Coronavirus (COVID-19) Guidance for Schools

By Megan Mann, NAIS Legal Counsel

Last updated: April 1, 2020

Important Reminder

This situation is evolving by the hour. Every school is struggling with what decisions are the “right” ones to make and, in many instances, we may not know what is “right” until we have the benefit of hindsight. Even then, we may not know. With that in mind, the “right” decision is one that considers public health guidance, the law, your school’s mission and culture, and your community’s safety. What is “right” for one school may not be right for another. Please keep this in mind as you review feedback about what other schools are doing.

About this Document

NAIS is working daily to bring the independent school community together to exchange ideas and resources, provide additional guidance, and respond to the many thoughtful inquiries posed by schools across the country. We are updating this document regularly with select news and federal guidance, resources, and independent school strategies and trends. Additionally, we are updating our coronavirus resource page regularly: Coronavirus (COVID-19) Resources for Independent Schools

Please note: The following information does not constitute legal advice, medical advice, or an endorsement of any service or product referenced herein. 

Rather, this resource reflects current school practices and concerns we’ve gleaned from the field, along with general guidance and ideas for consideration. As always, applicable law and government mandates, school policies and contracts, the advice of the school’s lawyer, and your school’s mission, culture, and community needs should ultimately guide your process and decisions—and, of course, the safety of the community, which we know is and should be your paramount concern. 

With that foundation laid, this document provides guidance on the following topics.  

Please note: We will continually update this document as the situation evolves. While changes may be made throughout the sections to reflect new issues, trends, etc., we will endeavor to mark new sections and particular updates in this table of contents, as well as in the sections themselves.  

The Latest: News, FAQs, and Trends

Updated! (4/1) Latest News

  • New SBA PPP loan program information: On March 31, the U.S. Department of the Treasury released details about the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), including the application and information for borrowers. If there is any discrepancy between the information provided by Treasury and in this guidance document, follow the information provided by Treasury in conjunction with advice from your counsel. Schools can begin to apply for loans on April 3. Demand is expected to be high, so schools are advised to contact their financial advisor and lender as soon as possible. For more information, see this NAIS advisory.
  • DOL Issues Rule on Paid Sick and Family Leave: On April 1—the day the new law goes into effect—the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) issued a rule further outlining the rights and obligations regarding paid sick leave and paid family leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA). In addition to the rule, which is the formal legal interpretation of how these new leave requirements operate, the DOL also has fact sheets, an extensive Q&A, and the sample “poster” that must be sent to employees informing them of their rights under this law.
  • CDC Issues Domestic Travel Advisory for New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut (March 28)
  • CDC issues new/updated guidance: Children and Coronavirus: Tips to Keep Children Healthy While School Is Out (March 28)
  • NAIS has an incredible lineup of webinars to support you through this challenging time. Find topics, schedules, and registration links here. Legal Team webinars include:
    • Weekly Trend Report Webinar Series: Join us every Tuesday from 1–1:45 p.m. ET for a webinar for NAIS leadership. Each week NAIS will provide an overview of the top issues facing independent schools during this critical time. We will tackle some of the most frequently asked questions heard in the previous week and share strategies schools across the country are putting in place as they navigate the coronavirus crisis. Register here for the April 7, session.
  • President Trump extends national social-distancing guidelines through April 30.
  • Congress Passes $2 Trillion Stimulus Package: Congress passed a $2 trillion bill—the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act—that includes several items of interest to independent schools, including funding for K-12 education, enhanced unemployment benefits, and small business loans. For more information, please see the Legislative and Regulatory Updates section. 
  • Zoombombing: Classes and meetings are moving online, and the trolls are moving in.  Interruptions and—what’s worse—graphic content are ruining online learning experiences. Read more here, and, please, stay hypervigilant for the students.

Updated! (3/31) This Week's Top Questions and Trends

In no particular order, here are some trends and trending FAQs:

  1. Are there any immediate steps schools should take with regard to the newly passed CARES Act?
    1. Short Take: Schools interested in the small business loan aspects of this bill should consult with their financial adviser and bank as soon as possible for more information regarding the process. While the bill expands the number of financial institutions that can issue these loans, you should check with your usual bank/lender to see if they will be participating. The U.S. Department of the Treasury just released information for borrowers, including the application. Please see this link and speak to your lender as soon as possible. Schools can apply for a loan starting April 3. For more information, see this NAIS advisory.
  2. Will receiving any benefit or funding under the CARES Act make my school a recipient of federal financial assistance (FFA) and therefore trigger coverage under federal laws from which the school was previously exempt?
    1. Short Take: NAIS is diligently working to provide more concrete answers for schools. Guidance on this incredibly new program is limited at the moment; however, we are focusing on this issue for our schools and will provide additional resources as they become available. The following is not legal advice and is subject to change at any moment. We recommend schools contact legal counsel for analysis specific to their school. Our best—though not definitive—analysis at this time based on the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) regulations is that participation in the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) generally will not make a school a recipient of FFA. We are working to confirm this analysis with appropriate federal officials. Additionally, many schools have asked about the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). While student privacy is of the utmost importance, FERPA is only connected to funding from the U.S. Department of Education, which is not involved in the PPP program. Lastly, many schools have inquired about the Education Stabilization Funds. These funds will operate similarly to how equitable services function under regular federal education programs. For further analysis of this and other issues relating to the CARES Act, please read this NAIS advisory, which will be updated as new guidance gets released.
  3. I tried to join the NAIS Legislative Update Webinar and could not. May I get the slides and will there be another session?
    • Short Take: We are sorry for any issues. Please email for a copy of the slides. We are working on getting answers to your questions from the first session and are hosting a follow-up FAQ session Monday, April 6. Participation is limited, so register today
  4. Are we allowed to record classes and meetings?
    1. Short Take: Generally, yes, but you may need to get permission from parents (and perhaps even students). Even if you do not have to get permission under the law, you may want to do so. It’s always good to be above-board about these things. Communicate to parents any limitations of use of the recordings. For more information see the Recording Classes and Meetings section.
  5. Should we have 1:1 meetings with students?
    1. Short Take: Each school needs to make a decision about what learning programs and services will work best for its community. We understand that certain professionals, including attorneys, have advocated strongly either for or against 1:1 meetings. It is our position at NAIS that it is extremely important to maintain connections and support for our students in this stressful time, so long as the school feels it can do so in a meaningful and safe way.
  6. Parent Surveys. NAIS continues to hear about myriad ways to support parents and promote engagement. One trending approach is to send a simple survey to parents to assess the success of online learning programs (from the parents’ perspective) and to get parent feedback on evolving issues. We have also heard about parent Zoom calls and other smart strategies.
  7. Why do your vendor contracts require you to obtain parental consent for students under age 13 to use school-approved websites and other online services?
    • Short Take: While our nonprofit schools are not subject to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), many of the vendors you work with are subject to it. While compliance is their responsibility (not yours!) and schools can provide consent on behalf of parents in most situations, some vendors are also requiring schools through the vendor contract to get parents’ consent. It would be wise to review this issue and consult with your legal counsel (preferably one with COPPA experience). For more information on this topic, please refer to our Copyright and COPPA in the Time of COVID section.
  8. What are schools saying about hiring?
    • Short Take: A variety of things, from hiring freezes to “business as usual” (but online). Remote recruitment is definitely trending. Please review the Hiring and Contract Renewal Season section for more information.
  9. Are we still required to track attendance?
  10. Google says my school is closed! It’s not—it’s running remotely! What do I do?
    1. Short Take: Check your status online by doing a Google search and checking for a red status banner (often located in a box on the right side of the screen). If it lists “Closed” or “Temporarily Closed,” we recommend you follow the steps listed here. Ensure that hours are reflected accurately and push for a more accurate representation of the situation, especially during this critical enrollment time.
  11. Are other schools planning for closures through the end of April or even May?
    1. Short Take: Yes. In fact, since the original publication of this section, many have been forced to close the physical plant through the remainder of the school year.  We recommend all schools at least consider this in their planningare. We recommend schools at least consider this in their planning.
  12. How are other schools handling the payment of employees who cannot work when the school is closed, or who work in a diminished capacity?
    1. Short Take: Most schools we’ve spoken to are doing their level best to make and keep employees “whole” as long as possible. We’ve heard about a variety of plans here, many of which are being worked out at the moment. Please visit the Employee Considerations section for more information.
  13. How are other schools handling tuition in light of these changes?
    1. Short Take: Currently most of the schools reporting to us are still collecting full tuition. However, a number of factors impact this decision, which will likely vary among schools. We discuss this in slightly more detail in the Tuition and Fees section, as well as in our Weekly Trend Report Webinar. Register here
  14. What are schools communicating about COVID-19 cases in the community?
    1. Short Take: While some schools reported they still are collecting and disseminating general information (not individual names) to the school community, others are shifting or preparing to shift away from this trend, especially after the first or second report. For more on this, please review the Community Letter Trends section.  
  15. We need to learn from one another, but should we be concerned about antitrust laws?
    1. Short Take: The following does not constitute legal advice; please consult with your attorney. We cannot imagine our schools navigating these murky and uncharted waters without one another. Community is essential right now. However, while you may share ideas, stories, and strategies, please be sure to comply fully with federal and state antitrust laws. This includes refraining from discussing topics related to any matters in which schools ordinarily compete against each other—such as questions of tuition and the pay or employment of staff. If your conversation begins to veer into anything that might be construed to raise any antitrust risks, please change the topic immediately. If you are unable to change the topic, please leave the conversation and let your legal counsel know. In particular, please avoid coming to any agreements on such matters. 
  16. What are other schools doing about fundraising?
    1. Short Take: As with most of these topics, the answer seems to vary greatly. Some of our schools are proceeding with a “business as usual” mentality for advancement efforts, while others are temporarily shutting down all fundraising communications. Of course, there are a variety of “in between” positions. For example, a few schools reported taking the temperature of their donor community and making a responsive plan; others are conducting targeted outreach to key donors to assist in this time of crisis; while still others are moving as many efforts online as possible (online galas!). One association executive suggested now could be the time to focus on grant writing to support technological infrastructures, thinking current conditions provide a chance to explore whether there are corporations interested in supporting continuous learning. This may also be an opportunity to focus fundraising efforts toward emergency (and longer-term) support for students and families who are struggling. For example, one higher ed institution recently posted on social media that if the community is looking to help at this time, they could support the school’s student emergency aid and assistance fund. 
  17. Do we need online learning policies?
    1. Short Take: Ideally, yes, but we all know this is “survival mode” time, so let’s focus on what you need in order to set your school and families up for some basic successes during remote learning times. For more information, please visit the Online Learning Policies and Protocols section.
  18. The fear that enthusiasm will wane. As schools move to remote measures, employees and families appear to be rallying around efforts to the best of their ability. However, we have heard from some of our international friends that this enthusiasm wave may reach a crest, which means we will see its trough follow. How do we avoid a deep wane in enthusiasm? Check in with employees and families, learn from peers, pursue innovation.  We may not be able to sustain all-time-highs all of the time, but thinking in advance about this issue can help schools be proactive in their measures.
  19. Limiting campus to “essential” personnel (or no personnel at all!). When we first started seeing school closures, campus remained accessible to nearly all employees. In fact, many schools operated as though it was “business as usual” for employees, who were expected to attend (even if only to teach online classes). However, with the spread of the virus intensifying, the latest trend has been for schools to close campus to all employees, or all but “essential” personnel. For an outline of considerations for schools taking this approach, please review the Access to Campus section. 
  20. Leadership information overload. We hear you. There are more articles, webinars, and random information sources than anyone can count. Plus, you have your actual job to conduct in a time of total and complete chaos. Have you considered retooling one of your currently underutilized staff members to track webinars and other items to help you decide what to attend? Could you use a team member to assist with news analysis?
  21. A focus on educating and caring for the “whole child” during a remote learning period. For more information, please see the Educating and Supporting the Whole Child section.
  22. An interest in “getting creative” with online learning, to avoid rote video lectures that lack student engagement. We are so impressed with the focus on innovation, even in a time of crisis. In addition to online yoga, art, and music classes, we are also hearing that some schools are injecting more student choice and voice into their online programming. We’ve heard from schools that have staff post lessons as “electives” that students can weave into their day (e.g., a business officer records a lesson on sports statistics; the maker-space teacher designs lessons using common household items). Student voice and autonomy can be a great way to enhance engagement!
  23. A wave of empathy and concern for the class of 2020 losing its senior year.

