(The Center Square) – Gov. John Bel Edwards has signed a bill meant to protect schools from lawsuits if a teacher or student contracts COVID-19.
Critics said House Bill 59, the last one approved during June’s special session, leaves students and teachers vulnerable and potentially increasing liability for the state.
Republican Rep. Buddy Mincey, a former Livingston Parish school board member, said he brought the bill at the urging of the state school board association. Though his legislation originally covered any infectious disease outbreak, he reluctantly agreed with an amendment to limit its scope to COVID-19.
The new law seeks to protect public and private schools, including colleges and universities, from civil lawsuits. Schools would only be liable if they violated their own policies, were “grossly negligent,” or guilty of “wanton or reckless misconduct.” The change applies retroactively to March 11.
During debate in the state House of Representatives, several members said teachers in their districts objected to the bill, fearing it would weaken their protections when they are required to go back to campus. Democratic Rep. Gary Carter said the change favors the interests of schools and school boards over those of students.
But supporters said they didn’t want the fear of lawsuits and high insurance costs to be deciding factors in whether officials reopen a campus, adding that it would not jeopardize teachers’ rights under workers compensation insurance. Lawmakers this year also approved similar protections for businesses and government agencies.
The measure prohibits schools from adopting less restrictive policies than the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. BESE and the supervisory boards of the state’s public colleges and universities are required to adopt policies based on U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
Pulling BESE and the university boards into the legislation created more liability for the state, Rep. Ray Garofalo argued. He said the legislation approved during the regular session adequately covers schools.
“This opens up the state of Louisiana, BESE, [and] boards of supervisors to more litigation on this issue,” he said.