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In July 2020, social media posts and news reports claimed that a Missouri school district asked parents to sign COVID-19 “death” waivers in advance of the academic school year.
The waiver went viral after a Twitter user shared it.
The focus on the word “death” came from an article published by online tabloid Raw Story that extrapolated language from the waiver meant to release Hazelwood School District (HSD) in Missouri from legal liabilities in the event a child dies “in any way related to COVID-19.”
While it is true that HSD issued a waiver related to COVID-19, Anthony Kiekow, HSD director of communication and public relations, told Snopes that parents would only be required to sign if their child planned on participating in summer athletic programs. The waiver asked that a parent confirm their acknowledgment of the public health crisis “related to the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (‘COVID-19’)” and confirmed that they would not allow a child to participate in programs if they showed any symptoms of COVID-19 or had been exposed to anyone diagnosed with the disease or awaiting test results. It further notes:
The undersigned agrees to release, discharge, hold harmless and indemnify the Hazelwood School District, it’s agents, employees, officers, Board of Education members, insurers and others acting on the District’s behalf (the Releasees”), of and from any and all claims, demands, causes of action and/or legal liabilities for injuries to or death of my child occurring during, or resulting from, or participation in the above-mentioned program or activity and related in any way to COVID-19, even if the cause, damages or injuries are alleged to be the fault of or alleged to be caused by the negligence or carelessness of the Releasees.
Such verbiage is not uncommon in school athletic waivers and headlines referring to the document as a COVID-19 “death” waiver were “sensationalizing” and largely misleading, added Kiekow.
The waiver was created by the Missouri United School Insurance Council (MUSIC), a non-profit program that provides insurance coverage for Missouri public schools and community colleges. Snopes spoke with MUSIC Executive Director Mark Stockwell who said that the organization supplied all member school districts with two waiver templates recommended for summer athletic programs and not necessarily for those that take place during the academic school year. Kiekow confirmed that the waiver was sent in late June 2020 and was intended for parents whose students typically participate in summer athletics. He noted that required athletic waivers and documents from the previous school year were “very different from this waiver,” but that language related to COVID-19 is likely to be the “new norm for sports.”
For the 2020-21 school year, the district announced that it would be offering families the option of selecting “100% virtual school” or a blended option that includes both virtual and in-person learning. A statement issued by HSD further reads that:
Parents who want their child to participate in athletics are asked to sign a waiver. This year’s waiver includes language about COVID-19 to ensure that parents can make an informed decision…
Our district has implemented unprecedented safety precautions in all of our buildings; however, it is important for parents to understand that school districts can only mitigate the risk of COVID-19. No district, organization, or business can offer 100% protection against exposure to a global pandemic. Visit the Centers for Disease Control website for more information about COVID-19.
Parents of HSD students who choose to allow their children to attend in-person class would not be required to sign a COVID-19 waiver. When asked why HSD adopted this policy, Keikow replied via text message that “athletics are optional” and that a waiver for in-person instruction is “just not something that we’re requiring.”
EdCounsel, a Missouri-based law firm that represents over 200 public school districts, wrote in a blog post that state “law is not clear” on whether school districts can require that families sign a COVID-19 waiver for students attending in-person instruction, but liability waivers for extracurricular activities are largely exempt.
“While liability waivers for normal classes may be suspect, extracurricular activities are a different matter,” wrote EdCounsel attorney Tom Smith. (Snopes attempted to contact Smith for comment but did not hear back at the time of publication.) Extracurricular activities are a privilege, not a right; and districts have the legal authority to place certain restrictions on participation in these activities so long as the restrictions are uniformly applied and do not target a protected class.”
Under Missouri law, eligible students have a legal right to free public education and requiring that a parent or guardian sign a waiver as a condition of attendance “would arguably interfere with that right.” Even so, some schools and facilities around the United States have adopted similar waivers in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, particularly as many states have seen a spike in cases during the 2020 summer. Turlock Unified School District in California issued a similar waiver asking “all persons participating in its activities during this pandemic” sign an assumption of risk and waiver of liability. The YMCA of Minnesota’s Greater Twin Cities also issued a waiver for adults and children who use its services and programs.
The HSD waiver was just one of many documents that come in a summer athletic packet and the school district said that it would continue to follow guidance from state and public health officials for the upcoming 2020-21 academic year. In mid-July 2020, the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education released guidelines for reopening schools across the state but did not issue statewide mandates.
“I want to thank all of the medical experts across the state who contributed to this guidance. We are confident that if schools implement this guidance, they CAN safely reopen this fall,” wrote Gov. Mike Parson in a Facebook post.
Ultimately, individual school districts and jurisdictions have the authority to implement their own preventative measures.