The Season For Spring Cleaning (And Updating School Handbooks)
With the arrival of spring and warmer weather, it is the ideal time of the year for schools to review and update their employee and student/parent handbooks based on recent developments, best practices, and applicable laws. Employee and student/parent handbooks are critical documents for conveying community standards and expectations. They are also a vehicle to aid schools in ensuring and demonstrating legal compliance. As such, it is critical that schools take a look at these handbooks from both a policy and a compliance standpoint each year.
Below is a summary of some provisions for schools to consider when preparing to review and update their employee and student/parent handbooks for the 2022-23 school year.
- Remote Work And Flexible Work Arrangements – With the pandemic bringing on a new era of working remotely, some schools, in an effort to help attract and retain employees, are contemplating allowing remote or other flexible work arrangements for certain positions. Schools that opt to do so should be sure to have a clear policy that outlines the circumstances in which employees may be allowed (or even required) to work remotely. The policy should also detail remote work expectations, including, for instance, when and where remote work is to be performed, as well as policies relating to technology usage, security, confidentiality, and privacy. It is important to keep in mind that a handful of states have specific laws that require employers to reimburse employees for necessary business expenses that they incur. In light of this, we recommend schools review and update their policies relating to any technology or other business-related expense reimbursements and any additional obligations for remote work.
- Equal Employment Opportunity – Federal, state, and local laws prohibit employers from discriminating against applicants and employees on the basis of a number of protected classes. The list of protected classes and covered individuals continues to grow as states and municipalities enact new laws and amend existing laws with regard to equal employment and non-discrimination. Schools should be sure to update their equal employment and non-discrimination policies in accordance with all recent developments.
- Sexual And Other Harassment – A number of states and local jurisdictions require employers to maintain a written policy preventing harassment in the workplace, and even where no such legal requirement exists, this is a critical best practice. A school’s employee handbook should include a detailed policy affirming its prohibition of sexual harassment in the workplace and advising employees on what to do if they experience or witness sexual harassment. The policy should prohibit not only sexual harassment, but all forms of harassment based on a protected class or characteristic.
- Paid Leave – A growing number of states and municipalities have enacted various paid leave laws, including paid family and medical leave to assist employees who take time off due to a serious illness of their own or a family member or for the birth of a child. Paid family and medical leave programs recently went into effect in Massachusetts and Connecticut, and Oregon and Colorado will begin similar programs in 2023. Schools should ensure that their leave policies comply with all applicable paid leave laws in their state and municipality.
- Sexual Assault/Interpersonal Misconduct – Sexual assault and misconduct among students continues to be a prevalent challenge impacting schools. As such, schools should consider implementing (or revising existing) student interpersonal conduct policies to outline expectations for students regarding appropriate interactions with peers, as well as when and how the school will respond to potential violations. Schools should also contemplate whether they want the discretion to respond to interpersonal misconduct occurring off campus that may impact the school environment, while understanding any legal obligations they might have to respond to such incidents.
- Mental Health – There is no doubt that schools have noticed an increase in student mental health challenges in recent years. Thus, schools should take a look at their policies related to these challenges, including access to counseling services and medical leave, and the importance of parental collaboration while addressing a student’s mental health challenges. Schools may also want to review their school counselor authorization forms and other health and medical forms to ensure that the forms are in sync with their policies, and that the policies and forms establish an appropriate relationship between the school counselor and a student for purposes of confidentiality and the ability to share health information as needed.
- Student Discipline And Reporting – Student discipline policies should include sufficient details to put students on notice of the potential consequences for their conduct. With the removal of school discipline questions from the Common App – an application for admission used by over 900 colleges and universities – schools may want to consider taking a fresh look at their policies on reporting discipline. Such policies should outline the school’s procedures for reporting disciplinary consequences to colleges, next schools or other educational institutions where the school is required to do so, while also reserving the school’s discretion to communicate or report such consequences on a case-by-case basis, even absent a legal obligation.
- Parental Comportment –A positive relationship between a school and each student’s parents/guardians is essential to the fulfillment of a school’s mission, goals, and curriculum. During the last two years, schools have seen an uptick of parents/guardians becoming more vocal and expressing (often publicly) their dissatisfaction with school policies, initiatives, and mandates. Now is the time to think about whether your school needs a parental comportment policy, or, if you already have one, whether changes are necessary to set more clear expectations for parents and other individuals associated with students. Key components of this type of policy include establishing expectations for families to build and maintain a positive school environment by not participating in or tolerating gossip, a shared commitment to collaboration, appropriate channels of communication, mutual respect, and a common vision of the goals to be achieved. As such, a parental comportment policy can be critical in protecting a school when the parent-school relationship is no longer constructive such that separation is warranted.
- COVID-19 Considerations – Finally, the pandemic has driven schools to focus on and develop COVID-19 health and safety policies and procedures to mitigate the potential risks for their community. As with last year, schools should consider establishing clear policies and protocols with regard to vaccinations, mask wearing, COVID-19 testing, and any other health and safety requirements for employees and students that are in line with any local and state guidance. Given the unknown course of the pandemic over the next school year, it is imperative that a school preserve its ability to modify such policies and protocols as needed.
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Please feel free to contact any of the attorneys in the Firm’s Employment or Education Groups with questions or if we can be of assistance in updating your school’s employee or student/parent handbook.