Forecasting Risks for 2021

Host: Hello, and welcome to Prevention and Protection, the United Educators (UE) Risk Management podcast. Today’s guests are Hoda Hussein, Justin Kollinger, and Sam Swartout, Risk Management Consultants at UE. They will discuss top and emerging risks we’re forecasting for this year. Before we begin, a quick reminder that you can find other episodes of Prevention and Protection, as well as additional risk management resources, on our website,

This and all other episodes of Prevention and Protection are also available on iTunes. Now, here’s Sam.

Swartout: Hi Hoda and Justin. Thanks for joining me today to discuss some top and emerging risks we’re forecasting for this year. COVID-19 has been clearly on the top of everyone’s mind for a while, but for this episode, we’d like to chat about some of the other risks in 2021 that we’re watching. Now keep in mind, not all forecasts will come true. For example, last year at the start of the pandemic, we were anticipating a large increase in accessibility claims due to employees and students moving to a virtual environment.

But luckily this has not been the case so far. Let’s start with you, Justin. What risks are you anticipating in 2021?

Kollinger: My first under-the-radar risk for 2021 is student binge drinking and other risky behaviors, especially on campuses where physical distancing and remote learning were more heavily enforced. While it’s no surprise that student wellness is an issue during the pandemic, some forward-thinking Student Affairs folks I’ve spoken with are starting to think about the return to campus social life. I’m afraid we’ll be underprepared for the pent-up partying that students are going to want to do.

They’ve already lost a year of social interaction, and they don’t get that year back. And even I can relate here. I prefer the confines of my home to a bar for sure, but even I can’t wait for that next happy hour. I think there’s a big potential for students, particularly those aged around 17 to 24, to go overboard when they can “Go out again.” Simply put, most are out of practice with partying and social alcohol use. This could lead to all sorts of risky behavior — not just with alcohol, but also with other substances, hazing, sexual activity, and even some of the silly things we sometimes hear about that might not happen with better judgment, like climbing onto a roof for an Instagram post.

As a reminder, the vast majority of UE’s’ sexual assault claims and fraternity and sorority claims involve alcohol as well as a lot of our other claims involving auto crashes. Treat the first months after students are allowed to congregate again as if it is a constant 21st birthday party for everybody who turned 21 since the pandemic started. That means close collaboration with Student Affairs, Academic Affairs, Facilities, and Risk Management. There’s a need to have plentiful and attractive, safe, alternative social options and making it easy for students to get help in an emergency. And I want to be clear that this is also not just a higher ed issue. High school should also be thinking about how their juniors and seniors are going to revert to social life.

Hussein: Justin, you talking about the physical health of students makes me think of the mental health aspect. And some refer to student mental health as the silent pandemic given COVID and today’s political and racial climate. I’m sure you both have already seen the statistics around mental health and suicide in two of our previous podcasts, as well as the American College Health Association and the CDC.

Last summer, the CDC conducted a survey which reported that more than 62% of 16- to 24-year olds reported anxiety or depression, and around a quarter said that they had seriously considered suicide in the last month. A study out of Penn State found that distresses of students seeking services was generally similar to the same time periods the year prior to COVID, with only slight increases and academic and family distress — meaning distress from students (staying motivated academically given the shift to online classes) and then family distress. So dealing with parents who’ve lost jobs, economic distress, financial hardships, shifting family responsibilities, so having to watch after siblings, for example, and lack of a normal routine.

Swartout: Hoda, I’m curious, are there any particularly vulnerable populations that we should consider?

Hussein: Absolutely Sam. International students who couldn’t return home and even being targeted in some cases due to xenophobic abuse. LGBTQ students in particular, whose home may not have been an easy or safe place to be last spring. If they felt connected to the LGBTQ community at school, it may be hard for them now to fully reconnect virtually. And lastly, students of color experience additional challenges to their mental health associated with racial discrimination and hate crimes, which have become more common in today’s polarized national environment.

So, campuses should ensure that resources are available but in innovative ways, given the current environment. So many, for example, have implemented telecounseling or teletherapy and digital tools like wellness apps to promote therapeutic activities like meditation. Increased the publicity of available mental health resources, which hopefully reduces the stigma of needing and getting mental health support. But that also makes it easily accessible for students because oftentimes in the event of a crisis, it’s simply not an option for students to meet in person. So, hotlines or numbers that students can text chat, or IM, can be particularly helpful.

Smooth the transition to virtual learning. A sense of continuity during online education certainly helps limit the logistical stressors of school during the pandemic and keeps students from feeling overwhelmed. Peer support is another huge one. Being able to connect with peers helps to remove the barrier of stigma usually associated with mental health and provides a leadership role for people who have navigated the system and had their needs met. Peer connections may be especially important for men, who are less likely than women to seek health and mental health services.

Hussein: And something we can all do: Unplug from social media and reach out to relatives and friends through phone conversations for deeper social connections.

Swartout: Justin, what other risks are on your mind?

Kollinger: Sam, a group of independent K-12 schools reached out to me the other day to discuss study abroad. It surprised me at first, but it made sense. It’s budget planning season for the ’21/’22 school year, and I think we’re all excited about the possibility of travel before the end of the next school year. Unfortunately, there are no simple answers to the question: “When can we travel again?” You might have to budget in the dark. There are so many contingencies to consider and no agreed rule of thumb for determining how much more you should budget for a trip’s risk management.

When I think about the discrete risks to study abroad now, for me, COVID isn’t even the main threat it’s COVID secondary effects. Consider scenarios like a car crash — but where hospitals have no vacancy due to the COVID patients, or a host country shutting their borders in and out. For example, I talked to a travel emergency expert about a COVID-positive person who chartered a flight, found a receiving hospital back in the United States, but could not convince the host country to let them leave. This adds a lot of stress and increases the fragility of the trip.

