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March 20, 2020

COVID-19 and Higher Education: Regrouping to Support Off-Campus Students

Universities and colleges across the country were among the first to feel the effects of COVID-19. Students traveling and studying abroad have been brought home, major sporting events are canceled, and most classes are expected to resume online with the majority of students away from campus. These measures were rightly implemented to contain and mitigate the spread of COVID-19. As institutions turn to implementing online learning on an unprecedented scale, this is a good time to take stock of policies and consider appropriate proactive measures to mitigate future claims by those impacted by the recent drastic changes taken in response to COVID-19.

Universities and colleges are encouraged to remind students that all institution policies remain in place—including applicable codes of conduct—even in an online or remote learning environment. NYS-based colleges and universities should also be aware that they must follow their own policies when making decisions to avoid judicial scrutiny under Article 78. If there are gaps in existing policies or if existing policies contradict actions taken in response to COVID-19, institutions should consider implementing special policies to avoid judicial scrutiny for violating existing policies.

Colleges and universities should be mindful of their continuing obligations to their students—even if students are off campus, they are still students and part of the community. Those institutions that have not already shifted to an online, remote learning environment should be mindful that this could be seen as a deviation from the appropriate standard of care for their students, faculty, and staff. Creative means for completing credits and courses should be pursued so students can complete their academic year in a safe environment.

Given the urging by all levels of government to adhere to a social distancing policy, online learning where students, faculty, and staff aren’t congregating in large groups helps combat the proliferation of COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers specific recommendations for higher education institutions to help prevent the transmission of COVID-19, and all colleges and universities are encouraged to review these guidelines. Failure to adhere to the CDC guidelines or guidelines issued by local, state, and federal governments, could open the door to heightened liability. A good example of this is Munn v. Hotchkiss Sch., 326 Conn. 540 (2017), which applied a heightened standard with an educational institution that failed to abide by CDC warnings about insect-borne illnesses.

The disruption to on-campus social life will be jarring for many students, and universities and colleges are cautioned that, even while online, remote learning activities are in place, students will need continued support. While social distancing may help stop the spread of COVID-19, isolation and separation from a previously collaborative and group learning environment may increase the need for mental health support services for students. Efforts should be made to ensure that telehealth services, including mental health services, are available to students regardless of their location.

News and legal directives from all levels of government are continuously changing. Given the fluid nature of this situation, institutions should also consider a panoply of different scenarios and possible responses to determine if existing policies are effective or if interim policies should be adopted. Strategic planning will assist in a rapid and calculated response to situations as they unfold.

If you have any questions regarding the content of this alert, please contact David Burch, partner, at; Gabrielle Figueroa, associate, at; or another member of the firm’s Higher Education Team.


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