ISSUE OF THE MONTH: CELEBRATING OUR GRADUATES IN THE MIDST OF THE CORONAVIRUS

06/29/20

The effects of COVID-19 (Coronavirus) have been undeniable and will leave a lasting impression on us all. Specifically, this school year presents extraordinary challenges to school districts, which directly impacts employees, students, and families. Although many of these challenges are addressed, others are more complicated. For many, the 2020 graduation ceremonies are a pivotal part of student life that may be changed by COVID-19, but the virus also provides an opportunity for districts to reimagine celebrations in a number of ways.  We consider several alternatives to the traditional graduation ceremony that school districts may choose to implement for their 2020 graduates and hope that everyone shares in the joy that this momentous occasion brings. 

In-Person Social-Distancing Ceremony

A social distancing graduation allows for an in-person ceremony that utilizes social distancing procedures to protect the health of all attendees. In selecting this option, a school district may conduct its graduation ceremony at the local school stadium or at a local venue and proactively implement measures to preserve the maximum amount of personal space for the duration of the event. This option preserves the familiarity of the traditional graduation ceremony and may be attractive for smaller school districts that are able to effectively ensure social distancing between attendees.  Districts using this option should consider limiting event tickets, effectively communicating social distancing guidelines (seating placement, hand sanitizing, mask usage, etc.), and implementing day-of plans to ensure that the guidelines are upheld.

Drive-By Ceremony

A drive-by graduation ceremony is an option that limits social interactions while still allowing graduating students to “walk” on stage and receive their diplomas. Students are assigned a specific time to arrive at the school when they are instructed to enter the school, walk the stage as if participating in a traditional ceremony, and issued their diplomas. To limit social interactions, school districts may allow students a limited number of guests that may accompany them to the ceremony and offer a complete recording of the ceremony at a later date that may be shared with loved ones.

Drive-Up Ceremony

A drive-up ceremony offers graduating students an opportunity to be recognized in person without physically exiting their vehicles and “walking” to receive their diplomas. Here, students are assigned a specific time to arrive at the school, when they are congratulated for their accomplishments by staff members without exiting their vehicles. Schools utilizing this option may use yard signs or similar props to commemorate the accomplishments of the graduates.

Online Ceremony

An online graduation ceremony recognizes graduates remotely. Graduates may send photos, videos, and short speeches that are compiled into an online presentation by staff. Further recognitions such as scholarship recipients and outstanding achievements may be acknowledged virtually within the presentation. The presentation may be shared with students and their guardians, so they can celebrate their accomplishments. Additionally, school districts may elect to follow this type of ceremony with an auto procession when the family can drive up to the school, and staff may cheer the graduates as they are awarded diplomas.

Combination Ceremony

A combination graduation ceremony is a blend of a restricted graduation ceremony (one of the former options) that is offered to students now while later committing to providing an in-person ceremony at a time when social-distancing restrictions are relaxed.

Reschedule Ceremony

Lastly, school districts may elect to reschedule their 2020 graduation ceremonies until a later date, such as August or September 2020, to have a traditional in-person graduation. School districts considering this option should remain conscious of the uncertain future of COVID-19 as they plan graduation ceremonies and share the need for flexibility from all involved moving forward.

There is no perfect solution to the impact that COVID-19 has on 2020 graduation ceremonies. However, school districts may offer an efficient alternative to relieve the frustrations of many graduating students and their families during this time. As the school year comes to an end, school districts that are unsure of how they will address these concerns should consider creating a task force to discuss their graduation ceremony options and decide on the most effective route given their specific conditions. It is strongly urged that all graduation ceremony decisions are made considering the impact that each option will have on graduating students, their families, and their communities.  Also consider virtual options, recordings, and other electronic ways to share your district’s love for your students that may be combined with flyers, posters, and other creative ways to highlight the class of 2020.

White & Story wishes all 2020 graduates success, and our thoughts and prayers are with their families during this time as we navigate the uncertainty of COVID-19 together.

Print This

LEGAL ALERT: TITLE VII PROTECTIONS FOR EMPLOYEES EXPANDED BY U.S. SUPREME COURT

06/29/20

On June 15, 2020, the United States Supreme Court (SCOTUS) ruled that the 1964 Civil Rights Act (Title VII) protects members of the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer or questioning) community against workplace discrimination based on sex in the Bostock v. Clayton County case. Accordingly, school district officials, employees, and representatives should familiarize themselves with the updated protections to ensure compliance.