In general, educators are pretty good at risk mitigation for study abroad when the risks are known. But there are so many unknowns right now. How can you draft an effective waiver or acknowledgement of risk when risks are going to change between the draft date and the trip? What do you do when the state department, CDC, and local experts disagree on the safety of a destination or when conditions changed before your trip? On top of that, remember what I said earlier about risky student behaviors, including sexual misconduct? All of that still applies to study abroad — but in some cases with even less supervision.

Swartout: With so many challenges related to study abroad, it makes me wonder if this risk really is worth it.

Kollinger: All of that said, I always like to remember that there’s an upside to risk. There may be opportunities here. I talked to a program manager who works on study abroad programs for the U.S. military. The programs themselves couldn’t stop, so they did remote trips with instruction and cultural exchange done virtually. It’s no substitute for the real thing, but by going remote, they learned that they can make orientation more engaging by remotely adding cultural events pre-trip. They realized that they can deliver their risk management more effectively by mixing it with virtual museum visits and trying new foods. They’re also extending language learning after the trip. A refresher is delivered by the same faculty from their destination institution.

Hussein: We’ve talked a lot about students. Are there any risks on the faculty and staff side that we should keep on our radar?

Swartout: Obviously we have seen employment practices impacted in 2020, and we are keeping a close eye out for new employment issues that may arise in 2021. That said, we can predict some based on what we’ve already seen occur this past year. So, historically workplace retaliation has been a top employment risk for UE’s numbers. And, unfortunately, this is a trend that we see continuing into 2021.

This is further backed up by the charge statistics provided by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (the EEOC), which consistently shows retaliation under all statutes as the leading cause for charges being filed with the EEOC in recent years.

We also expect to see reduction in force as an increasing risk in 2021. Unfortunately, because of severe financial pressures caused or exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, many higher education institutions and K-12 schools are finding themselves confronting layoffs.

When it comes to a reduction in force, some common but avoidable mistakes UE has seen include: failing to consult a qualified attorney for advice on applicable laws, violating their internal policies, and procedures and mismanaging the employee selection and notification process. Using UE’s Checklist: Employee Layoffs Driven by Financial Pressure, found on will assist institutions with planning and conducting layoffs in a manner that is both fair to employees, as well as minimizing an institution’s risk of liability.

There’s also some concern about the affects reduction in force may have on age discrimination claims in 2021. The thinking here is older employees tend to have larger salaries, potentially making them more vulnerable to a reduction in force, thus increasing age discrimination claims. What is particularly threatening about age-related discrimination claims, is their potential to incur very high loss.

Apart from retaliation and age discrimination, gender, race, and disability discrimination make up the remaining top employment claims in 2020, a trend we anticipate will continue in 2021.

Kollinger: Race and gender discrimination makes me think of diversity equity and inclusion, what we in UE call DEI. Considering the conversation in the media and on-campus, this must contribute to risk in 2021, right?

Hussein: I definitely agree with this being a high visibility concern. We’ve seen that [President Joe] Biden has reversed [former President Donald] Trump’s order, which placed restrictions on diversity training, so this one can’t be ignored. I think if campuses have not yet formed a DEI committee or conducted a climate survey to campus constituents to learn of their experiences, viewpoints, and perspectives, do that first. You’ll want to think about how you’ll implement these changes, provide guidance regarding discussion of these issues, being sensitive to different viewpoints and mindful of possible discrimination claims that could result from missteps.

These changes in regulations regarding transgender rights, civil rights, and immigration will likely be similar to those made during the Obama administration. Therefore, schools should have some experience navigating these grounds. For campuses with ongoing DEI efforts, hopefully that has cultivated issues that have surfaced on your campus which many of us have likely experienced by now, especially given the past year and the national conversation. And, the hope is that it has started informing you of process and procedural changes that need to happen.

Now is the time. We know that diversity is only part of the picture, creating a positive climate in which people listen to each other’s perspectives, understand and respect cultural differences, and work to accomplish organizational goals, may be one of the most important aspects of leadership in our currently rapidly changing environment. Remember that you’re changing your campus community, but more importantly, you’re influencing your students so that when they graduate, they’ll have the tools, knowledge, and empathetic mindset to be able to assimilate into a diverse environment, wherever they go.

Kollinger: From a liability perspective, it’s worth noting that this can be near the root of a lot of claims, too. I like to think of DEI as a multiplier to other risks. A poor DEI culture might lead an employee or a student to distrust the institution, and when trust breaks down, the number of claims rises. DEI doesn’t just affect the obvious liability risks like employment discrimination. It can play a role in claims like excessive force, tenure, academic freedom, campus crime, accessibility, and more.

Swartout: Well, certainly institutions have a lot to think about in 2021 when it comes to risk. Hoda, Justin, any closing thoughts?

Kollinger: I look at the risks we discussed today, and if your role is primarily risk management or you’re in the Finance office, many of these risks are beyond your traditional purview. These are risks that will require you to partner with others like Student Affairs or Academic Affairs. Risk managers coming out of the pandemic, do not let your colleagues forget that your expertise from this pandemic extends to all kinds of risks as we get back to campus.

Hussein: Justin, I couldn’t agree with you more. There are other risks that will likely crop up that we haven’t even considered, especially with the way 2020 went. Build those relationships across campus, but also shift and adapt to changes that are likely coming and think of new, innovative approaches to your solutions.

Swartout: Thanks for talking with me today, Hoda and Justin.

Host: From United Educators Insurance, this is the Prevention and Protection podcast. For additional episodes and other risk management resources, visit our website,

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