Higher education groups ask Congress to protect universities from COVID-19 lawsuits

Media Credit: File Photo by Dean Whitelaw | Staff Photographer

The groups said Congress should apply protections conditioned on applicable public health standards and exclude protections for institutions that engage in "egregious misconduct."

More than 75 higher education organizations signed a letter to congressional leaders Thursday asking for temporary liability protections for universities facing lawsuits related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

After universities moved classes online to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, GW and other institutions are facing lawsuits demanding tuition refunds for part or all of the spring semester. The groups, at least three of which list GW as a member institution, state universities are facing “huge transactional costs” fighting these lawsuits as they face “unprecedented challenges.”

“To blunt the chilling effect this will have on otherwise reasonable decision-making leading to our nation’s campuses resuming operations in a safe and sensible manner, 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,” the letter states.

A parent filed a class action lawsuit in D.C. District Court against GW earlier this month alleging that the University breached its contract with students by not providing in-person instruction and campus facilities during the pandemic, demanding a partial refund of room and board, tuition and fees. The University has offered refunds for lost housing, dining and parking costs.

The parent who sued GW wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post earlier this month, stating that universities shifting to online classes were “not the schools’ fault,” but remote education is “nowhere near the caliber” of an on-campus college experience.

Board of Trustees Chair Grace Speights said last week that the Board does not plan to adjust next year’s tuition rate if classes remain online. Officials are considering three scenarios for fall instruction – in-person, hybrid or online coursework – and plan to make a final decision next month.

The groups said Congress should apply protections conditioned on applicable public health standards and exclude protections for institutions that engage in “egregious misconduct.”

“While Congress has acted to provide some limited COVID-related liability protections for volunteer healthcare providers and some manufacturers of PPE in the CARES Act, much more must be done,” the higher education organizations said in the letter. “While some governors and state legislatures have enacted COVID-19 liability limitations, this is a national problem requiring a national solution.”

The groups said encouraging the safe reopening of colleges is “essential” to preserving future employment and restarting the country’s economy.

“Higher education’s need for temporary and targeted liability protections and relief is clear,” the higher education groups said in the letter. “Now is the time for Congress to act.”

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