U.S. senators, college leader spar over shielding schools from coronavirus lawsuits

(Reuters) - A U.S. Senate committee on Thursday debated whether to support a bill that would shield universities from coronavirus-related lawsuits brought by students and workers who get sick when college campuses reopen in the fall.

FILE PHOTO: A graduating Masters student from the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP) stands on campus the day before his graduation ceremony, which is to be held online due to the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Manhattan, New York City, U.S., May 15, 2020. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly/File Photo

Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Republican from Tennessee, signaled his support for such legislation, saying “virtually every one” of the college leaders in his state he has spoken with supported the idea.

But Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts, said the proposed legal protections would allow colleges to take “completely unreasonable risks.”

“We’re in uncharted territory,” Christina Paxson, the president of Brown University, told the committee. “I think many institutions are very nervous that even if they play by the rules scrupulously they will still be subject to class action lawsuits.”

Paxson said she supported “carefully crafted liability protection,” adding that even if colleges win lawsuits, the cost of defending them will take money away from financial aid for students.

The remarks came during a hearing before the Senate’s committee on health and education in which three college presidents testified about how to reopen campuses safely.

U.S. college leaders are pushing for in-person instruction in the fall, saying students are widely dissatisfied with online learning.

The American Council on Education, a lobbying group, sent a letter in May to the committee seeking “temporary and targeted” liability protections for schools.

Colleges would have to follow “applicable public health standards” for the proposed immunity to apply, according to the letter, which was co-signed by 70 higher education associations.

The People’s Parity Project, a coalition of law students and attorneys advocating for workers’ rights, said in a letter to the committee on Thursday that “legal immunity would jeopardize students and campus workers, risk turning universities into COVID-19 hotspots, and potentially force schools to shut down again.”

Reporting by Jan Wolfe; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Aurora Ellis