Editor's note: This article was updated on July 30, 2020 with the most recent TEA and CDC guidance.
As shelter-in-place orders expire, educational institutions are confronted with the complicated task of preparing facilities for a safe return of employees and students.
Several factors must be considered when implementing a return-to-work plan, including safety, written procedures and guidelines, workforce balance, and overall communication. More than likely, the workplace will look different and will forever be impacted by the pandemic. A phased-in approach to reopening facilities and resuming operations may be the key to a successful return.
Safety for all should be a top priority. This may include establishing a process for daily screenings, requiring and supplying employees with proper protective gear (e.g., masks), requiring proper hygiene, and implementing strategies to ensure physical distancing.
Facilities must be prepared before the workforce returns, including implementing distancing measures. Staggering the workforce to report in shifts will help limit the number of employees in the physical space. Rotating schedules onsite (e.g., splitting daily schedules, rotating days) while maintaining a remote working environment will help with business continuity. Limiting building occupancy; closing common kitchens, eating spaces, and break areas; and encouraging employees to maintain six feet distance with others also may be considered.
Repositioning furniture and adjusting traffic flow (e.g., making one-way), especially in narrow hallways, will promote a healthy work environment. Plexiglass shields may need to be installed in reception and other work areas for anyone who has public interactions, and doors can be propped open to avoid touching handles. It is important to post signage throughout the facility referencing physical distancing and good hygiene.
The requirement to use appropriate protective gear (masks, gloves, etc.) should be determined by the employee’s job responsibilities and duties and may vary throughout a facility. The higher an employee’s risk, the greater amount of protection will be required. Accommodating an employee who feels safer with protection when not required is recommended. Providing anti-bacterial soap at every sink and hand sanitizer (at least 60 percent alcohol) throughout the facility will help ensure proper hygiene is practiced.
An exposure-response plan is designed to identify, track, and notify employees who are exposed to COVID-19. The plan should outline quarantine requirements, leave availability, and any other benefits available to the employee. It also should designate key participants for implementing the plan as well as a process for a temporary shut-down of portions of or entire facilities and deep-cleaning requirements if an employee who has been present in the workplace is diagnosed with COVID-19.
Implementing daily medical screenings allows for early detection of illness and may include a temperature reading and questions regarding an individual’s health. Engaging school health care professionals in the process would be beneficial.
If an employee has a fever (100.4 degrees or greater) or other symptoms (e.g., cough, sneezing, shortness of breath) the employer must be ready to provide additional guidance, including sending the employee home until fever free for at least three days without medicine, improved respiratory symptoms for a set number of days, or allowing a return after an established number of days of symptom onset. An earlier return may be permitted for an employee diagnosed with a non-COVID-19 related illness by providing a note from a medical professional.
Self-reporting of diagnosis or exposure to COVID-19 should be mandatory. Establishing a reporting process and steps required for self-quarantine and return to work must be communicated to employees to ensure safety for all. HR needs to have a plan in place to respond when an employee notifies the district he or she has been diagnosed or exposed to COVID-19. It is helpful to have procedures outlined for employee communications, to identify and notify others who may have been exposed if the employee has been at work, and for returning the employee to work. The following tools for responding to an employee diagnosis or exposure to COVID-19 are available in the HR Library (myTASB login required):
If a positive case is identified, an area may be closed for a two-week period. If the individual had frequent contact outside a single area, an entire facility may need to be closed for two weeks. To keep all school facilities safe, a district must not allow an individual with known close contact to a person who is lab-confirmed to have COVID-19 to enter a building until the end of the 14 day self-quarantine period from the last date of exposure.
Establishing procedures and guidelines requires making decisions on other factors, including business travel and visitor guidelines. Planning for the unknown may seem impossible, but the more thorough the process the better chance of eliminating future concerns and possible grievances.
Guidelines on business travel should be addressed and communicated. Limiting travel to essential business is the safest first approach. Monitoring the return to work effectiveness will help gage the next phases of travel.
School facilities encounter visitors as a daily routine. Preparation must occur to ensure the safety of employees and visitors. Providing signage for visitors directing where to go for assistance is important. Requesting visitors to call ahead, when possible, will help manage the traffic flow into buildings and help staff limit the number of people in the facility. Encouraging no contact and using tape markers to identify spacing has proven to be an effective approach. Offering video or telephone conferencing in lieu of onsite visits can help deter visitors to buildings.
