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Colleges Ask Congressional Leaders for Liability Protections

May 28, 2020, 2:54 PM

Lobbying groups for U.S. colleges are urging lawmakers to enact “temporary and targeted” protections from liability stemming from the coronavirus as the schools reopen.

Congress must protect colleges from “excessive and speculative lawsuits” arising from the pandemic, Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education, warned in a letter Thursday signed by more than 70 higher education groups.

Colleges face “enormous uncertainty about COVID-19-related standards of care and corresponding fears of huge transactional costs associated with defending against COVID-19 spread lawsuits, even when they have done everything within their power to keep students, employees, and visitors safe,” Mitchell wrote.

People walk near Duke Chapel on the campus of Duke University in Durham, N.C.
Jim R. Bounds/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Protections should be conditioned on following public health standards and preserve recourse for harm in cases of egregious misconduct, he wrote.

Many colleges across the country that have shuttered campuses since March are making plans to at least partially reopen in the fall. Institutions that have lost millions in revenue from closures face huge financial pressures to reopen. They’re also grappling with how to do so while protecting the health of students and staff.

The question for colleges “is not whether to reopen in August, but how to do it safely,” Lamar Alexander(R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, wrote in an op-ed column published Thursday by Inside Higher Education.

Alexander told reporters in a call last week that Senate Republicans wouldn’t support another coronavirus stimulus package that lacked liability protections for schools and businesses.

To contact the reporter on this story: Andrew Kreighbaum in Washington at akreighbaum@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at phendrie@bgov.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com