School Spotlight: Stories, Successes, and Strategies 

We love hearing your stories! Thank you for sending them, so we may share them with others. Please note that NAIS has developed a Sharing Solutions platform for schools to share stories, strategies, documents, lesson plans, and other resources to support one another through these challenging times. Also, remember that NAIS Connect is a powerful place to support each otherFor additional stories, please visit the School Spotlight Series Archive section.

One School’s Focus on Parent Support

Thank you to Moorestown Friends School (NJ) for sharing its special focus on parent support and engagement. This is a challenging time for everyone—especially our parents and guardians. Many feel pressure to continue their high professional performance at home, while navigating distance learning and additional childcare duties. Independent schools have always excelled at parent partnership, engagement, and support. In mid-March, faced with this growing crisis, the head of school at Moorestown Friends worked with her team to create an online resource for parents. It tackles a broad array of topics and resources intended to support parents during this challenging time (including health and wellness tips for setting up an at-home workspace). Thank you for sharing this excellent idea and resource with the community!

One School’s Online Storytime Connects the Community

We received this from  Episcopal Collegiate School, and we are so grateful for positive submissions such as these: 

The Lower School teachers are missing their students. In an effort to connect during this time of separation, they are recording themselves reading children’s books to their students from home. Their dogs and babies joined them and the results are precious! The students are loving Story Time at the E! and the teachers keep sending more stories. Connections are so important right now and this playlist has warmed a lot of hearts around town!

Federal Legislation and Guidance

Updated! (4/1) Legislative and Regulatory Updates

  • Congress Passes $2 Trillion Stimulus Package: Congress passed a $2 trillion bill—the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act—that includes several items of interest to independent schools, including funding for K-12 education, enhanced unemployment benefits, and small business loans. For initial information on the entire bill, schools may access this breakdown here. NAIS has also developed this analysis document, which will be updated as additional guidance becomes available. The U.S. Department of the Treasury just released information for borrowers, including the application. Please see this link and speak to your lender as soon as possible. Schools can apply for a loan starting April 3.
  • Coronavirus Aid Legislation with Paid Leave Aid: Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (H.R. 6201 or FFCRA), which the president immediately signed. The bill provides funding for coronavirus testing, flexibility for school nutrition programs, increased unemployment insurance, and emergency paid sick leave and paid family medical leave. The emergency paid sick leave and paid family medical leave provisions apply to employers with fewer than 500 employees and go into effect April 1, 2020. Any leave requested or taken prior to April 1, is not subject to the requirements of the bill nor is it eligible for the related tax credits. The law’s provisions apply to eligible leave taken between April 1 and December 31, 2020. On April 1—the day the new law goes into effect—the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) issued a rule further outlining the rights and obligations regarding paid sick leave and paid family leave under the FFCRA. In addition to the rule, which is the formal legal interpretation of how these new leave requirements operate, the DOL also has fact sheets, an extensive Q&A, and the sample “poster” that must be sent to employees informing them of their rights under this law. Read this NAIS advisory (which will be updated with new information as it is available) for a deeper analysis of what this bill means for employees and employers. 

Thank you to Whitney Silverman, NAIS staff attorney, for her constant and diligent attention to federal legislation and guidance for the benefit of our members. 

Updated! (3/31) U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Guidance

Other Federal Guidance, News, and Resources

  • Travel. The U.S. Department of State announced a level 4 travel warning for ALL international travel. According to the State Department, Americans should not travel abroad and if they are abroad, they should return immediately. Find the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s notice from March 11, here. (Foreign nationals who have been to one of 20+ European countries in the last 14 days will be prevented from boarding flights to the U.S. and denied entry to the U.S.)
  • The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued new FAQs regarding COVID-19 and the Americans with Disabilities Act. The EEOC reaffirmed the applicability of its 2009 pandemic guidance and explicitly said that employers can take their employees’ temperature. Schools that still are operational or have certain staff coming onto the school’s physical campus should review this document. 
  • The U.S. Department of Education published a Fact Sheet: Addressing the Risk of COVID-19 in Schools While Protecting the Civil Rights of Students.
  • The U.S. Departments of Labor and Health and Human Services released Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19.

School Closures and Distance Learning Measures (Short and Long Term)

  • EdWeek is tracking school closures. Find EdWeek’s map here
When we refer to these “closings,” we need to take time to understand this colloquial usage encompasses the following situations: a school closing temporarily or for a longer term as a result of exposure to the virus or to help the community limit infection rates; a school closing temporarily to regroup, prepare for online learning, and assess the situation while students are not present (and potentially contracting the virus and infecting others); and a school moving to online measures, referred to by schools as “online learning,” “remote learning,” “virtual learning,” or “distance learning.” For the purpose of this document, and to promote clarity in the field, “closure” shall refer only to a situation where the school is not providing services to students for a day or more. The other scenarios, where the physical plant is closed, but learning continues, shall be referred to as online, remote, virtual, or distance learning. For the purposes of clarity in messages, we recommend that schools clarify for families when school is “closed” or when there is a “campus closure.” Further, we recommend choosing one key descriptor for online learning (whether it be online, distance, remote, virtual, or other) and use that consistently in communications. 

If you are a school struggling with your next steps, you are not alone. These are unprecedented times. The comparison to SARS fails, given that COVID-19 is more contagious, not to mention that the education, information technology, and litigation landscapes are vastly different from 2002. How, then, are leadership teams supposed to know what next steps are the right ones? We can share with you the lenses through which we’ve seen this conundrum viewed:
  • Global health and responsibility: What choices are best for the global community?
  • School community: What choices are best for my school’s community?
The factors assessed include the age range of the students and employees; the makeup of the local community and environment; the status of the virus globally, nationally, and in the locale; the guidance of the CDC, WHO, federal/state/local government officials (including the local public health officials); the status of local public education; the school’s mission; the school’s information technology capabilities and online readiness; the bandwidth of staff and leadership to move forward with in-person learning or to go online; whether the school is boarding, in an urban or rural environment, etc. 

In some cases, what is best for both the school and public health is for the school to stay open (or, given the status of the disease in America, whether and when to reopen)

In other cases, the question of global and school needs align clearly to dictate an extended closure of the physical campus. Our heads of school are making tough decisions, in line with their missions, which consider the two frameworks listed above, as well as all of the factors thereunder. Many leaders are experiencing this dilemma in a deeply personal way. We encourage you all to turn to one another for support, to reach out for thoughts and sample letters on NAIS Connect, to call your neighbor school or friend you met at the Institute for New Heads. Learn from and support one another, while remembering that your neighbor’s choice may not be your own. As public guidance calls for increasingly isolating measures, we need community more than ever.

Additional Considerations When Contemplating a Campus Closure (or an Extension of an Existing One) 

  • Government mandates to close or to limit the number of attendees who may congregate
  • Other chool closures (public and independent schools)
  • Head of school/leadership and board of trustees plans/communications
    • Leadership on both levels should be planning for a closure; if closed already, they should be planning for the possibility of an extended closure 
  • Parent Communications
    • Communicate known plans, but not speculations
    • Build in flexibility; reserve the right to amend
  • Schooling options
    • Relative success of distance-learning measures
    • Whether summer months are an option for learning 
  • Student support
    • Whether students have adequate internet and devices for continued learning
    • The ability to support students with learning differences
    • The ability to support students’ health and well-being 
    • Other needs of economically vulnerable students 
  • Students from remote locations
    • Does it make sense to bring international students or students from other states back on campus this year?
  • Employee considerations
    • The ability to move forward when employees become ill
    • Or when employees need to focus on children or sick family members at home
Because our community’s safety is paramount, many school leaders decided to close school doors (and extend closures through the end of the school year) even without a government mandate. This decision should be made by the head of school and other school leadership designated with such authority, along with the board. NAIS recommends that, at a minimum, the head of school and board chair touch base about this topic sooner rather than later to determine what considerations would prompt a closure, extend a closure, and what preparations need to be made for either event.

Schools should be prepared to communicate with constituents as quickly as possible. Communications should project calm and confidence for the community to avoid causing panic. Provide information about what the school knows while avoiding promises (other than the commitment to safety) and build in flexibility for the school. As this is an evolving situation, the school’s plan may need to be nimble as well.

Additionally, as short-term closures potentially morph into longer shutdowns, schools are beginning to evaluate the long-term implications of COVID-19. This includes thinking about hiring needs for the upcoming year (some schools are instituting hiring freezes or pausing existing searches); preparing for potentially lower yields for next year or delayed return of enrollment agreements; reviewing potential losses from canceled/delayed fundraising events, rental income, room/board proration/refunds (if any), and other sources; analyzing overall investment strategy and preparing for a drop in endowment performance; and developing a strategy for a potential increase in financial aid request for next year as families continue to feel the economic brunt of the pandemic. 

Updated! (3/31) Access to Campus (Including Restrictions During Shelter-in-Place)

While some of our schools are still running fully functional campuses, many are limiting access to employees only, limiting access to “essential personnel” only, or closing campuses completely.

Fully Functional Campus
  • Consider implications in light of federal and state guidance, including physical distancing and large gatherings. 
  • Maintain contacts with the local public health department
  • Consider collecting and disseminating information about COVID-19 cases. See Communications About COVID-19 Cases in the Community
  • Communicate regularly about good hygiene.
  • Be prepared to isolate individuals who exhibit symptoms. 
    • Have an exit or continued-isolation strategy.
  • Be prepared to close off areas/entire campus for a minimum of 24 hours and then engage in cleaning and disinfecting per CDC Guidance.
Campus Accessible to Employees Only
  • The Basics
    • Consider implications in light of federal and state guidance, including physical distancing and large gatherings. 
    • Maintain contacts with the local public health department.
    • Consider collecting and disseminating information about COVID-19 cases. See Communications About COVID-19 Cases in the Community
    • Communicate regularly about good hygiene.
    • Be prepared to isolate individuals who exhibit symptoms. 
      • Have an exit or continued-isolation strategy.
    • Be prepared to close off areas/entire campus for a minimum of 24 hours and then engage in cleaning and disinfecting per CDC Guidance.
  • Employee Considerations 
    • Are you able to implement a system of rotating shifts, reduced staff, or other measures to promote or ensure physical distancing (and to limit overall traffic on grounds)?
    • Consider in-building signage about physical distancing and hygiene guidance in bathrooms/kitchens.
    • Think in advance about whether exceptions will be made for older employees or those with underlying health conditions. Will you require a doctor’s note? Will you make a blanket policy? Consider working with legal counsel. 
  • Parent/Community Communications
    • Clearly communicate the “campus off limits” restriction to families, in writing. Indicate whether this restriction is limited to buildings or includes all of campus (including playgrounds).
      • Communicate by emails and signage on gates/buildings. 
    • Close gates as necessary, but include contact information for families/personnel (on gates, in emails, as appropriate).
    • Design a system for retrieval of items (personnel and families)—preferably one that does not include multiple people traipsing through buildings. If someone is carrying the virus unknowingly, we want to limit their contact with our areas. Perhaps someone can be the point person for items and designate a pickup point. Consider a pickup schedule (times/timeframes) where parents and employees can retrieve items outside or in one designated room that can then be closed and disinfected if needed.
Campus Limited to “Essential” Personnel
  • The Basics
    • Consider implications in light of federal and state guidance, including state shelter-in-place orders. 
      • Consult with legal counsel.
    • Maintain contacts with the local public health department.
    • Consider collecting and disseminating information about COVID-19 cases for essential personnel. See Communications About COVID-19 Cases in the Community
    • Communicate regularly about good hygiene.
    • Be prepared to isolate individuals who exhibit symptoms. 
      • Have an exit or continued-isolation strategy.
    • Be prepared to close off areas/entire campus for a minimum of 24 hours and then engage in cleaning and disinfecting per CDC Guidance.
  • Essential Personnel
    • Clearly outline who is “essential,” but reserve the right for flexibility.
      • Schools should consider whether these employees need an employer letter. Several states have implemented fines for breaking shelter-in-place orders and we have heard that police are enforcing the orders. Consider working with your school counsel to determine if a letter printed on school letterhead explaining the employee’s status (and therefore why the employee is out and about) would be helpful under the state’s order.
    • Know who has keys/keycards to all facilities. If there are limited keys, make a plan in advance for retrieving keys or having copies if the person in possession of the keys falls ill. 
    • We are learning that some employees are giving pushback, and we even received one report of employees calling the state attorney general’s office (ultimately it was concluded that the school was operating appropriately). It is wise to at least prepare for this, especially with boarding schools that will need certain staff on grounds to remain functional for remaining students.
    • Think in advance about whether exceptions will be made for older employees or those with underlying health conditions. Will you require a doctor’s note? Will you make a blanket policy? Consider working with legal counsel. 
    • Consider the optics of decisions to ensure they are in line with your mission and culture. While several schools (especially boarding schools) need to have employees on campus, some wonder if allowing teachers on grounds sends the wrong message to students and families sheltering at home. On the flip side, it may be the best way to keep essential school functions running, provide employment, and support teachers who may share living spaces with families or friends and do not have a place to teach remotely. Each school must assess the various factors (public health, employment, school needs, optics and messaging, state and federal guidance, etc.) when navigating these decisions.
  • Completely Closed 
    • Are you able to conduct periodic surveillance/security measures (remotely or with limited in-person staff)?
    • Are you maintaining any physical upkeep necessary while complying with government mandates?
    • Be prepared to close off areas/entire campus for a minimum of 24 hours and then engage in cleaning and disinfecting per CDC Guidance if you learn that a recent visitor to campus (whether employee, student, or otherwise) has the virus. 
Find more information in the Employee Considerations section.