Leave and remote work
Some employees will not want to or may not be able to return to work for several reasons. Employees in high-risk categories, lacking childcare, or caring for an individual have valid reasons for delaying their return and need to be addressed on a case-by-case basis.
The most important approach is to listen to each specific employee, identify whether a valid reason exists for the failure to return, consider remote work as an accommodation, and determine if leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFRCA) applies. The model FFRCA leave request form (docx) is available in the HR Library and can be used to document the need for leave.
If an employee is unable to return to work because of an underlying health issue, it may be necessary to follow the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accommodation process to identify a reasonable accommodation to allow them to perform the essential job functions. This may include providing a special mask, remote work, relocating or reconfiguring the workspace, or providing unpaid leave.
If an employee, absent a medical condition, is fearful or reluctant to return to the workplace, inform them of steps taken to ensure their safety. Assigning these conversations to a specific HR staff member can provide a consistent thoughtful approach to working with employees. The person must be sincere, clear, and compassionate to ensure an employee feels heard. If the employee continues to refuse to return, following leave policies and providing access to accrued paid and unpaid leave consistently will ensure fair treatment of employees. A final option may be termination of employment. An employee’s refusal to return may be considered a resignation. If so, clearly documenting the requirement to return and an employee’s refusal to return will help manage unemployment claims that may follow.
Returning employees to work in phases means not all employees will be returning at once. During the first phase, a limited number of essential workers who cannot work remotely will return to the workplace. Workers who can productively work from home will continue to do so.
As the school year concludes, ten-month employees will end their work calendars and move into the normal summer break helping to alleviate the number of staff physically at work during the summer months. More employees may return to the workplace, but with limitations on their proximity to each other. Some employees will need reasonable accommodation due to their health risk factors or lack of childcare, and remote work for some will continue. The third phase, where work is closer to pre-pandemic circumstance, may occur at a later date (e.g., this fall).
Technology may need to be updated or refined as plans for the fall continues. It is likely not all students will return to the classroom. Schools may continue offering remote learning to some students, staggering the return of students on a weekly or daily basis, or implement other instructional options. Remote work may continue into the future and may provide educational institutions cost savings over other mitigating measures.
Communication and training
Communicating steps in place to ensure a healthy environment for employees, students, and parents will alleviate fears. Communication is important to implementing a well-planned return-to-work program and needs to be consistent to be trusted. It may be in the form of signage, memos providing guidance, training, and soliciting feedback.
When arriving at work, employees should feel safe and confident in actions taken to provide for their safety. This begins with correspondence received prior to the return. Concerns about safety precautions and work schedules in addition to offering contact information for questions can be addressed. Notifying employees of required protective equipment and how they may obtain it is helpful.
All employees should receive safety training. Each employee must take responsibility for a safe work environment, and the training can ensure employees do their part. In addition to standard procedures provided by custodial staff, employees may be given supplies and directions for sanitizing their areas at determined intervals depending on the likelihood of exposure. Identifying products and giving guidance on proper use should be provided.
Frequently seeking feedback and acting on it can make the transition back to the facilities easier. These uncertain times are difficult to navigate, and one person cannot be expected to have all the answers for an effective return. Suggestions and employee involvement can be thought-provoking and lead to solutions to unforeseen problems.
As the workforce returns, resentments may develop due to employee perceptions of disparate treatment as some employees are allowed to work remotely. It is important to monitor the work environment and encourage supervisors to do so as well. Recognizing issues prior to them festering into potential disparate claims is key.
The Texas Education Agency (TEA) continues to update its resources on the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Support and Guidance webpage including, general public health resources and general guidance and FAQs.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Schools and Childcare Programs – Plan, Prepare, and Respond may be helpful when navigating return to work processes. Guiding principles and mitigation strategies are provided for operating schools during COVID-19.
Although Texas school districts are not required to comply with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) guidelines, the organization provides resources that may be helpful for managing risk exposures. The Ten Steps All Workplaces Can Take to Reduce Risk of Exposure to Coronavirus (pdf) is a one-page document providing guidance for prevention of infection.
Karen Dooley is a senior HR consultant at TASB HR Services. Send Karen an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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