Third special session raises schools’ hopes for COVID-19 liability protection
Tuesday, December 15, 2020
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown has called a long-sought third special session for Monday, Dec. 21, an opportunity to seek COVID-19 liability protection for schools.
Brown announced early Tuesday a one-day session “to consider both critical policies and $800 million in relief” related to the coronavirus pandemic and wildfire recovery. The governor’s priorities include funding for vaccine distribution and contact tracing, aid for tenants and landlords and “support for reopening schools.”
“We support the governor’s efforts to reopen schools while balancing protections of public health,” said Jim Green, OSBA executive director. “Two of the critical pieces to making that happen are providing funding and ensuring that schools have limited liability from COVID-related lawsuits.”
Schools cannot buy insurance to protect against potentially ruinous lawsuits if they bring students into their buildings and somebody gets sick. A bill would help shield them as long as they are following safety protocols, making it easier to resume in-person learning.
Education advocates have created with legislators a COVID-19 liability protection bill for schools to be introduced during the special session, according to OSBA Legislative Services Director Lori Sattenspiel. Special sessions tend to be tightly scripted, and bills rarely get introduced unless they can pass.
Oregon school leaders have been seeking liability protection since the beginning of summer. Congress has been unable to agree on a national standard for liability protection, but more than a dozen states have passed some sort of COVID-19 protection for schools, health care workers and businesses.
A legislative task force has been studying the issue, but the Oregon Trial Lawyers Association has opposed liability protection, saying it shifts the burden of harm to people who are least able to protect themselves.
Legislators are trying to find a balance between letting people sue for legitimate harm caused by businesses or public entities and preventing unreasonable lawsuits from wiping out every public and commercial space. Legislation also must sort out school concerns from those of businesses. Schools have far more guidelines and requirements that could be used for lawsuits than businesses face.
If legislators meet in person, the session will likely be a quick affair to minimize coronavirus risk. Brown’s announcement said officials are consulting the state epidemiologist for a healthy and safe environment. The announcement did not mention a “catastrophic” emergency that would allow the Legislature to meet remotely for the first time.