Tuition and Fees 

Many of our schools are grappling with how tuition and fees will be impacted by the move to remote learning. Additionally, most of our schools are eager to support their employees, many of whom are economically vulnerable during this turbulent time. The retention of tuition helps the school support that population, which is being communicated to many families. Additionally, our schools are rising to the challenge of distance learning and endeavoring to provide a fulsome educational experience.  

We encourage our schools to review the enrollment contract and any related agreements to assess legal rights. Please note that fees for other services may be assessed differently from tuition, if separated out in the contract. With that foundation made, we also know that you will consider the school’s mission, culture, community, resources, and other factors when assessing this decision. 

We would be happy to discuss this topic, as well as considerations for next year’s deposit and tuition (whether we are in-person or continuing with distance learning) in more detail with our schools. We will also be addressing what we are learning in our Weekly Trend Report for heads and school leadership.

"Summer School" Takes on a New Meaning

Update: Since this initial publication of this document, schools have started preparing, not just for the remainder of this school year, but into the next as well.

Schools are starting to wonder: “what does this mean for summer?” In looking at the countries that have been battling this for weeks or months, some of our schools are realizing that they need to at least prepare for a longer-term closure (or move to distance learning) than originally planned. With several schools closing for two weeks and/or moving to online learning for 2-4 weeks, those that have already announced plans for more than one month out are currently outliers. It will be no great surprise if this trend changes, which begs the question: what becomes of the summer? If schools are closing or moving to online, will they need to extend learning into the summer? With missing days or the unknown quality or inevitable challenges of online learning, will they need more time?

One school shared with us and their community that they are committed to making distance learning work, for a variety of reasons, but with the hope of not extending the school year into the summer months. Others are considering whether they should shutter doors and reopen in the summer. 

Historically, the phrase “summer school” has not meant an extension of the core academic year.  But as we have previously stated: these are unprecedented times. It is hard, if not impossible, to know what the next few months will bring for our school communities. We do know this: it is time for schools to at least consider whether they need to change the definition of “summer school” in their own community.

Close-and-Clean Response to Sickness on Campus

Several schools with suspected or known exposure to the virus are shuttering their doors to engage in intensive cleaning. For those schools remaining open, or for schools when they reopen, this will still be an important consideration.  For schools who have moved online, but permit any staff on grounds, this is still applicable advice.

We have seen school “close and clean” measures being taken in the following instances:
  • A suspected or known case of the virus in the school community (someone who was physically present on school grounds has the virus)
  • A suspected or known case in the household of a community member (e.g., a student’s sibling)
  • We previously were hearing about close-and-clean measures where a community member (e.g., student or employee) had direct contact with someone who has COVID-19 but who does not share their household. Given how widespread the virus now is, we are not hearing as much about these “primary” or “secondary” contact* closures.
In these instances, the schools shut down for a couple of days to a week, in order to permit a 24-hour pre-cleaning window and then to professionally clean and disinfect. We have just learned that one local public health official recommended a multi-week closure of the physical plant. 

Schools are unclear whether these measures will be sustainable as cases grow, but the close-and-clean practice is meant to protect against further spread within the school community and the larger community. 

The CDC recently issued new guidance regarding cleaning and disinfecting measures, specifically citing the application of this guidance to schools. The CDC advises schools that have had “suspected” or known exposure to the virus to follow its instructions for cleaning and disinfecting, including waiting 24 hours where possible before cleaning.

For our boarding schools, shutting down to clean may not be an option. If it is possible to close off areas of exposure and follow CDC cleaning guidance, please do so. Where students or employees who have contracted COVID-19 are housed in isolation, the CDC recommends following the same steps used to clean a household infected with the virus. They further encourage boarding schools to follow the guidance for higher ed institutions with regard to preventing and containing the spread of the virus. While the guidance is generally geared toward those schools housing an older population (18+), there are helpful guideposts for our independent boarding schools.

While several schools reported that they are no longer calling their local public health official upon receiving news of a COVID-19 case (due to the growing number of cases), we still encourage schools to partner with public health where possible. Additionally, certain jurisdictions may have additional requirements or guidance regarding both cleaning and closure.

*Primary Contact = having direct contact with someone with COVID-19

*Secondary Contact = having direct contact with someone who had direct contact with someone with COVID-19 (e.g., Child 1 goes on a playdate with Child 2; Child 2’s father was not present but now has been diagnosed with the disease; Child 1 had “secondary contact” with the virus)

International Students (Visa Status and Online Learning)

The Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) published the March 2020 SEVP Spotlight, a quarterly newsletter for the academic community that includes important program news, seasonal reminders and updates relevant to the international student life cycle. Check out this page for relevant resources and links to important information from SEVP.

On March 26, SEVP issued a new broadcast message to designated school officials (DSOs) and principal designated school officials (PDSOs) at SEVP-certified schools about New Electronic Form I-20 Issuance Guidance. Due to COVID-19, DSOs may electronically send Forms I-20 to student email addresses listed in SEVIS. In the case of a minor student, the email address may belong to their parent or legal guardian. Schools do not need to request permission from SEVP or report their plans to electronically send Forms I-20 as part of their COVID-19 procedural changes. SEVP has identified the following methods to sign and send the Form I-20:
  • Email a scanned version of the physically signed Form I-20;
  • Email a digitally signed Form I-20 using electronic signature software; or
  • Email a digitally signed Form I-20 that contains a digitally reproduced copy of a physical signature. 
Only approved PDSOs and DSOs may physically sign or input their own digital signature to the Form I-20. Individuals who are not approved on the school’s Form I-17 (Petition for Approval of School for Attendance by Nonimmigrant Student) may not input a DSO’s signature—either digital or physical—to the Form I-20. Improper issuance of the Form I-20 in this manner may constitute grounds for withdrawal of SEVP certification. By signing the Form I-20 or inputting their digital signatures, PDSOs and DSOs attest that they are the approved individuals issuing the Form I-20.

Find more information in the FAQs on

Closing the school’s physical plant and moving online also has repercussions for international students. Schools with international student programs (i.e., students on F-1 visas) are advised that they must alert SEVP if they are closing or making other significant operational or curricular changes within 10 business days. The current guidance is that if the school is closing, schools should email the SEVP Response Center at with the subject line “COVID-19 School Operations [School code]” with the school name, all physical locations affected by the closure, and the school’s code. If rather than closure, the school is considering offering instruction at an alternative location, the school should include the address of that location; the anticipated length of time the alternative arrangement will be in place; and an explanation of how the school will offer instruction, provide oversight, offer required DSO services to students, and ensure that students maintain their required full course of study. SEVP developed an optional coronavirus school reporting template that schools may choose to use in fulfilling their reporting obligations. Due to the emergency, SEVP is waiving the limitations that generally exist for F-1 students and online courses. Therefore, if a school is moving to online instruction, F-1 students may participate and remain in status, whether they are in the U.S. or have returned to their home country. Schools looking to stay up-to-date on the latest guidance from SEVP should refer to this webpage, which now includes additional FAQs. Additionally, aside from visa regulations, schools should consider whether their chosen online platform is available or accessible in other countries if your international students have gone back to their home countries.

Thank you to Ioana Wheeler, NAIS director of global initiatives, for her meaningful contributions to this resource.

Remote Learning and Related Alternatives

Within the world of “remote” or “distance” learning plans, our schools are emerging in three camps:
  1. Online learning (a.k.a. distance/remote/virtual/remote)
  2. Non-internet-based remote learning (a.k.a. distance learning) 
  3. A combination of online and non-online learning plans
These “plans” will inevitably vary greatly across the universe of our schools, and will be impacted by factors such as student ages and learning needs, school resources, and community culture. We know that many of our schools are in poor broadband areas or support communities without the resources necessary for continued online learning. We have learned that some of these schools are considering whether they can provide robust remote learning, limited supplemental learning, or whether they will actually close the school temporarily. 

Any remote services will vary by school and may evolve over time. While some schools are preparing to provide an equivalent education to students during quarantine or shutdown, others are preparing to provide a few hours of continued learning or time for connection and socialization. In thinking about how your school will prepare and what it hopes to accomplish, consider the following:
  • Devices and Internet. If your plans require students or employees to have devices (e.g., laptops) at home or access to high-speed internet, consider whether it’s time to start communicating this to the community (e.g., bring home laptops daily, etc.) and whether these are reasonable requests in your community.
    • Schools may also consider allowing (or requiring) staff and students to bring home their devices on a nightly basis (if they do not do so already) in case a school closure is announced without warning. 
    • We have learned that some schools are telling families that if they do not have internet, the school will come to the family’s home and install it for them. 
    • The Comcast Internet Essentials program is offering two months of free service for households that qualify and is increasing available internet speed. The organization EveryoneOn also helps connect families to low-cost computer and internet offers.
    • Schools looking for support on technology related needs can join weekly town halls from ATLIS.
  • Learning Differences and Support. How will you support those in your community who have a variety of special educational needs? The U.S. Department of Education issued this Q&A document on providing services to children with disabilities during this time and a short webinar focused on online learning and website accessibility. Though these resources (and laws cited) are focused toward public schools, other similar laws may apply to private schools and the resources still include useful tips. The Center for Online Learning and Students with Disabilities has general resources and is working on developing new tips and strategies to support people during this COVID-19 crisis.
  • Oversight & Consistency. How will your school work with faculty and provide oversight to ensure a quality level and consistency that the school determines is reasonable? For example, if the goal is to provide a few hours of continued learning, are we scaling the learning across the board, so that two different faculty are applying the standard equally to two different courses?
  • How will your plan impact tuition, grading, and graduation?
  • Short vs. Long Term. Have you sketched out what you aim to provide in the instance of a student quarantine versus school shutdown? In the instance of a short-term versus long-term shutdown?
  • Communication. Are you prepared to communicate any of these goals or plans to families in a way that provides useful information while reserving flexibility for the school in the face of unknown future variables?

Student Attendance and Grading

Attendance/Length of School Year

As several schools prepare to be online or engage in other distance learning measures for the remainder of the school year, administrations are starting to worry: What does this mean for attendance regulations? As these vary by state, we strongly encourage schools to contact their state associations, state departments of education, and local attorneys to understand the shifting landscape of compliance. Please also be mindful of SEVP regulations regarding international students’ attendance.

