A Proposal to Exempt Schools from Civil Lawsuits if Students are Exposed to Covid-19 on Campus

Advocates said the protections were necessary to encourage schools to resume in-person learning.

Advocates said the protections were necessary to encourage schools to resume in-person learning. Shutterstock

 

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A bill in Louisiana would shield K-12 schools, colleges and universities from many lawsuits from teachers and students who are exposed to the coronavirus on campus.

Public, private and charter schools in Louisiana would be shielded from many civil lawsuits filed by teachers and students who contract Covid-19 under legislation approved this month by state lawmakers.

The bill, passed 33-2 by the Senate on Monday and 82-17 by the House last week, would prevent students and teachers who are exposed to the coronavirus at a school facility from suing for damages unless the school violated established public health guidelines or “any procedure mandated by law, by rule or regulation or adopted by a federal or state agency.” But, even then, lawsuits can only proceed if the rule violation is “determined to be grossly negligent or wanton or reckless misconduct,” which critics said is a difficult-to-meet legal standard.

Those protections would extend to public and private K-12 schools, including religious schools, as well as charter schools, magnet schools and public and private colleges and universities. The bill originally would apply to any infectious disease that leads to a declared state of emergency, but was amended to only include Covid-19.

State Rep. Buddy Mincey, a Republican and the bill’s lead sponsor, said the protections are necessary to encourage schools to offer in-person classes this fall. Classroom learning is more beneficial for students than remote lessons via computer, he said.

“If we don’t provide our school systems with some reasonable liability protection, (they’re) going to be faced with weighing out the liability and the cost associated with it, and I am fearful that there will be a decision made to do this online,” he said during a floor debate last week. “This bill does nothing but provide protection for our school systems.”

Some lawmakers disagreed, saying that ensuring legal immunity for school systems automatically strips those protections from students.

“I’m just in favor of erring on the side of fighting for our children,” said Rep. Gary Carter, a Democrat from New Orleans. “As long as I have a vote, my vote is always going to be with our kids and our children to make sure that they’re protected, and I think this legislation reduces the protection for our children for the benefit of the schools. And I think it should be the other way around.”

The bill’s legal protections would be retroactive to March 11. The legislation, which was backed by the Louisiana School Boards Association, moves next back to the House for consideration of Senate amendments. On the Senate floor, lawmakers added language to require state education boards to adopt standards for schools that follow guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, has not commented on the legislation, but said last week that the state would move forward with plans to reopen K-12 schools and higher education campuses in August despite an ongoing surge of new coronavirus cases throughout Louisiana that prompted him to scale back reopening plans.

"I can tell you our expectations are to have our K-12 campuses and higher ed campuses open in August," he said at a news conference. 

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a staff correspondent at Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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