Title VII and the Civil Rights Act

Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act is a federal law that provides protection(s) from employment discrimination. Specifically, this law prohibits discrimination in the recruiting, hiring, and other employment actions on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, and religion. Furthermore, the protections within Title VII apply to employers in both private and public sectors that have 15 or more employees – including school districts. Employment policies and practices may be discriminatory under Title VII if they are based on disparate treatment or disparate impact, which means that if an employment practice or policy causes workplace discrimination against a protected class within Title VII, then the policy may still be deemed to be a Title VII violation.

Bostock v. Clayton County

Bostock v. Clayton County deals with three related employment cases involving employers that allegedly fired long-time employees for being homosexual or transgender. SCOTUS combined all three cases into one decision and delivered a massive 33-page opinion discussing the existing protections that LGBTQ people have against employment discrimination and, specifically, how Title VII’s ban on sex discrimination in the workplace protects against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

In each of the cases, the parties disagreed on whether sexual orientation and gender identity are covered under the ban against sex discrimination. Historically, there has been debate as to the applicability of Title VII protections in employment discrimination cases on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. The decision of Bostock v. Clayton County provides clarity by objectively stating that Title VII does indeed protect employees from workplace sex discrimination. Specifically, SCOTUS held that, “An employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender violates Title VII.”

What this means for School Districts

The SCOTUS opinion will have a long-term impact on employers who are subject to Title VII. Bostock v. Clayton provides clarity for any confusion as to the applicability of Title VII protections in employment discrimination cases on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Accordingly, it is extremely important for school district officials to ensure that their current policies and employment procedures adhere to these protections. Any current policies and procedures that do not effectively incorporate appropriate protections against sex discrimination in the workplace should be updated and modified to comply with Title VII and this ruling.

If you have any questions about this legal alert or the Title VII implications from this SCOTUS decision, please feel free to contact White & Story.

Print This

LEGAL ALERT: RESUMING ATHLETICS DURING COVID-19

06/29/20

In light of the current pandemic, the South Carolina High School League (SCHSL) recently provided guidelines for districts to consider as athletic programs resume.  Several districts have contacted us about the implementation of these guidelines.  Set forth below are items we recommend districts address in conjunction with Phase 1 of the guidelines.  This list is not exhaustive, and we encourage each district to determine how its financial resources and its number of students will impact the district’s ability to mitigate the health and legal risks associated with the resumption of athletics.

  1. Requiring completed Assumption of Risk forms for each sport and each athlete/parent or guardian.
  2. Performing daily health screening for each athlete, coach, and other staff member by a health care professional or designated employee.
  3. Performing daily temperature checks for each athlete, coach, and staff member by a healthcare professional or designated employee.
  4. Documenting and logging all daily screenings and temperature checks.
  5. Creating a checklist that must be completed by a coach or staff member daily for each student prior to athletic participation.
  6. Mandating that student athletes notify their coaches or other appropriate staff member of any changes in their health.
  7. Requiring student athletes to bring a personal water bottle and wear a face mask to all practices.
  8. Limiting personal contact among students such as huddles, high-fives, handshaking, fist-bumping, and chest-bumping while also being mindful districts cannot ban personal contact in one sport but permit it in others to avoid violating Title IX.
  9. Staggering the start and end times for team workouts to avoid having large numbers of athletes in the same location at the same time.
  10. Disallowing or limiting spectators to observing from specific locations away from students.
  11. Sanitizing shared athletic uniforms and gear.

It is important districts proactively prepare for the uncertainty that is approaching. Unfortunately, it is likely lawsuits will be filed in cases where a student or staff member contracts COVID-19 while participating in athletics.  While most of these suits will be unsuccessful for various reasons, districts should be aware national trends indicate that insurers may not cover the defense of these cases.  Accordingly, districts should implement proper protocols and maintain the associated documentation to defend against COVID-19 suits.

As an initial step, we have drafted an Assumption of Risk form for your review and use as you see fit.  If your district needs additional assistance as you prepare for the upcoming athletic season, White & Story is available to develop documents and answer any questions you may have.

Print This

LEGAL ALERT- CORONAVIRUS: DISTANCE LEARNING AND WORKING REMOTELY

05/06/20

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

 

Print This
First Page ← Older posts