What Happens When Coronavirus Threatens Students?

Coronavirus School

According to one study, college campuses are coronavirus super spreaders. What are the legal implications of this categorization?

Notre Dame is a good example. During the spring and summer of 2020, the school’s infection rate was less than half a percent.

A week after classes resumed, the infection rate had increased over 300 percent.

Complicating matters even further, many infected young people have almost no symptoms, yet they are still contagious. So, they spread the virus without knowing it.

Colleges are taking action. In the wake of the coronavirus spike, Notre Dame has increased testing and banned most gatherings over ten people.

“Then you’re not relying just on masks and social distancing and people complying with every possible rule because you’re actually taking the reproduction number down dramatically just by improving the testing mechanism,” remarked Yale Medical School’s Dr. Howard Forman.

Closing and Student Civil Claims

Almost immediately after the new Coronavirus came ashore in March 2020, universities and colleges nationwide cancelled live classes and moved all instruction online.

By early summer, students had filed about 100 lawsuits against these institutions.

Most of these actions alleged breach of contract and unjust enrichment.

In plain English, the schools refused to provide live instruction and, because of the lower cost of online instruction, made more money while students suffered.

These actions are careful not to criticize shutdown decisions.

Instead, the plaintiffs claim that the online instruction was a poor substitute for live instruction, which is what they paid for.

The lawsuit filed by students against Harvard Law School is a good example.

Success or failure usually depends on the facts of the case. Students usually have a strong position if the school clearly promised live learning or charges lower tuition for online courses. Schools are in a good position otherwise.

Many student actions seek class action status.

In large states like New York, Texas, Florida, and California, certification could mean that hundreds of thousands of students could be entitled to damages.

In a contract claim, these damages usually are limited to economic losses, such as tuition and attorneys’ fees.

Additionally, many students were forced to seek alternative housing when their schools closed. Compensation might be available for these losses as well.

Opening and Student Injury Claims

As discussed above, along with jails, nursing homes, and a few other places, colleges and universities are contamination hotbeds.

The Centers for Disease Control has established guidelines for colleges and universities offering live instruction.

These guidelines include:

  • Testing,
  • Contact tracing,
  • Special rules for dormitories and other shared spaces,
  • Disinfecting,
  • Quarantining, and
  • Dealing with coronavirus stress.

In most cases, these guidelines clearly establish the standard of care. If the state or county has issued different guidelines, these local rules might be controlling.

There are basically four elements in a negligence claim. First, the school must owe a legal duty to the students.

In most cases, that’s true. Second, the school must breach its duty of care. Failure to live up to the standard of care is evidence of negligence.

Third, the plaintiff must sustain actual damage.

That usually means coronavirus infection. Stress and anxiety over the Coronavirus, while real, might not be actionable.

Causation, the fourth element, could be the big one.

Plaintiffs must connect the school’s lack of care with their infections. Some negligence defenses, mostly assumption of the risk and comparative fault, might come into play here.

Schools and Business Interruption Claims

Pandemics normally affect everyone about equally, and COVID-19 is no exception. Students are hurting, and schools are hurting as well.

Foreign student enrollment is a good example. According to one study, international student enrollment rate is down by almost half.

International travel restrictions and domestic coronavirus restrictions are simply too much for many students to overcome.

Smaller colleges which are almost entirely dependent on tuition revenue are especially hard-hit.

There could be a light at the end of the tunnel.

Most colleges and universities have business interruption insurance. These policies usually pay for losses sustained if physical damage drives customers away.

It seems clear that coronavirus falls into this category.

But many insurance companies narrowly define “physical damage” as fire, criminal action, hurricane, or other casualty losses.

The contract wording is usually key.

After the SARS outbreak in 2003, some insurance companies specifically excluded “infectious diseases.”

Other policies are much more vague, so in these cases, a New York bad faith insurance attorney has a fighting chance.

Coronavirus restrictions have economically harmed students and universities.

For a free consultation with an experienced litigation attorney in New York, contact Napoli Shkolnik PLLC. We handle COVID-19 matters on a nationwide basis.