States across the nation have been making announcements on when they plan to let schools and businesses reopen. Some governors, such as Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan, have chosen to keep their states closed for another 60 days, causing angry protests. Now, universities are faced with the conundrum of whether to reopen in the fall and risk being sued or to stay closed and face financial ruin.
Colleges face a severe financial threat if they do not reopen, and soon. Reopening has its challenges as well, though. How do such institutes — which promote group gatherings and offer dorm-life quarters — protect their faculty and students from contracting Coronavirus? What legal issues would they likely face?
James Keller, a co-chairman of Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr’s higher education and K-12 schools law practice, represents colleges and universities. According to him, colleges are in a “tough spot.” Whose responsibility is it if schools reopen and another outbreak occurs? Would that be government officials, the schools, or the parents? “Ultimately, are parents going to try to hold the school accountable if you bring people back and there’s an outbreak in a dorm and 20 kids get sick?” Keller questioned. His short answer, “Yes.” He further warned:
“I think the schools that reopen are absolutely at risk for claims — it’s a pretty straightforward negligence claim or maybe even a fraud claim. ‘You represented your campus would be safe. Relying on that, I sent my child there, but it turns out it wasn’t safe.’ I would envision, from my perspective, defending schools with all kinds of defenses.”
So, what’s a university to do? Purdue University in Indiana plans to reopen for the fall. The proposal includes testing students throughout the year for signs of the virus. “I noticed where Purdue University, a great school in a great state, wants to open and have students come in,” President Donald Trump praised. “I think that is correct.”
Not all of Indiana is in agreement. Michael McRobbie, Indiana University president, said a return to traditional in-person teaching by fall is “highly unlikely.”
Meanwhile, Harvard is looking to open for fall 2020. In Georgia, the university system faces serious financial problems just from the shuttered summer months. University of Georgia President Jere Morehead said a “staggered, phased-in approach” is being considered to bring students back on campus, and he plans to start in-person teaching in August.
The University of Texas as well as Texas A&M expect to resume classes for the fall, and the University of Arizona will begin in-person instructions on Aug. 24.