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Special session unlikely to tackle schools’ most pressing issues
COVID-19 liability protection for schools, essential to opening classrooms, is not among the legislative concepts previewed for this week’s special session.
The special session starting Wednesday, June 24, will primarily be focused on the state’s pandemic response and police accountability in the wake of widespread “Black Lives Matter” protests.
The state’s budget problems will likely be pushed back to a special session in mid-July or August.
Legislators have expressed they would like more time to study COVID-19 liability issues, and legislation may also wait for another session.
The fractured and contentious Legislature, however, has been unable to agree on the rules or scope of the special session, and such sessions allow more free-wheeling action than a regular session.
“Anything is possible,” said Lori Sattenspiel, OSBA Legislative Services director.
Of interest to school board members, a bill proposed for this session would help clarify virtual public meeting laws. Other possible legislation would revive bills that died during the cut-off short session, including a rural small schools funding bill and technical fixes to the corporate activities tax in the Student Success Act.
Proposals this session to raise the cap on virtual charter schools enrollment concern educators. OSBA and the Coalition of Oregon School Administrators oppose a proposed bill allowing more students to enroll in virtual charter schools not sponsored by school districts, which would shift hundreds of millions of dollars out of local schools.
Gov. Kate Brown has said she would rather hold another special session to address the budget after it becomes clear if there will be more federal aid.
The economic crash from the pandemic closures wiped out $2.7 billion in expected revenue. School district leaders, who must have budgets done by June 30, are waiting to see if there will be cuts to the State School Fund even as they are wrestling with increased expenses for education in the time of coronavirus.
Education advocates are also pushing legislators to consider COVID-19 liability protection now, so that schools can make their fall plans. OSBA has urged education advocates to contact legislators to pass liability protection.
“At some point, somebody is going to get sick and sue,” said Dave Harvey, Property and Casualty Coverage for Education administrator for OSBA. PACE, which OSBA administers in conjunction with the Special Districts Association of Oregon, covers nearly all school districts in Oregon as well as community colleges, education service districts and charter schools.
PACE, Oregon’s leading insurance pool for education, is unable to offer COVID-19 coverage because insurance companies worldwide have stopped offering communicable disease coverage.
If someone accessing a school facility became sick or died, a lawsuit could cripple the budget of an unprotected school district. Businesses and other public entities are also seeking COVID-19 liability protection.
Schools are asking the Oregon Legislature to offer limited liability protection from COVID-19 cases, as long as they are following the law and there are no egregious violations, Harvey said.
What constitutes following the law is part of the concern, according to Umatilla Superintendent Heidi Sipe. The Oregon Department of Education’s fall guidance includes rules and recommendations. It is not clear if the recommendations would need to be followed to protect schools from liability lawsuits.
Sipe said some of the recommendations would require drastic changes to school operations and add significant cost without necessarily being in the best interest of children. She gave the example of a recommended 3-foot distance on school buses between children when other safety protocols are available. The 3-foot recommendation takes a bus that seats 72 children down to 14 children, completely altering not only transportation but how students can be served in current school boundaries.
“All these other ripple effects happen with just the word recommended,” she said.
Coquille Superintendent Tim Sweeney said a liability lawsuit would spell financial ruin for most school districts. Without liability protection, he said, he would have to consult his school board about sticking with distance learning, which would be “a huge disservice to students.”
“We would have to seriously consider our options if this is still hanging over our heads,” he said. “It’s terrifying, no doubt about it.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA