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Private Colleges Eye COVID-19 Liability, Testing Concerns

Rollins College
Rollins College
Rollins College in Winter Park plans to resume in-person classes on Sept. 14, the latest start for any of the ICUF schools.

As private colleges and universities set plans to reopen amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the head of a statewide association is raising concerns about liability protections and virus testing costs.

Whether institutions can be held liable for students, faculty and staff members getting sick on campus is a top concern for school leaders as they gear up to reopen campuses for the fall term.

“The way I look at it is professors and our campuses are frontline workers because we’re bringing in a lot of students from around the country and there’s going to be some positive tests,” said Bob Boyd, president of the Independent Colleges and Universities of Florida, which represents schools throughout the state. “We cannot survive an avalanche of lawsuits for liability if someone gets sick on campus.”

Private colleges and universities are not requiring students to sign waivers to enroll for the fall, but Boyd said some institutions are asking students to sign waivers for certain voluntary activities. 

Part of the reason broad waivers are not being required is because it remains unclear how enforceable they would be during the COVID-19 pandemic, Boyd said. That's why he is making a priority of trying to get private colleges and universities in a bill during the upcoming legislative session that would provide liability protections related to COVID-19. Businesses also are seeking such protections.

“If we suffer an avalanche of these lawsuits, we could fall over the edge,” Boyd said.

He is working with Associated Industries of Florida, one of the state’s largest business lobbies, to help with the issue.

Boyd’s group, commonly known as ICUF, was also among a long list of associations that sent a letter to Congress last week asking leaders to include liability protections for the nation's higher-education institutions in a new COVID-19 relief package. 

“We are not seeking a free pass to avoid responsibility. These protections will be conditioned on following applicable public health standards, and they preserve recourse for those harmed by truly bad actors who engage in egregious misconduct,” the letter said.

As liability concerns linger, all 30 colleges and universities that make up ICUF are preparing for faculty members and students to return to campus in August and September. Students were sent home from campuses in March to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. 

The reopening plans for most schools include a mix of online education and face-to-face classes, a reduction in class sizes to allow social distancing, face mask requirements, enhanced cleaning procedures and installation of Plexiglas barriers in classrooms.

While monitoring pandemic conditions, some universities have also pushed back the start of the first day of school. Rollins College in Winter Park plans to resume in-person classes on Sept. 14, the latest start for any of the ICUF schools.

Testing protocols at each private college and university will be a key component in the reopening process. Boyd said it is too costly to do universal testing, so institutions will be focused on targeted testing on campus and will encourage students and faculty to undergo testing for COVID-19.

“If somebody tests positive, you test all the folks and the cohort that they were close to and that kind of thing, but nobody has the funding to be able to test so broadly that you test every student," Boyd said.

Testing will be even more targeted in athletic departments after an announcement by the Sun Conference’s Council of Presidents that they intend to resume fall sports.

"We believe we have an opportunity to have successful fall seasons, but that will only be possible if everyone in our conference family, and especially our student-athletes, are steadfast in doing their part to create a safe environment,” Sun Conference Commissioner Dustin Wilke said in a statement July 23.

In accordance with NCAA Athletics guidelines, seven Florida private schools that are part of the Sun Conference will be testing all athletes and coaches, Boyd said.

Ave Maria University, a Catholic university in Collier County, noted in its fall reopening plan that in addition to coaches and players, athletic department staff members will undergo COVID-19 testing. 

Each test will cost $45 and will have a 48-hour turnaround time through an agreement with Gravity Diagnostics in Kentucky, Boyd said.

“Testing is so expensive, and we’re hoping that if the state makes money available for testing in the public (colleges) sector, that they don’t forget about the independent sector,” Boyd said.