Groff explained.
The lack of supervision that virtual learning encompasses has the potential to lead individuals to coerce younger students into sharing explicit photos or videos. That is why "schools need to make sure they have written policies and procedures in place," Groff said.
These policies and procedures must outline expectations the school has for its staff, parents, faculty and students throughout the virtual learning experience.
2) Children within specialized learning programs are at risk of falling behind.
With many students having to learn virtually, Groff said there is a potential risk of a rise in Individualized education program (IEP) claims.
Not every student is able to learn solely through virtual means, he explained. There are students with special needs — physical or mental — that may require a more hands-on approach to learning.
"IEPs are required under the Individuals with Disability Education Act. That includes time spent on physical therapy or occupational therapy, which can't as easily be done virtually," Groff said.
He added that this is one of the most common questions he's been hearing: How can schools continue to educate students who require this level of assistance?
The American Academy of Pediatrics has already begun to review what kind of impact a virtual learning space could have on students. "The Academy reports lengthy time away from school and associated interruption of supportive services often results in social isolation, making it difficult for schools to identify and address important learning deficits."
"How can schools continue to deliver on those IEPs?" Groff said. "We want to keep kids on the right path to achieving their IEP goals, but if virtual does not work, it could open the schools up to potential claims for not servicing these students."
3) Staffing changes made during the pandemic could leave schools vulnerable.
The switch to virtual learning has also, unfortunately, led to a lesser need for as many faculty and staff in schools. Layoffs and furloughs have been a part of the COVID-19 process for many schools, and such drastic changes in employment can lead to potential employment practices liability claims.
"There are always risks created from decisions around mass layoffs or furloughs," Groff said. Schools must review their processes surrounding layoffs and furloughs in order to remain fair. Without careful thought or planning, they could be facing wrongful termination or discrimination employment practice liability (EPL) claims.
"Schools should consult with their attorney on any significant layoffs or furloughs," Groff suggested.
On the other end, some schools might find themselves in a teacher shortage during the pandemic. According to Groff, "Older teachers, who fall into the pandemic's most vulnerable group, may not return to the school until such time as there is a vaccine available."
The National Center for Education statistics show that 23% of the teaching workforce is between the ages of 50 and 59, while 7% are older than 60. That could lead to a significant drop in available teachers should they elect to stay at home during the current uncertain times.
What Every School Should Be Thinking About During Uncertain Times
Every industry has been impacted by the pandemic in one way or another, but for schools, the drastic change in how students are educated could leave lasting marks long after a vaccine is created.
The team at Philadelphia Insurance Company knows how important it is for schools to get a firm grip on the risks growing ever-more prevalent during the virus. "We're looking at it from a risk control perspective," explained Groff. "We've compiled resources that are available to our insureds on our website."
These resources provide direction for schools. There is information on everything from conducting remote IEP lessons to protecting students in a virtual environment.
PHLY's assistance doesn't stop with guidelines. They are actively working with insureds to better develop and elevate protocols schools already have in place.
"We've developed an application that evaluates these protocols to see if there are any recommendations that should be implemented," Groff said.
"It's critically important that schools have an oversight team or a coordinator available as they resume operations in whatever capacity that looks like. They need to be prepared to implement CDC protocols for safety, as well as their own mitigation measures to protect their students and staff."
This article was produced by the R&I Brand Studio
a unit of the advertising department of Risk & Insurance
in collaboration with Philadelphia Insurance Companies.
The editorial staff of Risk & Insurance had no role
in its preparation.
Philadelphia Insurance Companies (PHLY) offers product-specific resources, alliances, and service capabilities to achieve a multi-faceted approach to risk management, including safety program development, site audits, and training (including interactive web-based training). We offer a wide range of products and value-added services at financial terms to be agreed upon to help you achieve your risk management goals.