US universities settle Covid teaching lawsuits

A string of U.S. universities, overwhelmed with federal aid funds and facing a deadline to spend them, are solving longstanding student legal claims by paying millions of dollars in tuition and fee refunds to make up for the sudden shift to online teaching formats during to compensate for the Covid-19 pandemic.

Student settlements announced in recent weeks include Johns Hopkins University for $6.6million (£5.5million); the University of Pennsylvania for $4.5 million; the University of La Verne for $8.9 million; and Quinnipiac University for $2.5 million. Harvard University also reached an agreement with its students for an undisclosed amount.

The pandemic-related shutdowns across US society three years ago sparked an emotional response from many college and university students bitterly disappointed at the loss of their campus communities. Lawyers helped them file 300 lawsuits across the country, arguing that their online alternatives for completing their courses in the first semester of Covid were substandard experiences that warranted at least partial refunds.

Many institutions, stressed by the cost of the closure and deeply unsure of the direction of the pandemic, pushed back, saying they would help students where possible, particularly those with significant financial needs, but arguing that online instruction is one reasonable accommodation under the circumstances.

That message helped institutions dismiss about a third of the 300 cases fairly early, said Mendy Halberstam, an attorney at Jackson Lewis, a law firm that represents institutions in about 15 such cases. Still, said Mr. Halberstam, “there is still a lot to do”.

Among the challenges facing the students, said a colleague of Jackson Lewis, Julia Wolf, is the fact that the courts have had time to observe and see that many students continued to take online classes after the Spring 2020 semester, weakening their claim became that the emergency switch to a virtual format was a notable burden.

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Students also have so many unique personal situations that they struggle to legally identify themselves as a common group for class-action purposes, while colleges and universities have been able to show they don’t necessarily benefit from campus closures, Ms. Wolf said.

Such factors, Mr. Halberstam said, have helped facilitate settlements by significantly reducing the level of potential liability, with courts often dismissing the tuition portion of the claim while maintaining the tuition fee claim. For institutions, paying a severance package “is becoming a more viable option at this point,” he said.

The U.S. Congress also passed three separate relief bills providing universities with $76 billion in total aid, with instructions to pass a large portion of that amount on to their students. Congress gave the institutions until July to spend the money.

One of those institutions that is now providing a relatively generous severance package, La Verne, said it considers its $8.9 million payout to be part of its student aid allocation — though it didn’t specifically want to tie that money to the federal infusion. It received more than $34 million in federal Covid relief funds, of which at least $14 million were specifically earmarked for students, and decided to address students’ compensation claims as part of its overall Covid relief activities.

Hopkins, Penn and Quinnipiac did not comment on whether federal aid has helped them meet their student legal demands as they transition to online instruction. Harvard has not accepted federal Covid aid money.

Others that settled such cases earlier in the pandemic include Columbia University for $12.5 million and Brown University for $1.5 million.

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