August usually brings the excitement of a new school year.  Aisles at local department stores overflow with reams of lined paper, packets of highlighters and pens, and brightly colored spiral notebooks.  Children fill their last days of summer with sleepovers, ice cream, and hours by the pool before they are back in the classroom for eight hours a day. 

This year, however, August brings much uncertainty as the spread of COVID-19 has led to a life-altering pandemic.  Many Georgia public school districts, including Cobb, Fulton, Clarke, and Dekalb, have decided to begin the semester all virtually in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19.  Other districts, like Paulding, are going forth with in-person learning, with enhanced safety measures reflecting CDC guidelines.  Private schools are also struggling with how to proceed during these uncertain times. In addition, childcare services for children five and under have drastically reduced their capacity with many centers closing due to concerns over the spread of the virus.  Most that remained open also diligently follow enhanced safety measures provided by the Georgia early education department, Bright from the Start. 

Considerations When Choosing a School/Daycare Facility

Prior to COVID-19, parents already had much to consider when determining which childcare or school program was best for their children.  For younger children, Bright from the Start, the Georgia pre-kindergarten program, provides parents with a checklist of considerations, but these considerations are also applicable to parents of K-12 students.  Considerations include the following:

  1. Will my child be safe, healthy, and thrive?
  2. What will my child do during the day?
  3. How are parents included?
  4. What will my child eat and when?
  5. How are staff supported?
  6. Do I agree with the discipline policy?
  7. What is the cost of care?

While these considerations are still important for parents, a few more have been added to the due to COVID-19.  Adherence to CDC guidelines is at the forefront of the checklist.  Parents must now make the choice between virtual learning and in-person learning.  Parents are looking at class sizes, mask requirements, and social distancing measures both public and private schools are taking to slow the spread of COVID-19. 

When determining where to send their child to school, it is important for parents to remember that sovereign immunity applies to the Georgia public education system.  Under Article I, section II, paragraph IX of Georgia’s state constitution, it states “sovereign immunity extends to the state and all of its departments and agencies.”  This constitutional provision provides immunity to the Georgia Department of Education (DOE) from negligence claims against faculty and staff members of the department.  This means that if a child were to contract COVID-19 at school, whether or not the school was negligent in following CDC guidelines, parents cannot file suit against the school system. 

Even though there is sovereign immunity, public elementary and secondary education schools are provided the right to purchase liability insurance pursuant to O.C.G.A. § 20-2-991.  It is not explicitly required; therefore, it is important to consider whether or not one’s school board has purchased liability insurance.  Some school districts are self-insured while others have purchased liability insurance. Regardless, contracting COVID-19 will not be covered by liability insurance as there is no direct way to prove that one’s child became sick while at school.  Still, it is important to research liability insurance as a general consideration for school selection because the presence or absence of liability insurance is a big deal for auto-accident claims involving a school bus.

Similarly, daycare facilities are strongly encouraged but not required to purchase liability insurance.  Under O.C.G.A. § 20-1a-4, facilities that have not purchased liability insurance to cover events of negligence are required to post this fact in a prominent location and notify all parents.  Parents are also required to sign a form acknowledging their understanding that the facility has not purchased liability insurance.  Once again, it is unlikely contracting COVID-19 would fall under the coverage of liability insurance, but it is still important to consider as accidents at school are bound to happen, no matter how diligent the providers.  

Additionally, many local private schools are opening to in-person learning while taking extra precautions to do so. One example is Casa Montessori in Cobb County. Private schools have more flexibility than public schools and some cases are better suited to implement CDC guidelines to ensure a safe environment for returning school children.

How Governor Brian Kemp’s Executive Order Impacts Schools/Daycare Facilities 

On June 29, 2020, Governor Kemp renewed the public health state of emergency, extending the emergency until August 11.  Additionally, Governor Kemp updated Executive Order 06.29.20.02 titled “Empowering a Healthy Georgia.”  This order provides guidance for how citizens and government alike should combat the public health crisis of COVID-19.  Section VII focuses on how to protect children while still providing educational opportunities throughout the pandemic.  

The order allows school boards to depart from the traditional definitions of school year, month, and day detailed under O.C.G.A. §20-2-160(c)(2), providing flexibility for schools to determine for themselves how best to handle preventing the spread of COVID-19.  As of now, some counties have opted for virtual learning, where “independent study” will take place in the morning hours and classroom study over Zoom will take place in the afternoon.  Shortened school days are permissible under this order.

Governor Kemp’s order also provides a list of suggestions for how schools proceeding with in-person learning can protect their students from the spread of COVID-19.  These suggestions include screening for COVID-19 among individuals exhibiting symptoms, disinfecting surfaces often, encouraging outside lunch, discouraging students from using other students’ items, and requiring individuals who exhibit symptoms to not report to school.  It is strongly recommended for schools to follow this protocol; however, the order does not specifically require schools to follow this guidance.

In addition to providing recommendations for elementary and secondary education facilities, the order also details the running of daycare facilities.  Daycare facilities must adhere to the worker-child rations set forth by Bright from the Start.  Under Bright from the Start’s COVID-19 regulations, only 50 children, faculty, and staff can be in a single room at one time.  Not only must ratios be followed, extraneous transportation to and from the facility must cease.  The only transportation permitted under the order is transportation to and from the child’s place of residence.  Additional requirements, not suggestions as for elementary and secondary education, include screening children prior to them entering the classroom, restricting parental access to the classroom, having meals in the classrooms, not using toys that cannot be sanitized, and sanitizing bedding.  Parents can also look to the Bright from the Start’s COVID-19 page for more information on specific regulations. 

