Leading US universities settle Covid online teaching lawsuits

Multiple universities pay multimillion-dollar settlements over spring 2020 tuition, as they reach deadline to finish spending federal pandemic relief aid

March 1, 2023
 Tourists shop for boardwalk t-shirts including "ZOOM UNIVERSITY," "SOCIAL DISTANCING," and "2020 SUCKS" to illustrate Leading US universities settle Covid online teaching lawsuits
Source: Getty

Flush with federal relief aid and facing a deadline to spend it, a number of US universities are resolving longstanding student legal demands by paying millions of dollars in tuition and fee refunds to compensate for the sudden switch to online teaching formats during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Settlements with students announced in recent weeks include Johns Hopkins University, for $6.6 million (£5.5 million); the University of Pennsylvania, for $4.5 million; the University of La Verne, for $8.9 million; and Quinnipiac University, for $2.5 million. Harvard University also reached a settlement with its students, for an undisclosed amount.

The pandemic-driven shutdowns across US society three years ago produced an emotional response from many college and university students bitterly disappointed by the loss of their campus communities. Lawyers helped them file 300 lawsuits nationwide, arguing that their online alternatives for completing their courses that first semester of Covid were substandard experiences that warranted at least partial refunds.

Many institutions, stressed by the costs of shutting down and deeply uncertain about the direction of the pandemic, pushed back, saying that they would help students where possible, especially those with significant financial need, but arguing that online teaching constituted a reasonable accommodation under the circumstances.

That message helped institutions get about a third of the 300 cases dismissed fairly early, said Mendy Halberstam, an attorney at Jackson Lewis, a law firm representing institutions in about 15 such cases. Yet, Mr Halberstam said, “there’s a lot that are still going on”.

Challenges for the students, said a fellow Jackson Lewis attorney, Julia Wolf, include the fact that courts have had time to watch and see that many students kept taking online courses after the spring 2020 semester, thus weakening their claim that the emergency switch to a virtual format was a noteworthy burden.

Students also have so many unique personal situations that they struggle to identify themselves legally as a common group for the purposes of a class-action lawsuit, while colleges and universities have been able to show they were not necessarily profiting from campus shutdowns, Ms Wolf said.

Such factors, Mr Halberstam said, have helped to make settlements possible by greatly reducing the amount of potential liability, with courts often dismissing the tuition portion of the claim while keeping the demand for student fees. For institutions, paying a settlement “becomes a more viable option at that point”, he said.

The US Congress also has approved three separate relief bills providing universities with $76 billion in total aid, with instructions to pass along large shares of that amount to their students. Congress has given institutions until July to finish spending the money.

One of those institutions now providing a relatively generous settlement, La Verne, said it regarded its $8.9 million payout as part of its student aid allocation – even if it did not want to specifically tie that money to the federal infusion. It received more than $34 million in federal Covid relief, with at least $14 million of that specifically designated for students, and decided to treat the student demands for compensation as part of its general Covid relief activities.

Hopkins, Penn and Quinnipiac offered no comment on whether the federal aid helped them handle their student legal demands over the switch to online teaching. Harvard has accepted no federal Covid relief money.

Others that settled such cases earlier in the pandemic include Columbia University, for $12.5 million, and Brown University, for $1.5 million.


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