The recent COVID-19 (Coronavirus) outbreak has disrupted the entire nation, demanding immediate modifications to limit transmission of the virus. Throughout our country, educators are adapting daily to provide lessons and instruction to our students. Consequently, many school districts will turn to distance learning to continue serving the academic needs of students, which creates its own set of challenges with regard to working remotely and establishing expectations for teachers and others who perform their duties from home.

The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA)

The FMLA entitles eligible employees of covered employers to take unpaid, job-protected leave for specified family and medical reasons. It ensures the continuation of group health insurance coverage under the same terms and conditions as if the employee had not taken leave. FMLA applies only to “workdays,” and only the amount of leave that was actually taken may be counted against an employee’s FMLA leave entitlement.

Distance learning during the COVID-19 closures presents a unique situation for teachers who are still required to complete their job duties by working from home. Thus, while teachers are not physically working in schools, they are still “working,” and FMLA assistance is not appropriate while they are bound to their responsibilities.  We expect that school districts will encounter questions from those employees who were already approved for leave under the FMLA prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and also those who seek protection under the newly enacted Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which we tackled in our last Legal Alert.

Support Strategies

Distance learning will be a new experience for many educators and students alike and will require patience as everyone adapts to the challenges it presents.  However, proactively identifying potential concerns and strategically addressing these challenges will assist in fostering a positive experience. Below are several strategies that supervisors can use to support personnel and promote effective collaboration.

Spell Out Goals and Rules

The COVID-19 outbreak provides an opportunity for leaders to revisit the goals, rules, and expectations for staff. Some teachers are now tasked with instructing their students remotely, which consists of a variety of responsibilities such as preparing work materials for students, providing online instruction, and responding to questions from parents and students via email and other platforms. Clarification of  individual and wholistic expectations is essential to a mutual understanding of responsibilities rather than assuming  expectations are “business as usual” for employees as they work from home.

Emphasize Personal Interactions

As a result of social distancing requirements, many individuals are currently confined to their homes for most of the day.  Distance learning supports our academic goals by offering an option for continued educational progression; however, numerous individuals may feel disconnected or lonesome, which can lead to lower productivity and engagement.  This is particularly true of individuals that seek reinforcement from their supervisors and building-level administrators. While it is easy to focus on tasks at hand, it is crucial to be mindful of the importance of personal interactions. Small interpersonal interactions that typically might be overlooked may now be pivotal opportunities to motivate teachers and students.  School leaders can continue to have a presence among their team members by hosting Zoom conferences, group chats, and telephone calls.  Scheduling regular meeting times, keeping others’ needs in mind, and humanizing communications are all efforts that can assist in establishing a genuine interaction with others. 

Supervisors should also remind those working remotely to be cognizant that parents, more than ever, are in frequent communication (think e-mail and telephone) seeking answers from teachers for the questions that arise as they help their children with online instruction.  We have been advised that parent advocates and constituents are communicating with the S.C. Department of Education that teachers are not being responsive – be on the look out for this challenge!

Normalize New Work Environments

Working from home involves unique challenges, such as new distractions and a higher potential for misunderstandings. Transparency with yourself and others is essential in establishing a productive work environment. It is important to acknowledge that many of us are working in non-traditional workspaces and must be flexible with challenges that may be associated with this new reality. During this time of inherent confusion, focus on creating a favorable work environment for yourself and limiting assumptions regarding the workspaces of others will be beneficial in remaining focused and committed to your work.

COVID-19 has undeniably disrupted our norms, subsequently leading to an assortment of challenges. However, this disruption provides an opportunity for schools across the nation to respond effectively by utilizing innovative platforms and continuing to meet the academic needs of students. This is the ideal time to reestablish expectations, explore new methods of instruction, and acknowledge our appreciation for one another. White & Story continues to monitor COVID-19 and related issues and will address the impacts of COVID-19 on the IDEA and special education later this week.

The U.S. Department of Labor continues to provide real time information concerning the new Families First Coronavirus Response Act.  You can access that information along with a new Q&A here: https://www.dol.gov/agencies/whd/pandemic/ffcra-questions