One northeastern Oklahoma school district is requiring parents to sign a new back-to-school form this year — a liability waiver in case their child becomes ill, disabled or dies as a result of COVID-19.
But officials at the Oklahoma State Department of Education say such forms are not “appropriate or allowable.”
Beggs Public Schools, a district of about 1,000 students in Okmulgee County, has posted on its website and Facebook account back-to-school instructions for parents that state the district’s COVID liability waiver form “must be signed by parents and on file for every Beggs Public Schools student prior to the start of school.”
And that includes students whose parents opted for the district’s new virtual and blended learning options.
But when asked, Beggs Superintendent Shawn Tennyson said no child would be turned away if a parent elected not to sign the new liability waiver.
“We are doing everything in our power to keep our students safe and to keep our staff safe — but there’s just that slight chance it might not be enough. We want them to understand something may happen,” Tennyson said. “If a parent read that and then said, ‘I don’t want to sign it,’ we’ve accomplished what we’re shooting for because they’ve read it.”
The Oklahoma State Department of Education has advised local school officials against putting parents in such a position in the first place as a condition of a child attending a public school.
“We don’t think it’s appropriate for a district — and we have seen and heard of examples across the country,” said Brad Clark, general counsel at the state Education Department. “The ability to attend public school free of charge — that is a right that is embedded in Oklahoma in the constitution and in state law. If a district is adhering to established guidelines and protocols for COVID-19, you are afforded an exemption (from liability) in state law, so there would be no need to have in place or to force any type of signing of a waiver, which we don’t think is appropriate or allowable.”
Clark was referring to Senate Bill 1946, passed at the onset of the pandemic, which protects an individual or school district that is adhering to official COVID-19 safety guidance. Also, the Oklahoma Governmental Tort Claims Act affords protections to school districts that may face a claim relating to COVID-19 exposure.
Beggs recently delayed the first day of school from Aug. 13 to Aug. 20 to give the district more time to ready its new virtual and blended learning options for students.
On July 10, the Beggs High School principal notified students and their parents that an outside health clinic employee who had been part of student physicals two days earlier had tested positive for COVID-19.
Students and parents who attended were advised to monitor for symptoms and anyone who became symptomatic could arrange through school officials to receive a free COVID-19 test from the outside clinic.
The school district’s new blanket liability waiver form asks parents to sign to “hereby release, covenant not to sue, discharge, and hold harmless Beggs Public School, its employees, agents, and representatives, of and from all liabilities, claims, actions, damages, costs or expenses of any kind arising out of or relating thereto” COVID-19 risks.
“You understand and agree that this release includes any claims based on the actions, omissions, or negligence of Beggs Public School, its employees, agents, and representatives, whether a COVID-19 Infection occurs before, during, or after participation in any Beggs Public School program,” the form states.
A lawyer at the Oklahoma State School Boards Association said she doesn’t believe a school district would have to permit a child to attend classes if their parent didn’t comply with signing a liability waiver.
But she said such waivers do not cover “gross negligence.”
“There are arguments both ways in terms of whether or not it is enforceable about whether that is a condition of coming back (for classes),” said Julie Miller, deputy executive director and general counsel at OSSBA. “As long as a school district is following county health guidelines or guidance from the state Department of Education or they’re following CDC guidelines, they are going to be protected. The only thing they’re not protected from is gross negligence”
Miller said the OSSBA does not provide any legal language for such liability forms, but she is aware of various school districts around the state using them to reinforce to parents the new risks presented by the novel coronavirus pandemic.
She said if a parent chooses not to sign a school district’s liability waiver, “Then that is something they would have to work out.”
She added: “At that point, that school would then have to have a conversation with the parent regarding the enrollment of that student so they were still receiving their free, appropriate education … The school’s obligation is to provide them educational services — it is not to provide them educational services in any one format.”