As the beginning of the fall school term approaches, Catholic schools in dioceses across the U.S. are asking the parents of students returning in person to sign waivers of liability amid the risk of coronavirus infection.
At the same time, many dioceses are also offering remote learning options for parents who do not wish to send their children back to school in person.
One such diocese is St. Petersburg, which sent a letter to the parents of its nearly 13,000 students on Monday, asking them to sign a waiver of liability, choosing to accept the risk that their children may be sickened by coronavirus at school.
The letter acknowledges that although the diocese and each Catholic school has implemented reasonable preventative measures, schools cannot guarantee that parents or students will not contract COVID-19.
“We wanted to first educate our parents just about the assumption of risk,” Chris Pastura, superintendent of schools for the diocese, told the Tampa Bay Times.
“When they make choices to send their children back to school, there is a risk in every activity...We think it’s important for kids to be back in school whenever possible,” he said.
One parent who spoke with the Tampa Bay Times said the waiver did not bother her, because the diocese is providing options for at-home learning for parents who are uncomfortable sending their children back to school in person. The parent said she viewed the waiver as the school system trying to protect itself from a litigious society.
Catholic school systems in several dioceses across the country, including several in Florida, are planning similar liability waivers. These include the Dioceses of Palm Beach and St. Augustine, according to local media reports. Both dioceses are offering remote learning options.
CNA spoke on background with diocesan officials outside of Florida, who said that from a risk management perspective, coronavirus presents unique challenges, but that some risk of injury or even death is inherent in almost any school situation.
Many U.S. dioceses plan to reopen in the fall, even as public school districts across the country are announcing plans for virtual learning and shuttered schools. Diocesan officials said many Catholic schools have worked closely with local healthcare experts to follow national guidelines from the CDC as they plan for reopening.
When school does reopen, St. Petersburg will likely not be the only diocese to require waivers of liability.
Officials in one diocese told CNA that waivers are generally viewed as a reasonable measure for parents wishing to send their students back in person, given the circumstances, and that districts are also working to offer virtual options.
Even when schools take all the precautions they can, each family should use their best judgement in deciding whether to return students to school in the fall, one diocesan official told CNA.
Many dioceses have not yet announced the details of their plans for fall reopenings, and several contacted by CNA did not respond to questions about whether they will require waivers. Among those that did comment, several are under unique circumstances because of state regulations in California.
In the Archdiocese of New York, the most recent guidance offers parents the option of sending children for in-person learning either two or three days a week, with remote learning the other days; or full-time remote learning. An archdiocesan spokesperson declined to comment on whether the archdiocese will be using liability waivers.
For California dioceses, the picture is more complicated. Governor Gavin Newsom has mandated that in-person learning will not be allowed for public or private schools whose jurisdiction is on a state monitoring list for rising COVID-19 infections.
California will allow in-person learning once a local health jurisdiction has been removed from the state’s list for 14 days.
Though private schools in the state can apply to opt out of remote learning if they meet the state’s criteria for reopening, there is currently no process in place to do so, so the San Francisco archdiocese has not yet had to deal with consent forms for in-person learning, spokesperson Mike Brown told CNA.
The Archdiocese of Los Angeles is also awaiting the opportunity to apply for permission to conduct in-person instruction. All three counties in the LA archdiocese are currently under the state’s monitoring list, and the archdiocese is awaiting the release of protocols and procedures from county public health departments, an archdiocesan spokeswoman told CNA.
Once they have those details, the LA archdiocese can determine how or if the schools will apply to conduct in-person learning, the spokeswoman said.
Several other California dioceses including Sacramento, Fresno, and Orange are seeking waivers from the state to open their Catholics schools in person, according to local media reports.
For many dioceses, guidance from insurance providers can play a major role in reopening plans. A senior official in one diocese, to whom CNA spoke on background, said guidance from insurance companies is important to take into account, since those companies will have to process any liability claims made against schools.
A school finance administrator in another diocese confirmed to CNA that guidance from its insurance provider has factored heavily into reopening planning.
Catholic Mutual, one of the nation’s largest insurance providers for Catholics entities, has provided guidance to its members on risk management throughout the pandemic.
In early March, before the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic, Catholic Mutual advised making these adjustments “after a pandemic has been declared”: distribution of Holy Communion only under the species of bread; not passing collection baskets; and bowing rather than shaking hands at the sign of peace.
According to Catholic Mutual, “Communion on the tongue is strongly discouraged” after the declaration of pandemic. The group added that “if the pandemic progresses to a more serious stage” more changes may need to be made, such as the emptying of Holy Water fonts, seating in alternate rows of pews, and limits on the number of attendees to baptisms, weddings, or funerals.
After the pandemic was declared, many U.S. dioceses announced changes largely in line with those recommendations.
Catholic Mutual declined to respond to questions from CNA.
In its most recent guidance on school reopening for members, issued June 3, the insurance company advised students and staff should stay home when appropriate, and that schools should implement screening measures, social distancing, and sanitation methods in line with CDC guidelines.
“The CDC guidelines are somewhat generic. We believe this relates to the difficulty of developing a one-size-fits-all plan and/or guidelines to fit all educational facilities. To complicate matters, guidance likely should be varied by elementary, middle school and high school. With this said, keep in mind there will never be a perfect plan,” the guidance from Catholic Mutual reads.
“Any plan made will not be foolproof and it will be impossible to remove all risk. Our recommendation would be to carefully combine a common sense approach regarding what works for your school along with CDC guidelines and local/state directives and requirements.”