BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana K-12 schools and colleges would receive sweeping protections against civil lawsuits from students and teachers who contract an infectious disease, including COVID-19, under a bill that won overwhelming support Tuesday from the state House.
The measure by Republican Rep. Buddy Mincey, a former Livingston Parish School Board member, would keep people exposed to an infectious disease at a school or school facility from being able to sue for damages unless they can prove the high legal standard of “grossly negligent or wanton or reckless misconduct.”
The protections would be given to public and private K-12 schools; charter schools; and public and private colleges and universities.
Mincey said the limitation from liability was critical to allow schools to offer in-person classes in the upcoming school year without fear of lawsuits because of COVID-19. He said classes on a campus, rather than through distance learning, are better for students.
“If we don’t provide reasonable liability protections for our schools ... my fear is they’re going to say, ‘I’ll see you online,’” Mincey said.
The bill is retroactive to March 11, around the time of Louisiana’s first positive coronavirus test. But it wouldn’t only apply to the COVID-19 disease caused by the coronavirus. It would apply to any declared state emergency for an infectious disease.
The House voted 82-17 for the proposal, sending it to the Senate for debate despite concerns it could put teachers and students at greater risk of exposure because campuses will be shielded from most lawsuits.
“I’m just in favor of erring on the side of fighting for our children,” said Rep. Gary Carter, a New Orleans Democrat who opposed the measure. “I think this legislation reduces the protection of our children for the benefit of our schools.”
Mincey, who said his wife and daughter are schoolteachers, noted more than 50,000 people in Louisiana have had confirmed cases of the coronavirus. He said children have so many potential ways to be exposed to the virus that it would be unfair to suggest an infection came specifically from schools.
“I don’t think one person can say where they definitively got COVID,” Mincey said.
Public health officials, however, routinely pinpoint the source of outbreaks by tracing an infected person’s contacts in the prior days before a positive coronavirus test.
The Louisiana School Boards Association requested the bill, Mincey said, and then higher education officials and a Catholic diocese asked to have their schools added into the measure as well.
Several lawmakers said they heard from teachers who objected to the legislation.
Rep. Ted James, a Baton Rouge Democrat, said the people pushing the proposal “are all of the folks who get to sit isolated” in offices away from group gatherings that offer a greatest risk of coronavirus spread.
“It’s easy for them to limit from liability when they aren’t putting themselves at risk,” James said.
Rep. Tony Bacala, a Prairieville Republican, said schools shouldn’t have to worry about a “lot of frivolous actions” if they return to in-person learning this fall. He said a parent could keep a child at home if they are worried about the risk of exposure to COVID-19.
“Schools are having to make tough choices about if and when to open. This bill makes it a little bit easier,” Bacala said.
The Louisiana Legislature earlier this year passed a new law giving similar protections to businesses, government agencies, trade show organizers and event planners for civil damages for injuries or death from COVID-19 unless they can prove “gross negligence or willful misconduct.” That bill has been signed into law.
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