Harvard defeats students’ lawsuit over lack of COVID-19 tuition refunds

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Harvard's seal sits atop a gate to the athletic fields at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

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June 21 (Reuters) - Harvard University won the dismissal on Monday of a lawsuit by students over its decision not to partially refund tuition when it moved classes online early in the coronavirus pandemic.

U.S. District Judge Indira Talwani said three students leading the proposed class action failed to show that Harvard had contractually promised them in-person instruction and access to on-campus facilities during the spring 2020 semester.

Noting that "spring 2020 was not a normal time," the Boston-based judge said such an expectation was unreasonable "where, during a global pandemic, the governor and public health officials dictated otherwise."

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The lawsuit was brought by law student Abraham Barkhordar and two master's degree candidates, Ella Wechsler-Matthaei in education and Sarah Zelasky in public health, on behalf of students in Harvard's 12 degree-granting schools.

Many colleges and universities with high price tags were sued by students over the lack of tuition refunds. Talwani said some courts have found no binding contracts requiring in-person instruction at all times.

Lawyers for the Harvard plaintiffs did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Harvard spokesperson Jonathan Swain declined to comment.

Talwani also rejected Barkhordar's bid for a partial refund for the fall 2020 semester, after he agreed to pay full tuition for online-only instruction.

He had claimed Harvard had given him a "coercive choice" between taking classes remotely or delaying his education.

Harvard did offer partial tuition refunds for students who chose to take leaves of absence.

Tuition for Harvard full-time students in the 2021-2022 academic year is $67,720 at the law school, $64,998 for a master of public health, and $51,904 in education.

The case is Barkhordar et al v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, U.S. District Court, District of Massachusetts, No. 20-10968.

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Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; editing by Jonathan Oatis

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