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SC Catholic school teachers must sign COVID-19 liability waiver

Some S.C. teachers working at private Catholic schools returning to in-person instruction this month must sign COVID-19 liability waivers, or face losing their jobs, according to documents and internal communications obtained by The Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette.

By signing the agreements, teachers and staff members acknowledge they “may be exposed or infected by COVID-19 by attending and/or working at school … and that such exposure or infection may result in serious illness or, in rare cases, even death.”

Although a legal expert says the waivers may not hold up in court, teachers who sign agree to “absolutely release, defend, indemnify, and hold harmless” the schools and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charleston, including “any claims of negligent exposure,” according to the agreements.

An internal email from an administrator at one Lowcountry Catholic school reviewed by the newspapers refers to signing the Diocese waiver as a condition of employment.

While parents may elect to have their children learn virtually, teachers at two separate Diocese-affiliated schools in the Lowcountry said there was no option to teach remotely, even in cases involving ongoing health conditions.

“It’s this, or no job,” said one of the teachers, who works at a Beaufort County Catholic school and asked to remain anonymous for fear of professional repercussions.

“The amount of anxiety and fear has been really crippling,” said another, at a different school. “Since maybe July, just every day feeling like I’m going back and there’s no plan.”

In a statement, William Ryan, superintendent of Catholic schools, called the staff waiver “an accountability measure.”

“We believe that each of us are accountable for our actions and want each individual to understand the importance of compliance with the guidelines set forth in the document. The waiver serves as a tool to hold those associated with the school accountable in keeping everyone protected and healthy,” the statement read.

The Charleston Diocese oversees 32 elementary, middle and high schools across South Carolina, including Cardinal Newman School in Columbia, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic School in Myrtle Beach and St. Francis Catholic School on Hilton Head Island, according to its website.

All are returning to in-person instruction this month and following reopening plans developed based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control recommendations, according to Ryan.

In contrast, many public school districts, including Beaufort and Jasper county schools, have announced all-virtual starts, given concerns about ongoing transmission of the coronavirus across the state.

A document released this week by health officials to aid in decision-making at local schools shows recent disease activity is “high” in all 46 South Carolina counties.

At its schools, the Charleston Diocese appears to have mandated liability waivers for students and families that mirror those given to staff members.

“According to Diocesan Guidelines, all parents must sign and return the Covid-19 Waiver Form before the student enters school,” reads a parent newsletter distributed by the St. Anthony Catholic School in Florence.

Ryan did not address questions about these waivers in the statement.

“We look forward to welcoming our students back to the classroom. We are committed to providing them a quality, Catholic education in a safe environment where they can continue to thrive academically while growing in the faith,” he said.

Visitors leave St. Francis By The Sea Catholic Church on Friday, March 13, 2020 on Hilton Head Island with signs posted at every entrance informing congregants that flu season has arrived. The church asked that they not shake hands and to receive communion “on the hand.” In a press release, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charleston informed those who wish to stay home from Mass due the COVID-19 pandemic, that they could watch Mass online posted by churches in Greenville and Garden City. Drew Martin dmartin@islandpacket.com COVID-19 liability waivers spark pushback among students, educators

Similar COVID-19 liability waivers have generated controversy at educational institutions across the country.

This week, Pennsylvania State University reversed course after reports in Spotlight PA and the Penn State Daily Collegian that the university was mandating an agreement requiring students to “assume any and all risk” from COVID-19, saying it would provide a modified option in response to backlash.

An outraged parent in Florida called a liability waiver sent to nearly 13,000 students by the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg a “death release,” reported the Tampa Bay Times.

Liability waivers distributed in other states have caught the attention of teacher advocates in South Carolina.

“That’s something we saw in Florida schools, and we’ve had it on our radar here,” said Sarah Ellis, founder and board member of the teacher advocacy group SC for Ed.

Ellis said she had not seen teacher waivers so far in S.C. public schools. But should school districts begin the practice, Ellis warned that the teacher organization will fight against it even harder than earlier protests on school reopening with in-person classes.

“That might be our hill to die on,” she added.

Forcing teachers to sign a document that waives their rights to sue the school if it is allegedly acting negligently is “terrible leadership, but we seem to be seeing a lot of terrible leadership these days,” she said.

Parents might see liability forms from schools in South Carolina.

Berekely County School District is requiring parents to sign a waiver for students returning to in-person instruction during the pandemic, reported WCSC Live 5 News, but teachers have not been asked to complete a similar document.

Would COVID-19 liability waivers hold up in court?

Whether COVID-19 liability waivers like those distributed by the Charleston Diocese would stop legal claims against Catholic schools in S.C. courts is an open question, according to a University of South Carolina School of Law legal expert.

“It’s a very new phenomenon and these are waivers that are going to have to be tested,” said Joseph Seiner, who teaches labor and employment law at the University of South Carolina.

Seiner predicted the S.C. Supreme Court will likely eventually have to consider what it takes for a COVID-19 waiver to be valid — or if there even can be a valid waiver.

He noted that parents can’t waive a child’s right to litigate, in the case of waivers distributed to families, and that people can’t waive their right to sue for gross negligence.

Employers forcing liability waivers on employees as a condition of employment may make them more difficult to enforce in court, he said. The waivers don’t prevent teachers from bringing claims against schools, he said.

Still, “you’re putting the other side, the employee, in the situation of having to show the waiver is invalid,” Seiner said. On top of that, people may assume the waivers automatically prevent any legal action.

“People may just not sue, these waivers have a huge deterrent effect, whether they’re valid or not,” he said. Seiner advised employees faced with these agreements to review them with an employment lawyer.

“I went into education because I love kids, I love high school kids, I want to help make them the best creative, young adults that I can,” said one of the Lowcountry Catholic school teachers interviewed by the newspapers.

But, returning to in-person instruction right now presents serious risks, the teacher said.

“I have no faith this will go well.”

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Lucas Smolcic Larson joined The Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette as a projects reporter in 2019, after graduating from Brown University. He previously contributed to investigations as an intern at The Washington Post and the Investigative Reporting Workshop in Washington D.C. Lucas hails from central Pennsylvania and speaks Spanish and Portuguese.

Lucas Daprile has been covering the University of South Carolina and higher education since March 2018. Before working for The State, he graduated from Ohio University and worked as an investigative reporter at TCPalm in Stuart, FL. Lucas received several awards from the S.C. Press Association, including for education beat reporting, series of articles and enterprise reporting.
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