Washington school superintendents are facing criticism after asking the governor’s office to take executive action shielding districts from coronavirus liability in the new school year.
In a July 24 letter to Gov. Jay Inslee, the Washington Schools Risk Management Pool and ClearRisk solutions urged the governor to sign an executive order to protect districts from COVID-19 liability lawsuits.
The letter calls on the state to consider the costly challenges of providing education in the midst of a pandemic.
“These limited public funds cannot be diverted to costly new litigation and liability exposure arising from the COVID-19 pandemic without sacrificing equitable education and safety,” the letter reads.
The letter was signed by more than 100 district superintendents in districts represented by one of the two insurance pools, including Mike Merlino of Evergreen Public Schools, Steve Webb of Vancouver Public Schools, Mark Ross of Battle Ground Public Schools and Steve Marshall of the Hockinson School District.
Local school districts plan to open fully remotely to start the new school year, but are gearing up for an eventual return to in-person instruction with advanced health and safety protocols in place.
Rita Sanders, district spokeswoman for Battle Ground Public Schools, said the letter asks for protection against “a crisis that the educational system does not have any control over.”
“But that doesn’t mean Battle Ground won’t do everything it can to keep students and staff safe.”
The letter has nevertheless drawn criticism from the Washington Education Association teachers union, as well as the Riverside Council of Southwest Washington union members.
“If districts are so concerned about COVID-related liability, then they shouldn’t open for in-person teaching and learning,” WEA spokeswoman Linda Mullen said.
In a response Monday, the Riverside council accused the risk management pools and superintendents of “misplaced priorities of superintendents focusing on appeasing insurance adjusters instead of committing to the health and safety of the learning environments in which they oversee.”
“In fact, this sends a clear message to the public that district leadership have no confidence in their plans to safely reopen facilities,” the letter continued.
It’s becoming increasingly likely that the majority of Washington students will begin the school year at a distance. The governor’s office and the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction last week announced new recommendations for schools in areas of high-transmission counties, advising that districts in 25 counties continue with remote instruction.
The Governor’s office has not yet issued a response to the letter; a spokesperson with the office said its legal team was reviewing the request.
District officials disputed the suggestion that the letter demonstrates they aren’t prioritizing student safety. Evergreen Public Schools spokeswoman Gail Spolar said the risk pool representing the school district “very much are recommending full safety guidelines and implementation.”
But, she added, it may be impossible to determine if students or staff diagnosed with the illness caught it on campus or elsewhere in the community.
“Thus there is a need to protect a school district from unknown liability.”
Vancouver Superintendent Webb said the district is facing unprecedented costs connected to the COVID pandemic without worrying about the possibility of a liability lawsuit.
“Districts are being asked to do the impossible,” he said.