We have learned that certain states are implementing flexible rules, even waiving requirements regarding the length/number of days of/in a school year. However, some of these measures are unclear, leaving schools to wonder if online hours will count as attendance hours or if online learning will be considered substantially equivalent to in-person learning. Even more worrisome, in this regard, are the distance learning measures that are not online.

Our best advice right now is to document, document, document! Yes, this document was drafted by a lawyer—and we love documentation—but it is your ally here. The only way to demonstrate the time spent preparing, teaching, and working with the children will be to document it. We have learned that several of the online platforms currently utilized will track logins and other usage metrics. Please encourage your faculty to supplement this with their own notes. While this will require extra effort, even attempts at gauging asynchronous learning time is advised.


We have been hearing about a range of approaches regarding grading during remote learning periods. Some of our heads have implemented a temporary pass/fail period, for the whole school (ostensibly as it ramps up its remote learning plan) or for certain grade levels. While this has increased anxiety for some parents, schools have reported it’s intended to decrease anxiety in students during this difficult time. Some schools are concerned that turning to a pass/fail or “no grade” method for any substantial length of time may signal to families that the education is not the same quality as in-person learning. This does not mean this move is off the table; on the contrary, we are hearing of many schools implementing it. However, consider whether it is right for your school and, if so, how best to communicate it to families. Communication is key.

Each school must determine which approach is best for its program, recognizing that approach may shift. Despite the highly individualized nature of this decision, this is a great topic to explore with peer schools in NAIS Connect or to raise with your state associations.

Educating and Supporting the Whole Child

As our schools implement their remote learning plans, the question on many minds is “how do we care for the whole child … remotely?” Obviously, the importance of parental partnership is underscored now more than ever. However, our schools are communicating their eagerness to do their part and, in their minds, that means more than rote, unengaging video lectures. Many of our schools are considering how to engage in a holistic approach to online learning—attending to their students’ mental and physical health during this challenging time. They are thinking about how they can maintain school services, such as counseling support, and extracurriculars, such as sports or clubs. In short, how can schools create and nurture a community of isolated students?

We wanted to share some of the ideas we’ve heard:
  • Online yoga instruction and other physical activities for elementary students 
  • Short physical education videos for students of all ages 
  • Brief educational modules such as those offered by BrainPOP
  • Social/club virtual “hangouts”
  • Using strategies to establish “normalcy,” such as encouraging teachers to use students’ names (which can sometimes be difficult or not top-of-mind when they are not in the same physical space, interacting in person), to make students feel connected and seen

Learning Support, Counseling Services, and College Admissions

For those of you with counseling services and learning support, now is not the time to pull away from these crucial services. In fact, as we physically distance, these connections are more important than ever. We strongly encourage schools to consider how to focus on learning support, counseling, and other student support services. It is our understanding that various consultants have advised against certain support or 1:1 services during this time. As always, each community needs to make decisions that best align with its mission, applicable law, resources, and culture. However, where supportive auxiliary services and 1:1 outreach can be safely supported, we encourage them.

We know that many of our schools are actively working to maintain counseling and support services for students to provide social and emotional support as well as college counseling. Consider empowering counseling programs, learning specialists, and other “support groups” in the school to think about how they can best serve the community.  Help them set up a “virtual office” with virtual office hours during campus closure. We at NAIS remain concerned about the mounting anxiety in our students, and we fear that virus concerns and isolation may amplify this problem. Further, a move to virtual learning should not prohibit counselors from communicating with students’ external mental health care providers, as they would in the ordinary course of business. Just please be sure to have signed* consent forms on hand! Counselors could continue to meet with and support students remotely,but should also be looped into the school’s overall remote learning plan. They could be a valuable resource to provide programming or activities that address mental health. The American School Counselor Association has this resource for planning for virtual/distance school counseling during an emergency shutdown.

Additionally, we encourage schools to consider how school closures or student illness may impact college counseling and support during the higher education application process. Take time to think about how this element of school can be conducted remotely, so that we do our best to ensure that students’ long-term education goals are not unduly impacted by this virus (or at least that we are doing what we reasonably can to minimize that impact). We are all aware that there are heightened sensitivities and anxieties around college applications, which will be further exacerbated by this evolving situation.

As a related sidenote, this article discusses changes and cancellations for mandatory state standardized testing and the ACT/SAT. The April 4 administration of the ACT is being rescheduled for June 13, and the May 2 administration of the SAT has been canceled. The College Board has remote support for Advanced Placement (AP) students and teachers and is currently formulating a plan to allow students to take their upcoming AP exams online. The International Baccalaureate (IB) program is cancelling its May 2020 schedule as well. Many states are also pursuing postponement or cancellation of required statewide tests and the U.S. Department of Education announced it will grant such waiver requests. This website is tracking state-by-state developments in this area.

*This is not to suggest that we should make parents travel to a closed campus to submit these.

Update! Since the original publication of this section, we have learned that several schools are using online tools (e.g., Calendly) to coordinate virtual “office hours” and schedule counseling and support meetings. 

A Special Focus on School Counseling (In-Person and Remote)

Whether school counselors are providing in-person or remote counseling services, it is good practice for them to be part of a general student support system at school—including advisors, faculty members, and administrators—rather than having counselors engage in silo activity with individual students as private therapists. This collaborative approach offers several benefits for schools. Importantly, information shared by students would not be subject to the therapeutic privilege and could therefore be shared more readily among the counselor and other members of the support system, or even the student’s parents, on a “need-to-know” basis. This nontherapeutic structure enhances the school’s ability to protect and support the student and the broader community. If the school adopts this  philosophy regarding school counselors, the approach should be clearly communicated to counselors, students, and families. Then have students over 18 and parents/legal guardians sign appropriate consent and authorization forms acknowledging that there is no intent to create a therapeutic privilege and that they are waiving any therapeutic privilege that might apply to communications with the school counselor.
This collaborative approach is readily adaptable for remote counseling. By preventing the creation of private, therapeutic relationships between counselors and students, counselors may be less constrained by restrictions and other licensure requirements and regulations applicable to mental-health providers. General counseling services provided as part of a broader collaborative approach to student support can likely be provided remotely without running afoul of federal or state telehealth requirements or state licensure restrictions. This likely holds true even for remote one-on-one communications between a counselor and a student, provided that the nature of the relationship is clear to everyone involved, including students and families.
To the extent that federal and state laws, regulations, and rules do apply to a counselor’s communications with students (i.e., in the case of private, therapeutic relationships), schools operating remotely in the current climate may want to consider converting to the collaborative approach described above and having students over 18 and parents/guardians sign appropriate consent and authorization forms prior to providing remote counseling services. If a school seeks to maintain private, therapeutic relationships between its counselors and students while operating remotely, then the school should remain apprised of the federal U.S. Department of Health and Human Services regulations and guidance, including recently revised guidance regarding telehealth services in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as state licensure laws, which may prohibit a counselor from providing counseling services to students physically located in states (and countries) where the counselor is not licensed.
In the event that a school cannot provide counseling services remotely, whether for practical or legal reasons, it should consider how it can continue to support students during these challenging and uncertain times. For example, schools could offer to work with families to identify local mental-health providers and collaborate with those providers to help ensure continuity of care, and/or provide additional written or online resources to help students cope with their surrounding environment.

Thank you to independent school attorney Brian Garrett for drafting this section.

Online Learning Policies and Protocols 

You are all doing amazing work! We do not mean to add to it, but it is time to consider what you can do in the way of policies, protocols, or at least education regarding online schooling. We’ve included a list of considerations as you move forward:
  • What are you communicating to employees and families about video “backdrops”? What are they inadvertently sharing that could compromise the relationship or confidentiality, or distract from learning? What other challenges are presented by turning the bed/living-room into the classroom? You would be surprised (or maybe you wouldn’t) about the “oversharing” stories we’ve heard!
  • Are 1:1 meetings permitted? Are you recording them and periodically monitoring them? Are you discussing appropriate boundaries? Beware of educators who want to overshare or over-save-the-day. We never want our teachers playing therapist, especially not online.
  • Do you permit use of the direct chat feature between educators and students? Have you communicated your position to both employees and families?
  • How are we educating and supporting our parents as they navigate this challenging new terrain? How are we emphasizing the importance of parent partnership without creating helicopter parents? Again, the family room is now the classroom, which means we face new challenges in this relationship.
  • If you are recording classes or meetings, do you have appropriate permissions under applicable law? We encourage you to consult with your attorney on this matter. Ultimately, this may be a risk assessment for schools as they move online quickly. It may be that “best efforts” are engaged and online learning is propped up, with protocols to follow. One efficient strategy we’ve heard is that schools are creating an opt-out recording consent system, whereby they email the parents with a notification that classes/meetings online will be recorded. In this system, parents can “opt out” if they do not consent to the recording. However, in turn, schools can reserve the right to decline online education for the child if the family does not consent. As always, this is not legal advice, and we encourage you to consult with your attorney. 
  • What do your existing “acceptable use policies” say? Are they sufficient and should you redistribute them or call attention to them for employees and families? Do they need updating or a brief addendum?
  • Have you assessed any consents or disclosures necessary to coordinate online counseling, including communications between school counselors and external mental health professionals? We encourage you to consult with your attorney to assess any needs on this front.
  • Do you require additional consent from families under your vendor contracts for students under the age of 13? For more on this, please visit the following sections: FAQs and Copyright and COPPA in the Time of COVID-19.

New! (4/1) Recording Classes and Meetings

Recording online lectures, classes, and meetings can serve many purposes: It can facilitate asynchronous learning, allow for monitoring (especially in 1:1 settings), and perhaps assist both teachers and students as more people get sick. However, it could also put both faculty and families on edge—recording material they never used to record. Teachers may wonder about its purpose and use, while families may feel entitled to footage (for monitoring purposes or to avoid adhering to the school’s schedule).

While we often caution schools to first figure out what they legally can/cannot do and then focus on what they want to do to be consistent with their mission, goals, and culture, we are asking schools to flip the analysis this time.

What do you want to record and why?

Think through your plan and be willing to pivot as the online learning period extends. We expect many policies may evolve over the next two months. We have learned that some schools are requiring faculty to record all classes, both group and 1:1 sessions. We have learned that others are not recording any lessons or meetings. Of course, there are variances between these practices.

If you decide to record any classes or meetings, the next step is to determine what permissions you need, under the law, and then assess what other permissions or notices you want to give or would be prudent to give. 

In addition to federal law, each state has a recording law that governs this issue. Generally speaking, in a “one party consent state,” so long as one person in the conversation/meeting knows the recording is happening (as opposed to two or more people being recorded by someone outside of the meeting, without their consent or knowledge), then no other consents are needed.  (Again, this is very generally speaking, as many states have varying nuances in their recording statutes.) However, if you are in an “all party consent state” (also sometimes referred to as a “two party consent state”), consent of all parties is likely required. It is advisable for schools to consult with legal counsel to determine their right to record.

Once a school has established it wants to record and can legally do so (with or without consent), then the question of notice or obtaining consent remains.

It is always prudent—at a minimum—to notify everyone (teachers and families). You may have already done so through language in your enrollment agreement and/or family handbook. However, it’s a stretch to assume that everyone is revisiting that fine print now. Practically speaking, it might be helpful to email that language with a friendly reminder. If you do not have such language, consider an email notice with helpful reminders about online learning policies and protocols, including the school’s right to record. However, we also encourage schools to communicate that the recording is the school’s property, to be used at its discretion, for the purposes it deems best to serve online learning goals (or however you want to state your goals!). Schools likely want to avoid creating the impression that this will be an on-demand Netflix-style school. If, however, that is your goal, then please communicate it! It is always advisable to communicate intentions and limitations to parents, whatever they may be.

