Business as unusual in the age of Covid-19
By Lea Filippi of Sedor, Wendlandt, Evans & Filippi, LLC
On March 20, Governor Dunleavy issued a COVID-19 health mandate 8.1 which directed that all public and private schools be closed to students through May 1. Like all Alaskans around the state, school districts are faced with sorting out what must be done during these trying times and how to go about doing it.
Resources that can provide guidance and valuable information to school administrators during this time include state and local public health authorities.
Each of the health mandates issued by Governor Dunleavy, DHSS Commissioner Crum, and Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink are available at: https://gov.alaska.gov/home/covid19-healthmandates/
Updates including epidemiological information are also available from DHSS at: http://dhss.alaska.gov/dph/Epi/id/Pages/COVID-19/default.aspx
The State of Alaska Department of Education and Early Development had dedicated space on its website for information regarding the rapidly evolving COVID-19 situation: https://education.alaska.gov/safeschools/infectiousdisease
The Center for Disease Control is also providing information specifically for schools and childcare programs: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/schools-childcare/index.html
Other federal agencies are also publishing information specific to addressing the impact of COVID-19, such as the Department of Labor: https://www.dol.gov/coronavirus
As school districts grapple with the practical impacts of COVID-19, they continue to have legal obligations to their communities, their students, and their staff.
Even during this pandemic school districts as public entities continue to be bound by the Open Meetings Act, AS 44.62.310-.312 which protects the public right to know by requiring that meetings of public governing bodies, like school boards, be open to the public and that the body provide reasonable notice of its meetings. School districts typically have bylaws or board policies which address matters such as quorum requirements, when Board members may meet by telephone or videoconference rather than physically gathering, as well as policies regarding how special meetings can be called, noticed, and conducted. Districts should remain mindful of these provisions while making decisions about how best to conduct business as the COVID-19 pandemic necessitates limitations on groups of people physically gathering.
At the federal level, the response to COVID-19 has included enacting the Families First Coronavirus Response Act which takes effect April 2. This legislation has several components.
The Families First Coronavirus Response Act includes temporary changes to the Family Medical Leave Act. This Act allows eligible employees to take up to 12 weeks of a new category called emergency FMLA leave to care for a minor child whose school is closed or whose childcare provider is unavailable due to a public health emergency. Employers covered by this Act are required to pay employees taking emergency FMLA a portion of their regular wages if that emergency leave extends beyond 10 days. The Act also calls for paid sick leave to be provided to employees who are subject to a COVID-19 quarantine or isolation order, have been advised by a health care provider to self-quarantine are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and seeking a diagnosis or are caring for another individual who has been quarantined.
Another key component of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act is modifying rules regarding school meals and child nutrition programs. With added flexibility, many school districts have been able to help meet the nutritional needs of students using mechanisms like making grab-and-go meals available to students during this period of school closures.
As communities across Alaska respond to this pandemic, school districts should strive, as Garrison Keillor would say, to do well, do good work, and keep in touch. But not too close of touch. Leave at least six feet of social distance.
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