Virginia’s largest insurer for local school divisions had a clear message for administrators on Monday: Don’t worry about COVID-related worker’s compensation claims from school employees.
“The burden of proof to determine that’s where you contracted the disease is going to be tough to do,” said Lee Brannon, the senior school specialist for VACORP, during an online summit for the Coalition of Small and Rural Schools of Virginia. As public schools weigh their options for reopening in the fall, Brannon said he’s received questions from “a lot of people” about what would happen if a teacher — or any other school employee — filed for worker’s compensation after contracting COVID-19 on the job.
“You know, have you been quarantined inside your home and the only thing you did was get in your car and drive to the school and drive home each and every day?” Brannon continued. “You did not stop at a gas station, you didn’t get groceries?”
“It doesn’t mean you tell an employee not to file a claim,” he said later, adding, “You can’t tell them they can’t do that and then go through the processes. But just because they file a claim does not mean that it will be compensable.”
For educators and advocates, the messaging from VACORP — “the number one coverage provider of property, liability and workers’ compensation coverages and related risk management services” for counties and local school divisions, according to its website — compounded concerns that Virginia’s worker’s compensation system is ill-equipped to handle an expected surge of COVID-19 cases as some schools plan reopen this fall.
New infections are “not a matter of ‘if,’ it’s when,‘” said Dr. Noelle Bissell, director of the New River Health District, during the same webinar. And while some of the state’s largest school divisions, including Fairfax County and the city of Richmond, have announced plans for fully remote learning, others are still considering full in-person instruction or hybrid plans that would bring students and teachers to campus for part of the week. The Virginia Department of Education doesn’t have a “verified tally” on reopening decisions, spokesman Charles Pyle wrote in an email Wednesday, but the agency provided a list of news articles that shows at least a dozen districts have introduced plans that involve at least some in-person teaching.
For school employees who do return to work, there are likely to be few protections if they contract the virus, said Mike Beste, a worker’s compensation attorney in Richmond. While most claims involve accidents or injuries, Virginia law does include a category called “occupational disease,” which offers benefits for conditions that can be specifically linked to certain lines of work.
The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.