With the world literally shut down, this pandemic of 2020 has opened up various topics of debate. One of these topics is the reopening of schools and other educational institutes. Plans of reopening are under the process of consideration. Schools and colleges are making sure that the reopening of institutes is safe for everyone from students, parents, staff members to the administrative authorities health-wise and legally. It is being taken into consideration whether institutions and their administrative authorities will be held accountable for students and staff members contracting the corona virus. According to the lawyers associated with higher education, an abundance of legal issues will be faced in the coming fall.
A litigation lawyer who co-chairs Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr’s higher education and K-12 practice in Philadelphia, Jim Keller said, “Every institution wants to make health and safety a priority. Additionally, there are questions regarding how much power colleges will have to mandate testing, temperature checks, mask wearing, social distancing and other precautions.”
“If an institution says that people have to wear masks or other PPE on campus, and discipline them for not doing it, is there a legal risk? Are they going to sue us? Is there some kind of constitutional claim there?” Keller asked.
He also questioned, “If we have a student with severe asthma who needs a single room, can we accommodate that request? Do we need to provide alternative housing? Is that logistically feasible?”
What Jim Keller mentioned are serious concerns and problems that institutes will face one way or another this fall considering the current circumstances. Colleges may not be able to have full access to all the health information required rom students and employees. Provision of proper accommodation and facilities to staff and students who are at high risk for infection is also a genuine concern especially with the limited resources of most colleges. It is also anticipated that education budgets will be cut short due to the economical downfall. With all this it is a difficult task for the institutes to provide all the safety and facilities while not burdening the students and parents. Likewise, the pay of staff members cannot be compromised in given circumstances.
Scott Warner is a partner at Husch Blackwell in Chicago and specializes in higher education law said, “Colleges have a number of defenses available to counter claims from sickened students or employees.”
“Institutions will have a number of strong defenses available, including, among others that their adherence to CDC and other guidance demonstrates that they have met the applicable standard of care and that, given the nature of the virus, it will be very difficult … to demonstrate what caused a particular individual to contract the virus. Institutions will also be informing their students and employees of the risks inherent in returning to campus given the very nature of the virus,” Scott Warner added.
Experts say that institutes will attempt to lower the chances of risk through consent forms and waivers which students will have to sign before they enroll. However, it is still unclear how these waivers and consent forms will be helpful in legal procedures or in court.