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Education
Get the latest coverage of the 2021 Florida legislative session in Tallahassee from our coverage partners and WUSF.

Senate Moves On Higher Education Immunity, School Accountability Waivers

It would grant immunity from lawsuits stemming from the shift to online learning at the start of the pandemic.

Florida lawmakers are considering giving colleges and k-12 schools a reprieve from potential lawsuits and school grades. Sarasota Republican Senator and state GOP Chairman Joe Gruters’ proposal combines some of the biggest concerns of higher education institutions and school districts regarding how to deal with students in the pandemic.

Gruters’ Senate Bill 7070 grants colleges and universities immunity from lawsuits stemming from the abrupt shift from in-person classes to online learning at the start of the pandemic. Nova Southeastern University’s Sandy Harris says class action lawsuits over reimbursing tuition and fees have been popping up all over the country.

“There are currently nine private colleges facing class-action lawsuits and several public universities facing class action lawsuits. This is a phenomenon going on across the country," she testified Tuesday before the Senate's education committee.

Harris says schools were in a tough place last March and facing even tougher choices.

“The irony is, if we’d have required students to go to campus to finish the semester, we would have been faced with lawsuits. If we’d have suspended educating our students, we would have been faced with lawsuits," she said.

However Padrick Curry, speaking against the bill during public testimony, argues colleges and universities shouldn’t be allowed to keep students’ tuition and fee dollars for services not rendered.

“If a business takes money in advance for a product and doesn’t deliver that product, then the business can’t just keep the money. They have to give it back," he said.

Many colleges and universities used federal stimulus dollars to reimburse students for housing and food plans, but the tuition issue remains a thorny one. Miami Gardens Democratic Senator Shevrin Jones says the pandemic is a unique situation, and Gruters’ bill is a response to uncharted territory.

“We’ve never been through a pandemic like this before and Sen. Gruters even taking this on this legislation with so many moving parts…and taking stakeholder concerns and putting them into legislation like this—you deserve to be congratulated," said Jones.

The proposal also brings aspects of Democratic proposals that seek to hold students, schools and teachers harmless from the state’s accountability system. While students will still have to take assessments, and schools will still receive school grades, there will be no penalties attached to them. And, under an amendment pitched by Boynton Beach Democratic Senator Lori Berman, parents will be able to choose whether to retain their children in grades K-5, instead of just third grade.

“The principal and teachers need to work collaboratively to discuss it. And as part of that discussion, there will be discussion of student eligibility to participate in sports. And it says the parents decision will be filed. We’ve been working with DOE on this bill, so if a student has an IEP, it would have to be discussed and changed in accordance with the decision on the child.”

The measure is gaining support from public school advocates like Marie Claire Lehman with the group Fund Education NOW.

“This bill is an astute response to concerns raised by many of you and many of us about FSA testing, made even higher due to the pandemic and its varying effects on districts, schools and students.”

Lehman still prefer schools not get grades this year. The federal government is allowing states more leeway in determining how test results will be used, and Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, in an interview with Senator Shevrin Jones in mid-March, said the issue of waiving school accountability penalties for schools, students and teachers has bipartisan support.

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