Now, that was notice. What about consent? If after assessing legal obligations the school decides that notice is not sufficient and it needs (or wants) to obtain consent from all parties, it should do so. Consider whether the school can set up an opt-in or opt-out system. For opt-ins, parents need to sign (likely electronically, or scan and email) a consent form. For opt-outs, the school could draft a clearly worded policy stating its intent to record and assuming consent, unless the family opts out. We have heard that some schools are coupling this with a reservation of rights: If the family opts out, then the school reserves the right not to teach the student. For upper schools, we recommend seeking consent from “adult” students (18) as well.

This all gets particularly complicated with counseling 1:1 sessions and confidentiality. If schools attempt to monitor these (and many schools are not—this is a choice each school should assess and make), we recommend developing a system with the counselors. For example, perhaps the monitoring is video only and not audio. Or it’s possible that two counselors could partner to view and listen to recordings of sessions every few minutes throughout the session. Whatever system you use, try to make it uniform and please communicate the limits of confidentiality to students and families.

At the end of the day, we know many of our schools are in “survival mode,” doing their level best to educate in a safe and meaningful way. Much of this could seem backbreaking right now. When you are ready to assess your online learning policies and practices (which we strongly recommend), please consider consulting with the school’s attorney and always remember to make choices consistent with your mission and culture. We know you want to educate and keep students safe and we are here to help.

Online Learning Resources List

As schools navigate their options and prepare next steps, the following resources may help. These are listed in alphabetical order and were compiled as a result of schools sharing their preparedness plans with NAIS.

Additional Resources Provided by Common Sense 

Thank you to Jackie Wolking, NAIS director of innovation programs, for her meaningful contributions to this resource.

Copyright and COPPA in the Time of COVID-19

Not that many schools have initiated online learning, they are starting to wonder about the liability lurking behind this major shift. Teachers are doing incredible work to engage in distance teaching—including distributing work packets (mailed to or picked up by parents) for at-home work and creating story- and song-time videos for their students. This is starting to raise concerns for some of our educators and administrators that they may be violating applicable privacy and copyright laws. While it is always wise to consult your legal counsel (preferably counsel experienced in copyright and online privacy law), this section provides a very general overview to address those concerns.


The good news is that many of the remote measures being taken are likely compliant with applicable copyright laws. For example, many of the worksheets being distributed are materials that would be copied and distributed anyway, which means that the school likely has the rights to make and distribute copies. Ideally, schools should review the licensure at issue; it is entirely possible that there is a restriction to hard-copy, in-classroom use. In all likelihood, the school would probably get a cease-and-desist letter, demanding the school stop with the alleged inappropriate use of copyrighted materials. Equally possible is that the vendor may charge a higher price for online use and then simply impose that cost (and likely update the contract). However, there is a risk that the vendor could terminate the contract with the school, due to the school’s breach of that contract. It is also possible that the contract/license for use includes a liquidated damages provision for improper use.

As for the videos? Most of our members are familiar with the Teach Act, which allows for the use of certain works in classes (e.g., copying pieces of books or playing certain music). Very generally speaking, there are provisions that apply to in-person learning and others that apply to online learning. Assuming our teachers are creating or using materials for student learning and engagement in the same way they would on school grounds, these videos and activities are likely acceptable under the law. However, for specific analysis of this issue, we recommend that you speak with your legal counsel.

At the end of the day, we are hearing from schools that they just feel fortunate to be able to educate kids and understand there are some legal risks involved. We know those may take time to sort through. For more information on this topic, please review the following articles: COPPA
As many schools move online, the word COPPA comes up regularly. The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA)—pronounced “cop-ugh,” not like the Barry Manilow song, Copacabana—is a law governing the collection of personal information online from children under 13 by certain websites and online services.

First, allow me to bust the myth that nonprofit schools are covered by COPPA. In fact, they are not covered. Generally speaking, most nonprofits are exempted from coverage. Our for-profit schools should consult with legal counsel (preferably one specializing in online privacy law) to determine coverage and compliance measures. COPPA applies to “operators” of websites or online services and nonprofit schools are not considered to be “operators” under the law if they would otherwise be exempt from coverage under the Federal Trade Commission Act. This generally means that your school can use distance learning programs (and other online platforms) for your student body without regard to COPPA.

However, your vendors providing the online platforms are most likely covered by the law—specifically if they offer a service directed to children or if they have knowledge that specific users are children. Compliance is their responsibility, not yours. Yet, many vendors have passed aspects of their COPPA compliance to schools by writing COPPA and consent language into the contract with the school. With regard to consent, schools can generally consent on behalf of parents, where the online platform is for the benefit of the students and school. This consent is limited to the educational context where the vendor is not using the data for any other commercial purpose. It is best practice for the schools then to provide notice to the parents about the consents the school has given. Whether the platform was used at school—or at home for school—this analysis remains the same.

Schools should also be aware that many vendors are choosing to require schools, by contract, to obtain parental consent as well. It is possible that these vendors wish to use the data for other commercial purposes, as referenced above, or perhaps this is a “belt-and-suspenders” approach to minimize risk on their end. Schools should review these vendor contracts to ensure compliance.

Thank you to copyright attorney Meaghan Kent and privacy attorneys Julia Tama and Kelly Bastide for contributing their insights to this section.

Employee Considerations 

In addition to the challenge of educating students remotely, our schools are now navigating a variety of employment challenges in this new phase of the COVID-19 response. In addition to the information provided herein, there are a plethora of good resources available to employers during this trying and confusing time: 

Schools with a Closed or Partially Closed Campus

Many schools that closed their physical plant to families are grappling with whether it should remain open for employee work. We’ve heard about the following plans for schools:
  • Keep grounds open to employees; require employees to report to work.
  • Keep grounds open to employees; require all employees to report to work who cannot perform jobs virtually.
  • Keep grounds open to a skeletal staff; remainder of staff work virtually or are on indefinite leave.
  • Close grounds to families and employees. 
These schools are preparing for the following: 
  • Employees who do not feel comfortable coming into work. 
    • We have learned that while some of our schools were requiring a doctor’s note unless the reason for staying home was apparent or known to the school (e.g., age or condition), many have moved to permitting these requests without a note.  However, not all of the positions can be accomplished remotely, which leaves schools in the position of determining whether the employee can be transferred to another position, or whether the employee is on paid or unpaid leave. 
  • Employees who are ill or caring for an ill family member. 
    • Schools are in the position of determining whether a leave law or policy applies (including new emergency legislation being considered by Congress or at the state level) or whether they will alter or extend paid leave benefits.

Paying Employees Who Work Less or Not at All

One of the challenges many schools are facing is whether, and if so, how, to pay employees who are no longer working due to a campus closure or who are working in a diminished capacity. Please be mindful that, in all instances, schools should consider the following: 
  • Applicable federal, stage, and local wage and hour laws (including, but not limited to, minimum wage)
  • The exempt or nonexempt status of the employee
  • Applicable federal, state, and local family and medical leave laws, as well as disability laws
  • Contractual obligations set forth in any employment agreements 
  • The school’s mission and culture 
  • The school’s economic reality for short- and long-term planning 
  • The status and applicability of emergency legislation from the federal or state government (i.e. the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which is currently under consideration by Congress). 
The overwhelming majority of schools that have reached out to NAIS to share their intentions do plan to pay employees some or all of their salary/wages in the short term while longer-term plans are made. This is a generalization, and the nuances of this feedback are discussed in greater detail below. We understand that some of our schools may have to invest money in online learning while losing money in prospective enrollment. Every school is different, with different demands, needs, and resources. There is no one “right” path here, and we understand that every school is doing its level best in this challenging time. 

No Work or Diminished Work Due to Closure 

We’ve received feedback from our schools regarding their plans for utilizing and paying employees. Many of these plans are either temporary or in draft form. As the landscape of this situation changes, so do the plans. We have learned that some of our schools are implementing or considering the following with respect to the work employees will do and how they will be paid:
  • Reassigning the employee to a new position or engaging employees in new projects
    • As schools move to online learning, new challenges arise. Many schools are thinking of how they can utilize employees in new, innovative ways remotely.
    • Certain grounds staff are being trained to professionally clean per CDC recommendations, and will contribute to campus cleaning.  
  • Paying the employees their standard salary or wages, as if normal hours were worked
    • Many of these schools have been careful not to make promises about the future, but have limited this window to the short term while they evaluate resources and plans. 
  • Paying the employees a reduced amount or a lump sum (i.e., a “stipend,” as several have informed us)
    • It is important that applicable laws and contracts be considered.
  • Requiring or permitting employees to utilize accrued paid leave 
    • We have heard that some of our schools are expanding paid leave to apply to additional or all employee groups that were not previously covered under the school’s policy, on a prorated basis.
  • Placing all non-working employees on paid leave 
    • As per the prior scenario, this has meant expanding paid leave policies in many instances. 
  • Placing all non-working employees on unpaid leave 
    • Unless the law, employment contract, or school policy dictates otherwise 
      • In this instance, we do not recommend unilaterally altering the school’s paid leave policy. We’ve seen schools alter these in response to COVID-19 to be more generous, but not less. 
Please note that reducing an employee’s work hours or placing that employee on leave may affect the employee’s eligibility for benefits under the terms of the school’s benefit plans (e.g., medical). As schools work on their employee planning, they should consult with their broker, insurance provider, or a benefits attorney to assess this potential impact on employees. 

No Work or Diminished Work Due to Illness 

Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (H.R. 6201). Please refer to Other Federal Guidance, News, and Resources for additional information. The emergency paid sick leave and paid family medical leave provisions apply to employers with fewer than 500 employees. The bill also provides a payroll tax credit for employers to help offset these costs.
Schools are already seeing COVID-19 cases in their communities, and have had employees unable to work as a result. In addition to the aforementioned legislation, schools are applying their standard sick leave policies. In other words, many schools are proceeding with “business as usual,” in that they are treating COVID-19 absences/illnesses as they would any other illness.  Other schools are expanding these employer paid sick leave policies, temporarily, to include additional categories of employees who would otherwise not be covered.  

Any changes in policy or application should be consistent with applicable federal, state, and local wage and hour laws, leave laws, and disability accommodation laws, including the many paid sick and family leave laws in various jurisdictions around the country. The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) published a Q&A regarding public health emergencies and the Fair Labor Standards Act and a Q&A on the Family Medical Leave Act. As noted above, the federal government is currently working on emergency paid family and medical and sick leave plan, and some states are beginning to take similar action. Therefore, the aforementioned guidance from the DOL may change as more emergency legislation and rules are passed. Due to the constantly changing legal environment and developing practical considerations on the ground, we advise schools to consult with legal counsel prior to implementing any sick leave plan or policy changes and to communicate any changes to employees. To the latter point, we cannot overstate how crucial ongoing community communication is during this time.

Hiring and Contract Renewal Season

Spring is usually the time to focus on workforce retention, growth, and turnover. Needless to say, the pandemic has completely upended many schools’ hiring and retention plans. As with any topic, we are seeing a broad range of plans and responses.

Hiring Freezes and RIFs. Understandably, several schools have put a freeze on hiring. Some are having to go further and consider reductions in force (RIFs).

Holding or Amending Contracts. It is our understanding that some schools are considering holding renewal language for existing employees. While several schools have transitioned faculty to a more standard corporate “at will” model, others have a deep history of reinforcing faculty (and, in some instances, all employee) terms every spring. Even in standard times, the absence of a faculty renewal letter or contract induces anxiety in certain communities. However, schools are starting to wonder what they can really promise right now. We are certainly expecting to see increased scrutiny of employee agreements (on both sides). Both schools and employees will be reading the fine print to see what—if anything—has been promised. We do recommend that schools revisit the language of any existing or pending contracts. Where contracts have been issued, signed, and returned, assess language to see if there is an urgent need for change. If so, please work with your legal counsel. It may be that the school has the right to revoke or amend the agreement, or it may be that the school must offer something to the employee in exchange for signing an addendum or updated agreement. Potential revisions include: the right to reduce wages/salary, the right to assign new duties/transfer the employee to another position, the right to implement distance learning measures, a requirement that certain employees have high-speed internet and equipment necessary for remote work/learning, and force majeure clauses that include specific pandemic language.  

