It’s safe to say that the start of this school year is unique. Teachers are choosing virtual teaching backgrounds instead of decorating bulletin boards, and they are adding masks to their wardrobes. And one thing that teachers may not have been prepared for? Signing a waiver acknowledging that teaching includes a risk of contracting COVID-19.
Yes … teaching kids who sniff, sneeze, and cough with abandon has never been a job for germaphobes. But, teachers have never taught through a pandemic and COVID-19 is not a typical flu season.
Teachers in our WeAreTeachers HELPLINE group on Facebook have been asking questions about teacher COVID-19 waivers. Here are the answers to your questions. Disclaimer that this is not legal advice and is for informational purposes only.
What do these waivers say?
Liability waivers often have a statement that releases the district from responsibility if a teacher gets sick with COVID-19 while teaching. The COVID-19 pandemic, and what happens when school reopens, is so unknown, that districts want to reduce the risk of being sued or being held liable, says Charles R. Gallagher, a lawyer with Gallagher and Associates in St. Petersburg, FL. It’s often a one- or two-page, short waiver, or a sentence within a larger contract. The lesson: read your contract! Even if it’s your twentieth year teaching, this is the year to read the fine print.
Will I have to sign a waiver?
COVID-19 liability waivers have popped up across the country. Coaches in Washoe County, NV were asked to sign waivers during the summer season. Parents have been asked to sign COVID-19 waivers in Berkeley County, SC and St. Petersburg, FL. Lawyers at Gallagher and Associates in St. Petersburg, FL, have received calls about teacher waivers as the school year revs up. On the other hand, Kyle Farmer, a lawyer with the Missouri State Teachers Association (MSTA) in Columbia, MO, has not seen any teacher waivers.
As with so many education scenarios, whether or not you’ll be asked to sign a waiver is up to your local school district and board. Right now, they’re not common. But, it’s not unreasonable to be wondering about them, as other employers have tried to put COVID-19 waivers in place.
On the other hand, teacher waivers may not get traction at all. Giving teachers a waiver isn’t in the interest of districts. “If I’m a teacher,” said Farmer, “and I get a waiver, automatically I’m defensive and concerned that [the district is] not going to provide a safe and clean environment.”
If my district has a waiver, do I have to sign it?
Short answer: probably not. Both the MSTA and the National Education Association (NEA) state that teachers should not sign COVID-19 liability waivers. Still, when you’re signing your job contract, you’re also signing up for your job for the year. So, ultimately, it’s up to you if you sign the waiver or not. Which leads to our next question.
What happens if I sign it and get sick? Are these waivers enforceable?
Again, probably not. The waivers, said Gallagher, are probably not enforceable. And the MSTA agrees. First, signing a waiver assumes that you know the risk you’re taking. If you jump out of a plane, you know the risk. With COVID-19, we still don’t know all the risks, especially related to permanent injury or the risk of catching COVID-19 in schools.
Second, liability waivers have to be between two equal parties and that’s not the case here. When districts, who are asking teachers to sign the waivers, have all the power, it’s not a fair agreement, said Farmer.
What happens if I don’t sign the waiver?
If you do not sign the waiver, it’s up to the school to decide if they’re going to let you work there or not. One thing you should not do, said Gallagher, is write down that you disagree with the COVID-19 clause and initial it. That could be a problem if you needed to pursue legal action. If a waiver is embedded in your contract, signing it is all or nothing.
Are teacher COVID-19 waivers happening in your district this year? Share your experience in our WeAreTeachers HELPLINE group on Facebook.