As school systems continue to weigh their options for the fall, a new bill may help provide schools with increased legal protection and encourage some to resume in-person learning despite the associated risks.
The bill provides both private and public school districts with immunity from civil lawsuits stemming from the coronavirus. The protection would also extend to colleges and universities.
An amended version of the bill was approved by the Louisiana House of Representatives on Tuesday and will now proceed to the Senate.
Rep. Buddy Mincey, R-Denham Springs and a former Livingston Parish School Board member, sponsored the bill which was proposed by the Louisiana School Boards Association.
“If we don’t provide reasonable liability protections for our school systems, my fear is they’re gonna say, ‘I’ll see you online,’” Mincey said.
He also warned that lawsuits can impact the quality of education that students receive.
“Every time we take those resources away to defend a lawsuit or to pay a lawsuit we’re taking it away from our kids,” Mincey said.
But some representatives are fearful that the bill denies students their legal rights if they do contract the virus at school.
“I think this legislation reduces the protection for our children for the benefit of the schools,” Rep. Gary Carter, D-New Orleans, said. “I think it should be the other way around. We need to be fighting for the benefits of the students, not the school.”
Rep. Tony Bacala, R-Prairieville, spoke in support of the bill and said it protects schools from getting buried in “frivolous” civil actions.
“It doesn’t mean that a parent can’t decide to keep their child home if they choose to for that extra level of protection,” Bacala said. “And it doesn’t mean that a school can act recklessly, because that is not covered by this bill.”
Schools will still be subject to legal consequences if they fail to fulfill health and safety standards as mandated by the Louisiana Department of Education, Louisiana State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and other federal and state agencies.
The question remains exactly what standards schools will be held to. State education guidelines have not yet been established for the fall but are expected to be released later this week. Even then, it’s unclear whether “guidelines” will be legally enforceable.
Opponents of the bill also raised the issue of teacher rights. While the amended bill allows teachers to apply for workers’ compensation, these payments are capped, which means their medical bills could potentially exceed the limitations laid out in state law. Under the bill, teachers would be left without additional forms of recourse.
Carter said that while he was glad to see workers’ compensation included in the bill, he still wants students to have the ability to bring legal challenges against their schools.
“If a child can prove that a school was negligent and they present evidence saying that they contracted the disease at their school, there is [currently] a legal remedy for that child. This legislation removes all of the protections for our kids,” Carter said. “Our schools exist for the purpose of our children, for the safety of all of our kids, for educating our kids. And this is a reduction in our students’ rights.”
Backers of the bill also include the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools and the Louisiana Board of Regents.