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COVID liability shield introduced for schools

Republicans want to hold school districts harmless from lawsuits as long as they are following the state’s guidance for in-person instruction.

Assemblywoman Marjorie Byrnes, R-Caledonia, has introduced A.11025 in the Assembly. It states that schools holding in-person classes that are compliant with state reopening guidelines outlined by the state Education and Health departments, as well as guidelines from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office, not be liable for damages if someone contracts COVID-19.

“Traditionally, this is the hectic time of year where parents, teachers and students are adjusting to their first week of school. This year, it is chaotic for other reasons. School officials have vocalized their concerns on reopening, and the delayed, limited guidance from Governor Cuomo. Further, they have raised concerns over the potential liability that can fall on the school districts if students and teachers get sick from COVID-19,” Byrnes wrote in her legislative justification. This bill would protect school districts that conduct in-person instruction from litigation, as long as they adhere to Governor Cuomo’s Executive Orders and the New York State Departments of Education and Health guidelines. Without this pertinent legislation, small school districts in our state are at risk of falling into deeper economic trouble than this health and economic crisis has put them in.”

Co-sponsors include Assembylmen Joe Giglio, R-Gowanda; Cliff Crouch, R-Bainbridge; Joe DeStefano, R-Medford; Brian Kolb, R-Victor; David McDonough, R-Merrick; and Chris Tague, R-Catskill. The bill has been referred to the Assembly’s Education Committee.

The issue of legal liability for COVID-19 infections in schools extends beyond New York state. Pennsylvania lawmakers heard from school district officials on the issue in August while Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine signed the Good Samaritan Expansion Bill in mid-September to make individuals, schools, healthcare professionals and businesses immune from unforeseen liability arising from the pandemic. Ohio’s immunity would last through Sept. 30, 2021.

According to the Associated Press, 21 Republican governors came together to ask Congress in August for federal legal protection for businesses, schools and health care workers. Civil liability protections are a top priority for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which represents thousands of American businesses, along with the nation’s nursing homes and long-term care facilities, whose residents comprise a significant number of the deaths attributed to COVID-19.

Specifically, the governors request the lawsuit protections be strong enough to “shield employers from legal risk when following the appropriate standard of care to protect employees, customers and students.”

“When Americans take sensible steps to implement public health best practices, they should have confidence that they will be secure from unreasonable claims,” the governors say.

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