First special session defined discussion of school district COVID-19 liability
Friday, June 26, 2020
Legislators returned to the Capitol on Wednesday for a special session. In an unprecedented step, and in consideration of the COVID-19 pandemic social distancing requirements, the session is being held partially virtually and with no public physical access permitted.
Members of the public, lobbyists and other advocates can give testimony during virtual committee meetings or through email. Legislators are present with just each other and limited staff in “the building,” as all of us watch on computers and try to follow what is going on.
The breakneck pace of this session has been really challenging. Legislative concepts were posted over the weekend, the first committee hearings were Monday, and the session began Wednesday. I’m calling and emailing legislators and working with the governor’s office to understand what various groups are advocating for, and it’s all just going so quickly it’s hard to dig into the legislation.
Senate President Peter Courtney has said that this is a session that exists in response to a true emergency, and I agree with that. Oregon needs to help folks who are struggling with the results of our statewide shutdown. But it’s always scary to move so quickly on some big topics.
For school districts, this first special session’s focus has been to obtain limited liability protections. Our stance has been that schools that are following the Oregon Department of Education and the Oregon Health Authority guidance should have some protections. Schools are accessed by other community groups, which becomes a challenge for increasing risks to the district. An OREdNews article from Tuesday spelled it out pretty clearly.
The liability protection discussion has taken many roads and was initially blocked with dead ends. Now, after an impressive amount of advocacy from the OSBA membership over the past few days, there has been notable progress. House Speaker Tina Kotek announced on Thursday that there will be a bipartisan work group on employer liability over the next few weeks. This is huge! To everyone out there who took the time to write a message or participate in our advocacy tools, I can’t say thank you enough. Keep up the great work!
In other news, we are tracking bills that will impact schools and that look to be on track to pass. Small and rural schools funding should get a one-year extension, giving us enough time to come back during the 2021 long session and (hopefully) make that funding permanent. Also there are some changes to public-sector meetings laws to allow for virtual meeting and make other technical fixes. That bill seems to be on track to pass.
Also, it’s worth noting that this summer is shaping up to be a lobbying marathon, not a sprint. The governor has said that later this summer, presumably when there is some action in Washington, D.C., on the next round of coronavirus-related economic bills, there will be another special session to deal with budget concerns.
We’ll be working hard between then and now to make sure that legislators understand what reductions to the State School Fund really mean to our schools and to emphasize the need for some sort of liability protection for COVID-19 lawsuits. Although this has been an up-and-down week, it’s encouraging to feel that we are all working to turn this crazy special session momentum into something useful for schools. Hopefully we can make some progress in these strange times.