Colleges Worry About Liability as They Look to Reopen | Athletic Business

Colleges Worry About Liability as They Look to Reopen

As colleges and universities consider reopening, many administrators are concerned about issues of lability should a student fall ill with COVID-19 after returning to school.

Last week, 14 college presidents from around the country joined a video call with United States vice president Mike Pence and secretary of education Betsy DeVos to discuss what they needed to reopen campuses this fall.

“They were mostly in listening mode, wanting to hear what the federal government could do to be helpful,” University of Texas at El Paso president Heather Wilson, who was on the call, told Inside Higher Ed. “One way it can help is to have some kind of liability protection.”

Colleges and universities aren’t the only businesses worried about being sued. Executives from manufacturing to meat packing businesses are looking for assurances from federal officials that they can open without having to worry about legal action. 

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell said last week on the Senate floor that Republicans are working on a plan to give people confidence that they won’t be held liable.

“Many of us are very anxious to get back to some level of economic interaction and do it safely,” he said. “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? And 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.”

Legislators are hopeful that there will be enough coronavirus tests available for colleges to reopen in the fall.

“I think any principal, any chancellor of a university can say, ‘We will take testing. We'll take pneumonia shots. We'll try to keep people as separate as possible. We'll keep administrative staff at home. We'll develop a strategy for going back to school and to college that is safe,’” Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican, said on NPR. “That may take staggered weeks of schooling, and they'll take more flexible days. A number of changes. But I think the question is not do we go, I think it's how we go.”

“We don’t want colleges to postpone reopening because they are in fear of the unknown or inevitably costly lawsuits,” Peter McDonough, general counsel for the American Council on Education, told Inside High Ed.

There’s still a lot of uncertainty around what steps institutions must take to maintain a safe environment for students.

“There is no playbook. There are no established best practices, and this uncertainty is impacting our decisions,” Larry Leroy Tyner Jr., general counsel at Texas Christian University told senators at the hearing last week.

What college administrators need from the federal government is a list of exact guidelines on what is expected to create a safe environment, as that would be enough to protect them from lawsuits.

“Consumers and workers are going to feel like they’re going back to work or to grocery stores at their peril,” Georgetown University law professor David Vladeck said, “if they feel like Congress has given employers and businesses a free pass to shortchange safety.”

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