Colleges Seek Protection From Pandemic-Related Lawsuits as They Look to Reopen

June 1, 2020 Updated: June 1, 2020

As colleges and universities plan to resume in-person classes for the 2020 fall semester, many administrators expressed concern over potential lawsuits brought by students, faculty, and staff after returning to campuses amid the pandemic.

In a recent letter (pdf) to Congressional leaders, 70 education groups, led by the American Council on Education, pleaded for legal liability protections that would allow them to open campuses without fear of “huge transactional costs associated with defending against COVID-19 spread lawsuits.”

“We ask that Congress quickly enact temporary COVID-19-related liability protections for higher education institutions and systems, affiliated entities, as well as their faculty, staff and volunteers,” reads the letter, which was sent to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).

The request is likely to receive a positive response from the Republicans, as McConnell promised last month to businesses and schools that the next Congressional relief bill would not pass without shielding from pandemic-related lawsuits.

“Can you imagine the nightmare that can unfold this fall if K-12 kids are still at home and colleges and universities are still not open?” McConnell asked reporters on a May 13 press conference. “That scenario is further aggravated in the absence of some kind of liability protection that reassures school administrators that they can open up again as long as they do it safely and follow the guidelines.”

“The pressure of having children at home, and for that matter colleges and universities as well, is significantly exacerbating the problem for American parents,” he added. “That’s why this liability issue is so essential in moving us into phase one and hopefully phase two of reopening the economy. Without it, frankly that’s just not going to happen as soon as it should have.”

Senator Patty Murray (D-Wa.), by contrast, is not in favor of granting liability shields to colleges. In a statement to Inside Higher Ed, the top Democrat on the Senate Education Committee said she opposes the idea because it would essentially say, “it’s okay if students or employees get sick.”

Nearly two-thirds of U.S. colleges look to resume in-person instruction in the fall, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, which has been monitoring those decisions since April. The remaining institutions are still deciding whether some, none, or all classes will be taught in-person this fall.

The fear of sparking new on-campus COVID-19 outbreaks has promoted California State University, the largest four-year public university system in the United States, to deliver classes exclusively online for the upcoming fall semester, with a handful of exceptions. The decision that affects nearly 500,000 student across 23 campuses.