With so much uncertainty, we wonder whether schools will focus more on at-will language, to preserve flexibility in employment. Alternately, top talent may demand secure employment terms to ameliorate fears.

Remote Recruitment. Schools desirous of a “normal” hiring season should certainly proceed—online! For years, several schools have engaged in remote recruitment and hiring, relying on video conferencing and virtual tours. For obvious reasons, more schools are jumping on board. Interviews (1:1, group), tours, testing, and other assessments can all be conducted virtually. If you find you require more time online than you otherwise would in person, please listen to that instinct and set up multiple interviews or extended interviews. The move to online hiring does not need to be an exact replica of practices.

The following does not constitute an endorsement of any entity or product. 
  • Carney, Sandoe & Associates. The faculty recruitment and consulting firm has created a site for its Virtual Hiring Resources.
References/Background Checks. MOST IMPORTANTLY: Now is NOT the time to forget or decrease any background check procedures, including reference checks. We fear that some schools may find abuse, maltreatment, or other harmful activities are less likely to happen online. At the risk of being alarmist, we want to assure you that maltreatment of students and fellow employees can happen over any medium (hello, cyberbullying). Stay vigilant and refer to the NAIS advisories on reference checks and backgrounds checks for more information.

Thank you to Claire Wescott, NAIS director of project management, for her meaningful contributions to this resource.

Stay Informed and Communicate

As mentioned in our special session, it’s important for school leaders to stay on top of the facts as they evolve. This will be a daily or even hourly endeavor. Consider assigning a staff member to monitor and synthesize relevant news each day. 

When communicating with employees and families, calmly communicate facts; do not speculate. Communicating in a calm and measured way instills confidence and can reduce stress.

Explain what the school is doing to address the issue. Consider including a brief explanation of the information (such as guidance from the CDC or public health authorities) that led to your decision. 
If someone in your community contracts coronavirus, it is important to balance the broader community’s desire for information with the need to protect the privacy of the affected individual. 

People often feel helpless in a crisis, so providing concrete actions that people can take (e.g., hand hygiene and cough etiquette tips, discouraging children from sharing food or touching their faces) can empower them.

As the coronavirus situation is changing rapidly, there may be decisions that you cannot yet make. Uncertainty about the future may cause stress among faculty, staff, and parents. To ease anxiety, acknowledge that you are not certain of every detail at the moment, but that you will communicate more information as soon as you are able. It can be helpful to let people know when they can next expect an update from you.

As schools close temporarily or go online, it will be important not to make promises that you cannot keep. With so much unknown, certain plans may need to be aspirational, and it will be important to communicate that. Schools have been and will want to continue to build flexibility into their communications, plans, and policies, reserving the right to pivot at any moment. One school decided to create a short video to walk their students and families through their remote learning plan. It can be viewed here

In all messages, it’s important to empathize with the people who are most affected by the situation. Use the school’s mission and core values to shape your response. Reflecting those values in your messaging also reinforces the ties the audience has to the school.

COVID-19 Website Trend

Our schools have been doing an amazing job of communicating with parents. They have been communicating in a calm and confident fashion, stating facts and intentions—not assumptions and promises. They are doing their best to mitigate, rather than provoke, fear.

In addition to the email communications we’ve seen to parents, employees, and to the entire community, we have also noticed a trend of COVID-19/coronavirus web pages being built on schools’ websites. We do not suggest that these replace the school’s regular email communications, but this has been a way to collect information about COVID-19 measures, advertise closures, and provide other pertinent information. It is our understanding that some schools have these on their public sites, while others are placing them behind the parent portal. This may be an opportunity to start placing information about remote or online learning in one place, as well as CDC guidance about cleaning and hygiene.

To reiterate, in any communications, please do your best to stick to facts, and consider conferring with your legal counsel and communications team (internal or external). Avoid promises, unless you know you can keep them (e.g., making safety and health a priority is an example of a promise you can keep; providing all lessons online may or may not be).

Especially where schools make this page public, it will be important to ensure that communications teams/authors avoid language that might exacerbate anxiety in students. In fact, such websites might be a good place to house information about how families could speak to students about COVID-19. For example, some of our schools have shared this document from the National Associations of School Nurses and School Psychologists, respectively.

Community Letter Trends 

Thank you to the schools that have shared their community communications with us and with other schools. We also note that several of you have made them public on your main website or your coronavirus information page. This section focuses on two particular types of communications. Letters/emails to families regarding: 
  • The school’s remote learning plan
  • A COVID-19 case in the community 
We have compiled the following trends and related guidance after reading many of these community letters and hearing from you all about your respective successes (or, perhaps, mini “failures”). If you are willing, we encourage you to share yours on Heads Connect.

School Closure/Online Learning Communications 

  • For the purposes of clarity in messages, we recommend that schools explain to families when school is “closed” or when there is a “campus closure.”  
  • Several of our schools are explicitly stating that families must not come into the buildings/on campus (depending on the extent of the rule).
    • For those families who need to retrieve belongings, they are being encouraged to email a specific contact person regarding the items needed to arrange for pickup.  This is to avoid unnecessary traffic during this period of containment. 
  • Further, we recommend choosing one key descriptor for online learning (whether it be online, distance, remote, virtual, or other) and use that consistently in communications.   
  • Several schools have emphasized the importance of “social distancing” during this time.  They are informing families that the school’s campus is closed in accordance with public health guidance, in an effort to limit the spread of the virus. This effort is undermined if our families are all congregating elsewhere. 

Communications About COVID-19 Cases in the Community 

  • Some of our schools have written to their families, asking them to report a suspected or confirmed (positive or presumptive positive) case of COVID-19 in the household.
    • These communications should direct all responses to the head of school or another trusted designee. The head of school should be the first or second person to know this information, to control information dissemination, and in order to determine the next best steps. 
    • Previously, several schools were also soliciting information about “primary” or “secondary” contacts with a confirmed case, but this seems likely to be an untenable process now that the disease is rampant. 
    • Some of these schools are considering putting an outside date on when they wish to receive such reports. The logic here is that a school on spring break, followed by a closure, will have disbanded community congregation for two or more weeks, all while individuals may be exposed elsewhere. Therefore, at a certain point, there is no health or risk monitoring benefit to be gained from this information. 
  • Some of our schools have received reports, whether solicited or not, about a COVID-19 case in the community (student or household member) and have communicated to the community.  
    • These schools: 
      • Did NOT give names. Naming ill individuals in these communications is highly ill-advised. The local news outlets have been publishing these emails. Please do not publish the names of sick community members.  
      • Have communicated information about where the ill community member interacted with the rest of the community (e.g., lower school, buildings, grades, rooms, and/or events).
      • Stated that this was highly anticipated, given the widespread nature of the virus.
      • Reiterated guidance about self-monitoring, symptoms, and hygiene. 
      • Encouraged anyone concerned about their health to contact their personal physician. Some of these letters also include contact information for the department of health.  
    • We are learning that schools are shifting and announcing that, given the spread of the disease, everyone should assume there is a chance of exposure at some point and, therefore, the school may not continue to report on cases in the school community.
  • It is always advisable to contact the local public health official for guidance.

Sickness on Campus/Individuals Connected to the Virus on Campus 

Please note that the CDC recommends “isolation” of sick individuals, which is a step further than “quarantine.” Isolated individuals should avoid contact, as much as possible, with all people and animals, even within the same home/building.  

Schools, both day and boarding, should be prepared to handle illness on campus. Be aware of coronavirus symptoms as well as influenza (flu) symptoms, and make sure that your school nurse and other staff are aware as well. In school communications, emphasize your general illness or communicable disease policies, and urge students, staff, and visitors to refrain from coming to school if they are ill. 

Be prepared to  isolate someone who is at school and exhibiting coronavirus symptoms. Many schools are designating an internal isolation space where the person (usually a student) can stay until transportation arrives or other arrangements can be made. If the affected individual is an employee, be prepared to pivot with a substitute, combined classes, or other alternate means. 

For boarding schools, this measure will be particularly important. For more information for boarding schools, please see the Boarding Schools and Quarantine/Isolation section.

Additionally, schools that have international students living with homestay families should be in contact with their third-party operating vendor (if they have one), as well as the families themselves, regarding COVID-19 protocol, including what to do and whom to contact if the student or others in the household suspect or confirm exposure. Schools should review their homestay agreements and make sure they have a firm understanding of what must be done (and by whom) if a student is displaced from the homestay arrangement. 

Schools should also consider what communications should be sent to families about these plans and whether preemptive coordination with families makes sense. 

Have a plan for contacting your school’s local public health official if there is a concern about the virus on campus or a known incident on campus or in the school’s community. This information may not arise during normal business hours; be sure to secure the after-hours contact information for your local public health office. And, of course, be prepared to thoroughly clean any potentially contaminated areas. For more information, please review the Close-and-Clean Response to Sickness on Campus section.

At this point, it’s important to mention school policies. We recommend that schools develop and implement a communicable disease policy in their handbooks, reserving the right to exclude individuals from the school.

As always, please make decisions based on facts and not on suspicions or assumptions about known or perceived national origin.

Boarding Schools and Quarantine/Isolation

In the event of a COVID-19 case or outbreak on campus, our boarding schools are in a particularly challenging position. Schools have been preparing to follow CDC guidance for the quarantine or isolation of ill students and employees. We encourage all of our boarding schools to think through the plans for multiple simultaneous COVID-19 cases.

Many schools are communicating with families that it will be the family’s responsibility to come and care for the child. Parents/guardians of sick students are being told that they must immediately come and remove the child from campus. Some schools are considering partnering with long-distance parents to find local housing or accommodations where a parent/guardian may care for a sick student in isolation. In the case of international students, some schools are notifying families that the student will need to reside with the domestic guardian.

We have learned that some of our schools have the space to designate multiple sickrooms—or even a floor of a building—for isolation of the ill. Others are prepared to pivot and turn a guest house or other building into a “sick house,” while others still are exploring Airbnb and Vrbo options. The challenge will be whether to secure a place now to have available long-term or to book once a school has one or more cases. There may also be some resistance on the part of the renter, and schools should be willing to commit to CDC-level cleaning of the residence. Undoubtedly, this will require research and thought on behalf of the schools.

For more information on CDC recommendations for cleaning, please refer to the Physical Plant Cleaning and Close-and-Clean Response to Sickness on Campus sections.

Do We Need To Worry About HIPAA?

Schools have been asking whether they need to factor in HIPAA when making COVID-19 decisions and policies. The answer is likely “no.” For more information, we are reposting information from our September 3 Legal News You Can Use post:

Does HIPAA apply to student health information collected by my school?
Generally, no. HIPAA applies to “covered entities,” which are specifically defined in the law—and do not include schools. However, it is possible for a school nurse to be a covered entity. A health care provider is a covered entity if the provider participates in certain electronic transactions. Most school nurses do not engage in these transactions at all, let alone electronically, so most are not covered.

The law specifically defines the transactions. The nurse is not participating in any of the transactions unless the nurse is communicating directly with the student’s health insurance company. For example, one transaction consists of confirming with the health plan that the student is covered by the plan, and another transaction consists of submitting a health care claim to a health plan for payment. In order to participate “electronically,” the nurse would need to communicate with the student’s health insurance company via email—telephones and fax machines are not considered electronic communications.

If you believe your school may be subject to HIPAA, please contact your legal counsel to review the implications.

Risk Management

While this entire document could arguably fall under this header, there are a few particular elements of risk management we wish to highlight. 
  • Does the school have any crisis or response preparedness plans or protocols that should come into play here?
  • Is it reasonable and does it make sense for the school to develop any such plans at this time? At a minimum, could the school gather key leadership and personnel to play through different scenarios and possible outcomes? This could help the school identify areas of weakness or concern and prepare for various situations.
  • Could the school identify a person or team to be the risk manager or management team to run point on assessing risk related to COVID-19 across school functions?
  • Is the head of school coordinating with the board chair to ensure that leadership on both levels is on the same page, avoiding surprises, and permitting the trustees to think effectively about the school’s long-term sustainability?

