COVID-19 Updates

By: POE’s Legal Department

As this semester comes to a close, there are a few COVID-19 updates the legal team at POE wants to make everyone aware of as we head into the new year. First, there are new quarantine guidelines from the CDC and Oklahoma Department of Health. Second, the federally paid two weeks of COVID leave will expire at the end of 2020. Finally, there may be a new optional in-person quarantine that school districts could implement now or in the coming spring semester.

Based on new evidence about COVID-19, the CDC has updated its quarantine recommendations for local public health authorities. Although the CDC still recommends a 14-day quarantine after exposure to COVID-19, other alternatives for a shorter quarantine are now accepted. The CDC now states:

  • Quarantine can end after Day 10 without testing and if no symptoms have been reported during daily monitoring.
  • Quarantine can end after day 7 if the individual tests negative and if no symptoms have been reported during daily monitoring. The negative test must take place on day 5-7.

Daily monitoring and masking must be continued through day 14.

Next, the two weeks of federally paid COVID leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) is set to expire December 31, 2020. Currently, if you are unable to work because you have been subject to a federal, state, or local quarantine order, the advice of a health care provider, or are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and seeking a medical diagnosis, you are entitled to two weeks (up to 80 hours) of federally paid leave to be used before any sick leave. At this point, it is unclear whether there will be new legislation to extend this leave into 2021.

Lastly, the Oklahoma Department of Health recently announced an optional in-person quarantine policy for students who have been exposed to COVID-19. This would allow students to remain in a physical classroom during their 14-day quarantine after being exposed to the virus instead of being sent home. This policy does not include any student who has tested positive for COVID-19. This optional policy is permitted temporarily from Nov. 30, 2020 until Dec. 23, 2020. Any school choosing to adopt an in-school quarantine policy must comply  with certain guidelines included here, such as providing an isolated room for the students and frequent mandatory COVID testing. There is no guidance currently on who will be supervising these students. The decision on necessary supervision of the students will be made on a local district level but the district still must comply with health guidelines set forth by the county health department.

Now, this in-person quarantining has not been widely adopted by school districts yet and the application time is very brief. So, your school district likely has not opted into this new policy. For the schools that are implementing in-person quarantines, the monitored infection rate will be evaluated at the end of the semester. If the Oklahoma Department of Health finds the policy to be successful, it could be included in policy guidelines for the spring semester and more schools could more widely adopt this policy.

As more information on pertinent teacher related COVID issues arise, the POE legal team will be sending out more updates as well as including local news reports in the weekly newsletter.

President’s Corner

A Message from POE President Sarah Hicks

2020 has been incredibly tough, but we’ve almost made it through the year.

If someone would have told me a year ago what 2020 would be like, I would not have believed them. Despite the uncertainties of a pandemic and the challenges of changing school schedules, we are surviving 2020. We have faced unchartered waters, but we’ve learned new skills along the way. I know that by adapting out of necessity has helped me make a difference to a whole new group of students.

I know we have had to learn a lot of new skills and it has been, at times, overwhelming. Even the young teachers had to learn new technology. We have learned how to maintain relationships with our students while teaching virtually. And, as some teachers retired, we had to work with brand new people. It was a lot to take on, but you did it POE members. I am so proud of the resiliency you possess in educating our children.

As we enter the season of Christmas, maybe we can leave the worries behind us a little bit. Hopefully, you can take a little time to celebrate, sit back and enjoy the holiday.

One way I enjoy the holiday is to take in the bright lights. I love bright lights. They remind me of my childhood when the family would drive to Texarkana to enjoy the decorations, hear the Christmas bells and go Christmas shopping with mom. Today, my husband and I drive around almost every weekend before Christmas to enjoy the lights. And at my house, we put up lots of Christmas lights, even though I live on a street nobody drives down.

Christmas is certainly going to be different this year, but I hope that your holiday traditions will bring you a feeling of calm.

Merry Christmas!

Christmas and Public Schools

By Blake Sonne, POE General Counsel

Every year, we field calls and questions about what activities related to Christmas are allowable in public schools and in the classroom. At this time of year, there are many debates and even some constitutional challenges that take place all over America concerning the proper role played by Christmas and other religious holidays in public schools. Some school districts become overly cautious about potential legal challenges causing districts to prevent teachers and administrators from teaching about religious holidays, even in an appropriate manner.

The U.S. Supreme Court has addressed similar constitutional issues in several cases over the last 60 years. These cases conclude that although school districts cannot promote religion in public school, it is entirely proper to teach about religion and religious holidays. To put the legal principle simply, public schools “may neither promote nor inhibit religious belief or non-belief.” Moreover, the standard is such that a reasonable observer should agree that the content does not endorse a particular religion or non-religion. This means that teachers should engage in policies and a curriculum that balances a shared respect for individual religious beliefs with a recognition of the important role of religion in history and culture. In sum, just as the promotion of religion should be avoided, so should refraining from all references to religion be likewise avoided.

Here are some reminders and examples of some authorized activities in public schools during the Christmas and Holiday season:

  • Music, art, literature and drama having religious themes or basis are permitted as part of the curriculum for school-sponsored activities and programs if presented in a prudent and objective manner and as a traditional part of the cultural and religious heritage of the particular holiday.
  • In essence, there is a difference between participating in the holiday in a devotional manner and recognizing the holiday in an engaging and enjoyable academic manner.
  • Holidays can be excellent educational opportunities. Include information on why they are celebrated, the origins, historical background, and how they are celebrated.
  • Various religious symbols can be proper teaching aids to illustrate the cultural lesson of religion. However, religious symbols should be used on a temporary basis as part of the academic process rather than a permanent part of the classroom.
  • Students may sing Christmas carols as an educational experience, not as a devotional experience.
  • Teachers may read the story of the birth of Jesus to students, so they understand this event which has inspired so much music, art, and literature in the world.
  • Be objective and sensitive to students’ creation of religious artwork, reports, etc. on school projects and assignments.
  • If student discussion deviates from the objective, academic curriculum related to the religion or religious holiday, it is important to keep the discussion from disrupting the lesson or interfering with the rights of others.

Again, be careful that you are not promoting or indoctrinating students about religion, but at the same time remember that “freedom of religion” does not mean “freedom from religion.” Certain programs and activities relating to religious holidays such as Christmas are indeed appropriate in public schools if they have the proper intent and purpose. School district policy should be consulted for further guidance on incorporating holidays into school curriculum. I hope this encourages you to take advantage of this great time of year and make the most of it for your students in the classroom!