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SKSD, other districts tread lightly on liability

Officials say their emphasis is on creating safe environment for staff, students

  • Friday, November 6, 2020 11:53am
  • News

By Mike De Felice

Special to Kitsap Daily News

PORT ORCHARD — In-person teaching originally scheduled to begin next Monday in the South Kitsap School District for its youngest students has been postponed due to a rise in COVID-19 cases in the county, the district announced Friday.

But when the back-to-the-classroom transition begins on a date yet to be determined, a little-discussed potential problem associated with in-classroom teaching has also surfaced: If a student or staff person contracts the coronavirus while at school, can that person file a lawsuit against the school?

Though it has escaped mainstream news coverage, liability remains an issue of significant uncertainty for school districts, according to Education Week, an independent news organization that covers education news and analysis. School officials and insurers across the county are facing questions about COVID-19-related insurance liability as they begin classes, but answers so far remain elusive.

The Independent requested an interview with a school district official about its potential liability but instead was provided with a written statement.

“Liability in the event of transmission is an active question across the country and is as yet unsettled,” the district’s statement said. “The district’s position on the question of liability is to do everything we can to mitigate the potential for COVID-19 transmission in our schools/workplaces.

“We are currently following all Kitsap Public Health and Labor & Industries guidance, as it evolves, to ensure we provide appropriate personal protective equipment, training, cleaning, attestation, and all other safety protocols.”

The district has beefed up its insurance coverage since the start of the pandemic. The Washington Schools Risk Management Pool, of which South Kitsap School District is a member, was able to bind $10 million in COVID-19-related insurance coverage for their members, according to the district.

Some districts across the country have sought to minimize liability exposure for returning students by asking parents to sign liability waivers. Such waivers can state the family is aware of COVID’s potential health impacts, that attending an in-person class can increase the chance of contracting the virus and that in the event the student contracts the virus, the school district will not be held liable.

Similar waivers are used for students participating in school sports.

SKSD is not requiring a similar waiver for students returning to in-person classes, officials said. However, the district is asking that for each day a student comes to a school building, the parents attest the child is not showing COVID symptoms or has not been in close contact with a person suspected or confirmed of having the virus.

Staff members will also be asked to make the same health affirmations daily, officials said.

“We are working to make sure families understand the safety protocols and modifications made to our school campuses. Part of the protocol is a required daily health attestation for each student that parents/guardians are asked to complete before sending students to school or bus stop,” a follow-up written statement from the district stated.

The potential liability question is not an issue with the South Kitsap Education Association, which represents SKSD teachers and certified staff.

“It’s not a prevailing concern of my members,” association president John Richardson said, “because the school district can be held liable if they don’t follow the health regulations. I do believe the district wants to follow the health guidelines for the right reasons, not just for liability reasons, but to keep people safe.

“I think there are places where school districts don’t believe this virus is that serious — and they may cut corners. That would concern me,” Richardson said.

No known lawsuit has been filed in Washington state by a person claiming they contracted the virus at a school, according to a Washington Education Association (WEA) spokesperson.

SKSD’s plan returning students to classrooms gives parents the choice to have their child remain in virtual learning or to attend in-person classes.

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