Pandemic Threat: COVID-19 Decision Matrix

Update: Since the original publication of this section, many of our schools have reported planning in the event of an internet outage and for longterm closure. Some schools have formalized this planning in different documents, while others are continuing a dialogue-focused process through leadership meetings and communications.

Some of our schools shared that they have created, or are creating, a decision matrix as part of planning for the continued spread of the disease. These matrices, like other risk management planning documents, outline risk factors, level of risk, considerations that must be made, and potential school responses and resources.

For example, in a sample matrix we viewed, the school outlined “Risk Level Indicators” that generally look like the following:
  • Level 1: Low Risk: Pre-planning, preparing for spread (we have passed this phase)
  • Level 2: Moderate Risk: No confirmed cases in school’s area
  • Level 3: Medium Risk: Limited cases in school’s area; no school families known to be infected
  • Level 4: High Risk: At least one case in the school community
  • Level 5: Recovery from post-pandemic period
Of course, the risk indicators are more fully detailed in the actual matrix, but this gives you an idea of how some schools are outlining the risk levels.

Schools engaging in this type of risk management then create a table that outlines various “buckets” that should be considered at each risk level and outlines what the school’s intentions will be. For example, the buckets may include Field Trips, Personnel, Educational Delivery, Community Events, Co-Curricular Programming, School Operations, Emergency Care, Communications, etc. Then, at each risk level, the school analyzes decisions that may need to be made in each bucket. This might look something like the following:
Risk Level Field Trips School Operations
2: Moderate Risk - Local field trips allowed
- Domestic alternatives considered 
- Increased cleaning
- Disinfecting throughout the day
- Professional cleaning at night 3x weekly
3: Medium Risk  - All canceled  - Professional cleaning nightly
We are not suggesting that your matrix mirror this, nor are we suggesting that you take these steps. Rather, we are including a truncated snapshot of what some other schools have decided to do. The schools engaging in this process have a more robust form that carries out to the post-pandemic recovery phase. Thank you again to those schools for sharing their work with us and one another.

School Policies, Contracts, and Related Documents

As discussed in our special session, many schools are carving out time to revisit applicable policies. More urgently, however, they are revisiting applicable contracts and information disseminated to parents. At the end of the day, school leadership will need to make decisions in line with the law, the school’s culture, and community standards, but always making safety the paramount concern.  
The following list highlights some of the documentation that may be affected by the current situation, along with additional notes for your consideration:
  • Handbooks (Student and Family)
    • Communicable disease language/policy, including the explicit right to exclude from the school 
  • Enrollment Contracts
    • Is your contract legally enforceable in your state? Are the relevant provisions enforceable?
    • Force majeure provisions (outlining the school’s right to suspend school, provide alternate learning, extend the school year, or take other such measures in the face of a pandemic, natural disaster, acts of terror or war, etc.) 
      • Does your contract outline whether the school keeps tuition should it invoke this provision? Most of these provisions make clear that they are not tuition refund provisions. 
        • Even if the provision allows the school to retain full tuition, what will be in line with your culture and community?
    • Tuition provisions in the event the student cannot attend school
      • Does your contract outline whether the school keeps tuition should it invoke this provision?
        • Even if it does, what will be in line with your culture and community?
  • Employment Documentation 
    • Do faculty or staff have employment agreements?
      • Do these have force majeure provisions (see above, under Enrollment Contracts)?
      • Is there any other relevant language about the school year or term timing, promises for payment, flexibility for online or remote learning, etc.?
  • Trip and Travel Documentation 
    • With all parties: What language do you have about cancellation, payment, liability, force majeure? 
    • Families and chaperones: What and how are you communicating?
      • With risk and liability, it is very important to make sure that the other party is fully informed of risks, consents to those risks, and waives liability after being fully informed and then agreeing, voluntarily, to assume that risk. 
    • Vendors: Who has the right to cancel, and what are the financial and legal implications of that right (or of disregarding that right)?
      • Remember, of course, that this analysis is secondary to safety concerns.
    • What do the relevant provisions of any trip or travel insurance say about cancellation?
  • Event Documentation
    • Vendor agreements: Review cancellation and force majeure provisions.
    • Event insurance: What will trigger coverage?
Potential Resource (NAIS does not endorse any corporation or product listed herein):

Additional Resources Available to Schools

Miscellaneous Resources

We are fortunate to be a part of this community always but especially in times of crisis. Thank you to all of those who contributed to the resources compiled in this document.  Additional resources can be located on our Understanding Coronavirus: What Schools Need to Know resources page, as well as the Resources List in the Remote Learning and Related Alternatives section of this document.

Sharing Resources on NAIS Connect

At NAIS, we have been thrilled to see schools sharing resources via NAIS Connect. As we like to reiterate, community learning is essential, and we are pleased to help bring independent schools together in this way. While we must always be mindful of antitrust guidance when sharing ideas, we hope you will use NAIS Connect to assist each other in COVID-19 preparedness and response. Listservs may be used to pose questions and share ideas about how to enhance health and safety, while the file share feature may be used to exchange sample community letters and other similar language. As a reminder, these tools may not be used to engage in anti-competitive behavior. Additionally, we caution schools to consider what others in the community have to offer but to refrain from immediate adoption of any practice or policy. There is rarely a one-size-fits-all approach or solution to any problem, and applicable laws, practices, culture, community, and legal guidance must be taken into account.   
Thank you to the entire NAIS team for their work on this piece, but especially to our Staff Attorney Whitney Silverman for her thoughtful contributions, to our Vice President of Media Myra McGovern for penning the section on communications and other helpful guidance, and to our Webmaster Dave Marsters for making sure this information reaches our larger community online. And, of course, thank you to the many schools that contributed to this piece through inquiries, stories, and shared resources.


Global Thinking

Fielding calls throughout the day from our schools, we are hearing leaders broaden the thinking lens from “what is best for my school community?” to “what is best for both my school community and the global community?” Schools are questioning what measures they can take to help limit the spread of the disease and how they can be a part of this global effort. We think this sends an important message to our students as well. We are not just citizens of one school. We are global citizens.

This mirrors the thinking we are doing at NAIS, from our president and throughout the organization.

To be clear, this framework does not automatically generate a “shutdown” or “panic” mentality. On the contrary, we are seeing schools look at the needs of their community in light of these global concerns and make decisions that balance a variety of factors. Our heads and their teams are being extremely thoughtful about next steps—a challenging task in a rapidly evolving landscape with a largely unknown threat. Kudos to you all! We are here to support you and to bring you together to support one another. 

Lead with Kindness and Respect

Do not let fear be an excuse for discrimination, exclusion, and the fueling of hatred or bias. Check in on your community, especially your international students. Ensure that both messaging and practices are inclusive, respectful, and kind. This virus is a global problem. It is everyone’s problem, and everyone needs to be a part of the solution.

Sanitation and Hygiene (Including Education/Awareness)

Hand Sanitation and Hygiene

Nearly every school we’ve spoken to is doing its utmost to promote good hygiene in and out of school in line with CDC recommendations and the general duty under the Occupational Safety and Health Act to provide a hazard-free workplace. There has been an abundance of reminders about proper handwashing distributed via email and posted around the school—especially in the bathroom—as a reminder to use soap and scrub with water for a minimum of 20 seconds (the length of singing the “Happy Birthday” song twice or the “ABC” song). Looking to add a little levity to keep spirits up? Check out this article that lists fun songs to sing while washing your hands.  

Many schools are also increasing hand sanitation stations around campus. If you are using hand sanitizers, the CDC recommends that such products contain at least 60% alcohol to be effective.

No-Contact Greetings Encouraged

With increasing pressure to engage in “social distancing,” all close physical encounters are being highly discouraged. While many of our schools moved from “no hug/high-five/handshake” policies to “fist-bump” policies, and then further still to “elbow-bump” policies, Director-General of the WHO Tedros Adhanom says it’s time to promote “contact free” greetings. Elbow-bumping requires physical contact, and it is recommended that we avoid all unnecessary physical contact.

Physical Plant Cleaning and Food Service

Physical Plant

The CDC updated its cleaning guidance on March 9 to reflect more rigorous measures for cleaning and disinfecting schools with suspected or known cases of COVID-19. Additionally, in the past week-plus, we have seen a major “close-and-clean” trend whereby schools with suspected or confirmed cases, or where someone who has been on the school grounds came into direct contact with a COVID-19 patient, are closing for a day or more to professionally clean the space that may have been contaminated with the virus. For more information, please see the Close-and-Clean Measures Being Taken Around the Country section below.

In the absence of any suspected or known exposure, the CDC currently recommends routine cleaning and offers the following guidance:
  • Routinely clean all frequently touched surfaces in the workplace, such as workstations, countertops, and doorknobs. Use the cleaning agents that are usually used in these areas, and follow the directions on the label.
  • Provide disposable wipes so that commonly used surfaces (for example, doorknobs, keyboards, remote controls, desks) can be wiped down by employees before each use.
If you are giving additional cleaning or disinfection duties to employees, be sure to provide additional training and protective equipment as needed. For additional detailed guidance about coronavirus and cleaning, see this page from the American Cleaning Institute.

Food Service

Schools with food-service vendors should consider the following:
  • What does the vendor contract say about cancellation, suspension, or force majeure? Who has the right to make this decision and what are the consequences (legally and financially)? 
  • Review the contract and speak to your vendor about the possible scenario where the contract is not canceled, but workers are out sick and being replaced by substitutes. How are these subs being trained and background-checked before they engage with our students?
  • What training or assurances is your food-service provider making regarding health training for food-service staff? 

For schools that handle food service internally, health and safety training will be crucial, as will the consideration of substitute workers, as referenced above. Schools may consider temporarily limiting certain foods or food-services processes they think may lead to enhanced germ distribution.

School Events and Travel

School Events and Activities

In light of the president’s announcement on March 16, as well as the CDC's guidance on gatherings and community events, many schools have or will be canceling additional events through the remainder of the school year. 

For those schools not yet canceling all spring events, there has been a substantial move to consider the size, timing, and nature of the event. For example, most of the schools to whom we’ve spoken have canceled spring grandparent events in particular, given the age of the invitee population. Schools should consider whether the event could be moved or done virtually (e.g., an online auction).
Event Insurance: As for the question of financial loss, it is our understanding that many of our schools do not possess event insurance. Further, the trend following the SARS outbreak was for event insurance plans to carve out pandemics, so coverage may not be an option even where such a plan exists.

Misc. Travel

Please review the Travel Ban and State Department Health Advisory section.

Self-Reporting and Self-Quarantine Policies

Schools only have control (and even then, it’s limited) over their own trips. They cannot control where employees and families travel (for vacation or family member business travel). The question, then, is whether schools should collect information about that travel and/or impose restrictions on the family’s return to the school community. This is dicey territory, and schools are taking a variety of approaches. While several law firms initially opined that schools should not ask about family travel and should not implement any domestic travel policies, these are unprecedented times in a rapidly evolving landscape. We at NAIS can certainly see the complications of some of these approaches. How will families respond to this purported invasion of privacy? How far should a school go (e.g., asking for connecting flight info, etc.)? How sustainable are such policies with ongoing travel and the spread of the disease to many more areas? Does gathering this information heighten the responsibility of the school to act on it and thereby increase the liability if they miss a step? As previously mentioned, this does not constitute legal advice, but is a reflection of the steps we are seeing our community take. As the situation evolves and the public health threat continues to increase, it may be increasingly prudent to take steps and ask questions of your community that you did not consider a week or two ago. As with all of these challenging decisions, we recommend discussing any new reporting or quarantining policies with your legal counsel and ensuring your policies are implemented uniformly and fairly.

Many schools have adopted “self-reporting” and “self-quarantine” policies for families and employees traveling for work or pleasure.

Self-Quarantine Policies

Self-quarantine policies are generally taking the form of a notice to the community that does the following: 
  • Requests that all individuals traveling out of the country* regularly check the CDC and State Department websites (before traveling and before returning) 
  • Requires individuals to self-report to a designated school official if traveling to certain areas** 
  • Requires those individuals to remain at home for 14 days to confirm that no signs of the virus are present 
  • Discusses any online learning or resources that may be provided to the family during the self-quarantine period*** 
This includes students traveling home to other areas of the country or globe for spring break.  Before students travel home, however, schools should communicate to families whether the students will be permitted back onto school grounds so families can make the calculated assessment of whether a student should return home, for example, to a CDC Warning Level 3 country or other designated hot spot.

