Colleges get shield from COVID-19 lawsuits
Marking a victory for colleges and universities that shut down campuses last year during the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill Tuesday shielding the schools from lawsuits seeking refunds for students because of the closures.
Campuses closed in March 2020 in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19, with students forced to learn online.
During this year’s legislative session that ended April 30, Florida lawmakers set out to protect colleges and universities from class-action lawsuits seeking to recoup money for students after the shift to all-virtual instruction. The measure DeSantis signed Tuesday night (HB 1261) goes into effect on Thursday.
“The provision of in-person or on-campus education and related services is deemed to have been impossible for educational institutions during any period of time in which such institutions took reasonably necessary actions” to protect people on campus, an introductory part of the bill said.
Florida State University, which was hit with a lawsuit last month, was one of the schools that had been counting on the bill getting DeSantis’ signature.
“We were lucky enough to survive a while without a tuition and fees class-action case, unlike the University of Florida, the University of North Florida,” Carolyn Egan, general counsel for Florida State, said during a meeting of the university’s Board of Trustees on June 17. “We wondered if we would get a case, we waited, we watched our colleagues go through it. The state university system has been sued.”
Egan briefed the trustees on the lawsuit in which Harrison Broer, who was a Florida State law-school student in spring 2020, alleges breach of contract and unjust enrichment by the university.
“We filed a motion to dismiss related to both of those counts with prejudice. So that means if we prevail, the whole case would go away,” Egan said. “We set the hearing for August, because we are hoping that the governor will sign the COVID immunity bill.”
The lawsuit alleged that Florida State did not offer “fair and/or appropriate refunds of fees charged for tuition and other services paid to cover the cost of certain on-campus services which are no longer available to students. To the extent refunds have been offered, the refunds have not been commensurate with the financial losses to the students and their families.”
The higher-education bill signed late Tuesday by DeSantis also included a wide range of other issues, such as creating several new tuition and fee waivers aimed at attracting out-of-state and “nontraditional” students and providing incentives for students to pursue majors in technology and engineering fields.
The measure will create what’s called the “Free Seat Program” at universities to provide online courses at no cost to “nontraditional students” who have been out of college for five years and members of the military. That program will be capped at 1,000 recipients each year.
Another tuition waiver is aimed at attracting high-performing students from other states to Florida universities. Capped at 350 recipients each year, the so-called “grandparent tuition waiver” will give cheaper in-state tuition rates to nonresident students who have grandparents residing in Florida, if those students score in the 89th percentile or higher on the ACT or SAT exams.
A “buy-one-get-one-free” waiver for students taking upper-level courses in areas such as science, math and engineering also is included in the measure.
House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, told the university system’s Board of Governors last week that the idea was intended to keep universities aligned with the “future of the economic marketplace” in Florida --- and he got the idea in an unconventional way.
“I know what you’re thinking, did you think about that when you were in Publix? The answer is yes, I did,” Sprowls told the board. “Everybody likes a buy-one-get-one.”
The Board of Governors also will be required under the bill to publish an online “dashboard” featuring information about post-graduation salaries and student loan debt for various fields of study.