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Let’s Talk Turkey: What Recent Stay-At-Home Advisories Do and Don’t Mean for Schools

Coronavirus K-12 Education

With COVID-19 rates rising and warnings about risks of holiday and family gatherings abounding, it is no surprise that state and local leaders are looking for ways to flatten the curve as we head into Thanksgiving break. In the past few days, we have heard from the Illinois Department of Public HealthCook Countyand the City of Chicago through advisory statements asking the public to only leave home for essential activities through the end of November and into next month. Although the recommendations are relatively straightforward for many employers, the advisory statements raise more questions than they answer for schools, colleges, and universities. Here are the key elements of the Illinois, Cook County, and City of Chicago advisories of which school leaders should be aware now. 

  • Recommendations, not Requirements. At this time, the recommendations are identified as “advisory” in nature rather than legal mandates. The advisories in a sense are seeking the cooperation of the public, including employers and employees, to slow the spread of COVID-19 and avoid mandatory stay-at-home orders.  
  • Stay at HomeThe Illinois and Cook County advisories ask people to stay at home as much as possible for the next three weeks, and the City of Chicago does the same for the next 30 days. The advisories ask the public to leave only for essential activities like school, work that cannot be done at home, COVID-19 testing, and visiting pharmacies and grocery stores.  
  • Travel Guidance. The recommendations specifically identify travel and small gatherings that mix households as activities to avoid, with an apparent nod to warnings from sources such as Anthony Fauci that travel and get-togethers at Thanksgiving could be calamitous. On top of this, Cook County’s Department of Public Health recently directed all individuals entering into suburban Cook County from outside Suburban Cook County should quarantine for 14 days. Given the risk that students and staff exposed to the virus at home or at gatherings outside of work may bring the virus with them when they return to work or schoolor be required to quarantine even if they do not get sick, students and staff should be encouraged to heed the public health guidance and not travel at all. If students travel, they should be assigned to remote learning for any quarantine period. With staff, the options are remote work, in-person work, or use of benefit time during the quarantine period. Making the choice between these options can have serious consequences, so it is essential to contact legal counsel before deciding. 
  • Work at Home. The advisories ask employers and employees to work cooperatively to allow employees to work from home. Both IDPH and Cook County state that their “goal is to reduce transmission as we head into the holidays so businesses and schools can remain open.” 
  • Schools are Essential. Educational institutions (including K-12 schools) are essential businesses under Executive Order 2020-32. As noted above, the stated purpose of the recent advisories is to slow the spread of COVID-19 so that schools can “remain open.” Accordingly, we do not believe that schools operating in a hybrid model need to transition to full remote learning or take an adaptive pause as a result of the recent stay-at-home recommendations. 
  • Are Teachers Essential at School if Kids Are HomeAs noted above, the recommendations strongly advise employers to allow employees to work from home when feasible. If students and teachers are currently working and learning from home, your district or school can simply continue its plan. The tougher question is what impact, if any, the advisories have for those schools requiring staff to teach from school while students learn remotely. While allowing staff to work from home is not now required, you should consider a myriad of factors in making the decision. We recommend working closely with legal counsel to assess the right decision for your school or district.    
  • Back to Virtual Board Meetings? Governing boards have long had the choice to meet remotely during the COVID-19 crisis, an option that became law in June. But should those meeting in person reconsider their strategy considering the advisories? The recent recommendations from the IDPH, Cook County, and the City of Chicago do not require an end to in-person board meetingsOn the other hand, recent statements by the Governor, statewide and local limitations on the number of people who should gather in one place, and the advisories focus on limiting all non-essential in-person activity mean some boards may want to consider holding meetings virtually. Virtual meetings are appropriate even if employees and/or students are still present in school, particularly because the advisories recognize the essential nature of in-person learning but not the essential nature of in-person board meetings. 

Now that we have stuffed you full of information, rest easyenjoy your 2020 version of Thanksgiving, whatever that may be, and know that your partners at Franczek will continue keeping you updated on any new developments.