Self-Reporting Policies

Update: Since the initial publication of this document, schools have reported that these policies feel unsustainable. Rather, they are focusing on clear self-quarantine policies, or other policies that limit reentry into the community based on objective factors.

Self-reporting policies take this approach one step further by requiring all community members to inform the school of any upcoming travel within a certain time frame (this includes business travel by a parent, by way of example). This may be difficult to manage community-wide over a longer time period, but we have learned that some schools are developing a form for employees and families to report spring break travel plans as an initial measure. However, it is important to remember that since the situation is changing by the minute, policies that name specific countries or areas of the U.S. (or even State Department or CDC designations) risk becoming out of date if they are too specific. Schools should consider building in flexibility so they can be nimble as the facts and circumstances warrant.

We have learned that certain schools are mandating self-reporting with consequences for failure to do so. It is our understanding they are communicating to the community that a failure to self-report spring break plans will be considered the equivalent of reporting travel to a CDC Warning Level 3 country and thus trigger a self-quarantine plan or policy. 

Keep in mind that the school will need to consider student attendance regulations, sick and other absence policies for employees, local leave laws, and other considerations impacted by absence, whether self-imposed or otherwise. We begin to explore these topics further in this document and will continue to provide updates about what schools are doing. 

* With the spread of the virus in the United States, we will inevitably begin to see these policies extend to domestic travel. We recommend working with your legal counsel to determine how to develop and consistently apply objective criteria for domestic travel. We have heard that some schools, in reaction to news reports, are contacting local public health officials in impacted areas or taking other steps to determine the risk of travel to a domestic area. 

** If you choose to promulgate such a policy for your school, we recommend using objective criteria (e.g., CDC Warning Level 3 countries) to avoid inadvertently engaging in, or appearing to engage in, discriminatory or unfair practices. 

*** We recommend that schools do not promise concrete steps or plans for continued learning during the quarantine period, unless your school is prepared to deliver on those promises. Many schools developing these policies are providing at least some assurances in community communications to avoid a situation whereby parents avoid reporting for fear of consequences for their child(ren). Consider working with your teams and communications specialist on the language that strikes the balance of assuring without promising definitive plans as the situation evolves. 
As with any new policy or practice, and especially when requiring community exclusion, there are both legal and reputational risks. We encourage schools to work with legal counsel prior to implementing new policies of this kind.

School Trips

Assessing Whether to Cancel

Please review the new section Travel Ban and State Department Health Advisory.

As pondered in our special session: “To go or not to go, that is the question.” And we know this is the question on everyone’s minds. This has been a particularly painful point, given the rich history of travel experiences and experiential learning in our independent school community. Everyone agrees on its value, which is why so many of our schools have robust trip and travel programs. With that foundation laid, schools are now faced with assessing risk and making tough decisions about spring plans. 

While completely unsatisfying as a response, it is ultimately a business judgment decision that each school is making, based on a variety of factors (locations, timing, risk tolerance, equity in the community among travelers, etc.). Below, we explore some of the factors to consider when making these decisions and also share examples of what other schools are doing (as of today). While initial go/no-go decisions focused on international travel, as the situation develops in the United States, schools are also applying this analysis (as relevant) to domestic travel, local field trips, and other competitions (sports and academic). 

  • Assess the locations of upcoming spring travel.
  • Check the CDC site for warning levels and other guidance as well as the State Department's travel advisories
  • For domestic travel, consider whether “states of emergency” have been declared/are in effect in the city or state. Consider other relevant outbreak facts as they evolve.
  • Consider the agreements/contracts and insurance at play—what does cancellation look like from a financial or liability standpoint? What are the cancellation deadlines? As always, the most important assessment is that of safety.
  • Develop objective* criteria that can be applied across the board when making this decision. See how this impacts remaining travel.
    • For example, while some schools have canceled trips to all CDC Warning Levels 2 and 3 countries, others have suspended all international travel through the spring. At least one school reported canceling all travel through the spring to avoid any inequity among students.  
    • With the growing outbreak in the United States, we are now hearing from schools that domestic travel is being suspended as well. As the situation changes daily, this can be difficult terrain to navigate. We have learned that schools have considered or implemented the following plans:
      • Cancel travel only if the local public health official at the destination recommends it.
      • Cancel travel to any city where the government has implemented “state of emergency” measures or to the state where the governor has declared this for the state (due to the virus).
      • Cancel travel to any state where the government has implemented “state of emergency” measures in any city (due to the virus).
      • Cancel travel to cities with 5+ confirmed cases of the virus.
      • Cancel/suspend all travel.
      • Additionally, certain schools are suspending travel because the schools are in an area where the virus is spreading. 
Some of our schools have shared that they are forgoing this analysis and plan to move forward with all travel unless the CDC or State Department says not to, and they are prepared to make a game-time decision. Other schools conducted trip surveys and decided to move forward (or not) based on responses from parents and chaperones. Where possible, consider providing alternative activities if a trip is canceled or students opt out of attending. We are seeing a variety of approaches and are grateful that you are sharing them with us and one another. 

*Inconsistencies give rise to liabilities. It is wise to be as consistent as possible in applying these objective criteria. However, at the end of the day, we are hearing that many of our heads are making risk assessments based on the best facts available at the time and in the interest of community safety, even where this decision feels inconsistent with another made. While we encourage you to discuss the liability of that decision with your legal counsel, we understand that these are tough decisions, made in the interest of community health and safety. As one of our heads reported, he viewed this from the perspective of a rock climbing guide: As much as he loves travel, adventure, and learning, “a good guide knows when to turn the client around.”

GEBG Data as of March 18

Thank you to the Global Education Benchmark Group (GEBG) for sharing its data with the community. As of March 18, GEBG member schools have reported 388 school-sponsored summer travel programs. Of these programs, 27% (105 out of 388 programs) have been canceled at this time, so 73% of summer programs are in a monitoring situation, meaning schools are monitoring risk assessment resources and will make a decision about the viability of the program at a later date. (Data snapshot taken on March 18, 2020.)

As can be expected, these data provide a snapshot from a specific moment in time and are changing by the day (or even by the hour).

Steps to Take Before You Go (and While You are There)

  • Stay informed! Check the CDC site for warning levels and other guidance as well as the State Department's travel advisories. Check the news (including whether there are any in-country travel restrictions or border controls) and contact the local public health official at your destination.
    • Be aware that other countries are also taking steps such as requiring quarantines for those who enter the country or are closing their borders all together. These things may change at a moment's notice.
    • Do this before you go and before you return. Be prepared to “shelter in place” if someone falls ill or there is risk posed by your return. 
  • Make sure you still have chaperones. We have heard about chaperones dropping out of existing programs.
  • Make sure that everyone going is fully informed of the risks, the plans, and the contingency plans. Have you written out known risks and provided relevant information, including preventive and risk mitigation actions individual participants need to take before, during, and after the trip? Have you considered holding conferences or video chats to review resources and risks? Have you effectively communicated the voluntary nature of travel and provided an opportunity to opt out? Are you monitoring who receives your emails or attends your meetings? Have these people signed a liability waiver? Is an addendum warranted in light of COVID-19?
    • Communicate the best information (facts) that you have, strongly encourage families to monitor facts from expert sources on their own, and reiterate the voluntary nature of travel. 
    • Communicate any refund, financial loss, or other concomitant issues related to trip cancellation by the school or family. 
  • Consider what steps will need to be taken if a student or chaperone falls ill on the trip. Does this analysis change if the person falls ill with a previously contracted COVID-19 virus and has to be quarantined away/abroad?
  • Be prepared for border control issues for all students, including additional screening. This may be a particularly acute issue for students with foreign passports, returning to the U.S. You may consider traveling with documentation that shows that any student who holds a passport from a “hot spot” country has not been in that country within the last two weeks. 
  • Have embassy and other relevant governmental authority information handy. 

Travel Insurance

As discussed in our special session, we encourage schools to begin or continue thinking about existing travel insurance provisions/coverage, the potential purchase of insurance for future trips and travel, and insurance riders for existing plans.

As of February 26, we learned that schools and families were still able to procure travel insurance and insurance riders for summer plans especially. Since that time, it may come as no surprise that schools and families are finding it increasingly difficult to procure insurance to cover cancellations precipitated by this virus. We have also heard that insurance prices are increasing significantly. 

For existing policies, it would be wise to review the fine print of the coverage documents to understand the contours of the coverage. We are hearing that some schools have made cancellation decisions even where insurance would not provide coverage. As always, the safety and health of the community were the primary drivers of these school decisions. 

Additionally, many schools are emphasizing to families the voluntary nature of such travel programs, as well as highlighting the evolving and unknown landscape of future travel, given the pandemic. To that end, many schools are encouraging families to purchase travel insurance on their own.

School Spotlight Series Archive

One School’s Holistic Online Strategy 

When Mike Davis, head of school at Colorado Academy (CO), addressed his community to announce plans for online learning, he made a commitment to be innovative in trying to support students in a holistic way. Understanding that learning, development, and social-emotional wellness are about more than classroom lectures, he promised parents he would consider creative ways to engage his students. For example, his school is exploring how to provide athletic and artistic exercises during the day, including yoga for lower school students. In addition to daily, age-appropriate athletic exercises, Colorado Academy will continue music lessons and art classes for grades pre-K through 12. To support mental health, the school’s online programming will attempt to focus on structure and scheduling so children have a system they can rely on. For additional mental health support, school counselors will hold virtual office hours and will provide education to parents and guardians in the community.

The challenge, Davis admitted, will be in finding the balance between parent partnership—a cornerstone of success even under normal conditions—and healthy boundaries. The team is educating parents on how to resist that “hovering” urge with their older children. Students will need room to thrive and grow in an independent way, even when their “classroom” is the family home.

Delving into unknown territory, such as full-scale online learning for an indefinite period of time, requires our schools to be nimble and open-minded. However, through stories like Colorado Academy’s, we see mission-driven action that gives us incredible confidence for the days and weeks ahead. 

One School’s Attempt at “Normalcy”

I am a proud independent school mother and my son attends Riverside School (VA), a lower school program for children with dyslexia. Riverside is moving to a temporary online learning model starting Wednesday. When I asked Head of School Hal Waller what his priorities were, aside from safety and health, he stated “normalcy.” Admittedly, he followed that up with a bit of a chuckle, stating that might be the most challenging thing right now, but he believes that all students, and especially learning-differences students, need whatever ounce of it we can give them. His hope is to provide that sense of normalcy and minimize disruption through a focus on relationships. One goal to further that end will be making sure his students see their teachers, online and in videos, and that they can feel a sense of calm and connection through the maintenance of these relationships. He is also encouraging teachers to use students’ names, as they would in a physical classroom, to emphasize connection and make students feel “seen.” Ultimately, he told me that Riverside’s plan is to “empower teachers” throughout this process, to be creative and to do what they feel is best for the students’ learning and social-emotional wellness.

The school’s first attempt at online community-building will be a community-wide (faculty, staff, students) Zoom test run on Tuesday, followed by the school’s standard morning assembly on Wednesday at 8 a.m., just as the school would usually do every morning.

For a community accustomed to gathering to start every day, Riverside believes that routine could be important for the students (and perhaps even faculty and staff). We love the thought process behind this decision and are grateful to the school for allowing us to share it publicly.


Thank you to Staff Attorney Whitney Silverman, Vice President of Media Myra McGovern, and the entire NAIS team for their work on this piece. And, of course, thank you to the many schools that contributed to this piece through inquiries, stories, and shared resources.

While NAIS is committed to supporting schools as they prepare and respond to COVID-19 concerns, this document is not intended to, nor does it, provide any legal advice.

If your school has an inquiry that you believe would have broad appeal to aid the larger independent school community, please email to suggest additional content for this guidance document.