Top College to Pay Millions to Settle Lawsuit Over Shutting Down In-person Classes

A federal judge overseeing the case has granted preliminary approval to the settlement.
Top College to Pay Millions to Settle Lawsuit Over Shutting Down In-person Classes
A doctor administers a COVID-19 test in New York in a March 28, 2020, file image. (John Moore/Getty Images)
Zachary Stieber

Cornell University is preparing to pay $3 million to settle a lawsuit accusing it of improperly keeping tuition after shutting down in-person classes in 2020, according to court filings and a settlement notice.

The New York school's in-house newspaper has published a notice that it will pay into a settlement fund in order to settle the suit.

"The university denies any breach of contract and denies all other allegations of wrongdoing, and there has been no finding of liability in any court. However, considering the interests of both the university and its students in prompt resolution of the matter, the university and plaintiffs have agreed that the university will pay $3,000,000 into a settlement fund to resolve the action," the notice states.

A federal judge overseeing the case has granted preliminary approval to the settlement, with a final hearing on the matter scheduled to take place in October.

Three students brought the suit in April 2020 after Cornell shut down its campus and forced students to attend classes remotely.

Cornell said on March 5, 2020, its day-to-day operations would not be impacted by COVID-19 but stopped holding in-person classes a week later, moving all classes to online. The school also forced students who lived on the campus to leave their residences.

Martha Pollack, Cornell's president, said she understood the actions would be disruptive and disappointing, especially the switch to online classes.

"We are asking students to miss out on the enormous value of face-to-face instruction and on the camaraderie of their peers. I appreciate that this will be especially disappointing for our graduating seniors," she said at the time. "But all of these actions are necessary if we are to be responsive to the recommendations of public health officials regarding how best to slow the spread of COVID-19 and to protect the health of our community, especially of the most vulnerable among us."

Students had already paid tuition but were deprived of the education that was advertised by the school, the suit said.

Undergraduates at Cornell pay as much as $28,275 per semester, according to court filings.

"The online learning options being offered to Cornell students are subpar in practically every aspect, from the lack of facilities, materials, and access to faculty," the suit said. The plaintiffs, it said, were therefore entitled to a refund.

Cornell argued it had no choice in shutting down the school and would not give the money back.

The case dragged on for years before being resolved by the settlement agreement.

The agreement establishes a class of students who were enrolled for the spring 2020 semester in a program that was intended to be held in person. Students must not have withdrawn from the university on or before March 1, 2020.

Settlement administrators will pay students meeting those standards by check, mailed to their last known mailing address, the notice states.

"By participating in the proposed settlement, you release your right to bring any claim covered by the proposed settlement, including bringing any claim relating in any way to Cornell’s transition to virtual education or other services as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic beginning in March 2020," according to the notice.

Students may opt out if they want, or submit an objection if they think the settlement is not fair.

Cornell has about 25,898 students, according to the university. It is located in Ithaca, about one hour southwest of Syracuse in upstate New York.

“Cornell is pleased to have reached this settlement, which both sides believe is in the best interests of all parties,” a spokesman for the university told news outlets in a statement.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs did not respond to a request for comment.