Florida could shield universities from COVID-19 lawsuits

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida schools and universities that took precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 would be protected from pandemic-related lawsuits, including parents and students who sue seeking a refund of tuition, under a bill approved by a Senate committee on Tuesday.

Several universities have been sued after moving to online classes and shutting down campus activities. Students argue they weren’t given the full campus experience. The measure unanimously approved by the Senate Education Committee would prevent those lawsuits and would be retroactive to when the public health emergency was declared in March 2020.

Sandra Harris, a lobbyist for Nova Southeastern University, said colleges would have been sued no matter how they responded to the pandemic.

“The irony is, if we had required students to go to campus to finish their semester, we would have been faced with lawsuits. If we had just suspended educating our students, we would have been faced with lawsuits,” Harris said. “Students are claiming that they were not allowed to get the rich learning experience as provided on a campus.”

The bill also would allow parents of students in kindergarten through fifth grade to ask schools to have their children repeat the grade for academic reasons.

It also wouldn’t allow schools to base third-grade retention decisions on statewide standardized tests, but rather encourage administrators and teachers and parents to base the decisions on classroom performance. Parents would have the final say over whether a student should repeat a grade.

Also, the bill would suspend penalties and sanctions against schools whose performances dropped in 2020-2021 under Florida’s school grading system.

“We are going to do assessments, we are doing grades, there’s just no consequences,” said Republican Sen. Joe Gruters, the committee chairman.

The bill was approved the day after Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill to protect businesses and health care providers from coronavirus lawsuits.