Considering the continued increase in COVID-19 cases, it is likely the public health emergency will be extended after August 11 and require another update to the executive order on “Empowering a Healthy Georgia.”  Parents should continue to stay up to date on orders published as they have a direct impact on their child’s education. 

How to Protect Your Child from COVID-19

There is no perfect solution to protect children from possible exposure to COVID-19 once they return in in-person learning. The risks can be minimized, but not eliminated. This is especially true for younger children who have difficulty understanding the importance of wearing masks and social distancing.

With that in mind, it is important for parents to teach their children how to protect themselves against contracting the virus.  First, parents should encourage their child to wear a mask while at school.  Many schools are requiring masks, but even if they are not, masks are important in helping to slow the spread of the virus.  Parents might worry about if their child can comply with wearing a mask for long periods of time; however, there are ways for children to become comfortable with wearing one.  Parents, prior to school beginning, should practice wearing a mask with their children.  Increase the amount of time per day the child wears the mask until they are fully comfortable wearing it for eight hours at a time, as they would during school.  Additionally, you can teach children how to properly take on and off the mask without touching their faces.

A second way for parents to protect their children is to teach their children how to properly social distance.  Children will likely look forward to seeing their friends for the first time since in-person learning ended in mid-March, so it is important for parents to emphasize to their children to avoid, they best they can, any unnecessary contact or close interaction with other children and teachers. Anyone with children will understand the difficulty in this approach, but simply reminding the children of the importance of social distancing will have an impact. Parents can also teach their children different, non-contact, ways to greet classmates and practice playing games without touching one another.

Third, parents can pack their child’s lunch rather than relying on school-prepared lunches.  This will limit the amount of people involved in handling the child’s food and the amount of surfaces the child must touch prior to getting the food.  The surfaces include opening the fridge to get milk, grabbing the tray, and punching in their lunch number on the pad.  Parents should also practice opening lunch items with their child prior to the start of school and pack easy to open food packaging.  Once again, this will reduce the amount of hands that touch the child’s food.

Lastly, parents should pack portable hand sanitizers and anti-bacterial wipes for their child.  In addition to encouraging frequent hand washing and sanitizing, parents should teach their child to wipe down surfaces.  Students should sanitize their desk each morning, the lunch table they are eating at, computer keyboards they are using, and any other surfaces that other individuals will be touching as well.  It is important, in an attempt to prevent further spread of COVID-19, for students take proactive measures to protect their own health.

These are just some suggestions for protecting children while attending in-person classes.  This is by no means an exhaustive list and parents should take into consideration risk factors, including asthma and autoimmune disorders, when deciding how to approach this school year.

School Buses

The return of in-person instruction brings more concerns than just those of the classroom and school building.  In-person instruction brings with it the use of school buses.  The Georgia statutory code (O.C.G.A.) details provisions concerning school buses and the liability associated with them.  O.C.G.A. § 20-2-1090 authorizes school districts to create insurance policies to insure students in the event of an accident. Additionally, O.C.G.A.  § 40-6-163 requires vehicles to stop when children are getting on or getting off school buses, and in turn penalizing drivers who do not.  The pieces of legislation do not waive the sovereign immunity detailed by the Georgia’s constitution, but, rather, find ways to provide compensation for potential injuries without the school board accepting liability for negligent actions.

As school buses are under the control of the school district, school bus drivers also enjoy the same sovereign immunity as other county employees.  With this said, it is up to the individual students to protect themselves from exposure to COVID-19, as there is no redress for negligent infection on the part of the bus driver.  Even under the best of circumstances, it is hard to control the spread of a simple cold or the flu when children are confined to such a small space.  Parents should encourage their children to space out as much as possible, wear a mask, and wipe down their seat before sitting down in order to ensure the least amount of contact with germs.

Parents’ Choice

The start of school will be a new experience for parents, students, and teachers alike.  Whether school is virtual or in-person, the risks of contracting COVID-19 impact the education-related decisions that parents make for their children.  In addition to the typical considerations of private versus public, liability insurance, and academic curriculum, parents must now consider how facilities are addressing CDC guidelines and how to best protect their child from contracting the virus.  Parents must look to executive orders, policies and regulations posted by school boards and Bright from the Start, as well as individual classroom functioning.  All of these considerations are understandably overwhelming for parents, but hopefully this post provides ample resources for making an informed decision.  The following resources are excellent sources of information on COVID-19 and requirements for in-person schooling:

Resources

Executive Order 06.26.20.02

https://gov.georgia.gov/executive-action/executive-orders/2020-executive-orders

Bright from the Start, COVID-19 Protocols

http://www.decal.ga.gov/BFTS/Covid19.aspx

Georgia Department of Education, COVID-19 Protocols

https://www.georgiainsights.com/coronavirus.html

Georgia Personal Injury Lawyers Offering Free Consultations

As Georgia citizens navigate through these uncertain times, the Williams Elleby legal team wants everyone to know that we are working hard to keep our offices clean and sanitary for our clients and visitors. If you or a loved one have been injured due to someone else’s negligence, we offer free consultations with our lawyers. The consultations can be in person, by phone, or virtually by Zoom. If you prefer in person meetings, please be aware that a face mask is required for the safety of our staff and guests. Simply call 833-LEGALGA (833-534-2542) to set up your consultation today.

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