The COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged the United States for more than six months now. While most people would never have predicted early in 2020 that the entire school system would be upended due to the virus, the reality is that we are dealing with significant changes in the education processes throughout the US. There has been significant debate about whether or not to send kids back to school in person or to conduct online-only learning. If your child does go to school in person and contracts COVID-19, can you file a lawsuit against the school?
The risk of contracting COVID-19 is real
As of this writing, there have been more than 6.2 million cases of COVID-19 confirmed throughout the United States, and there have been more than 190,000 COVID-19-related deaths since the pandemic began. In Pennsylvania, there have been more than 143,000 COVID-19 cases and nearly 8,000 COVID-19-related deaths.
The reality is that this virus is still spreading amongst the population, and crowded places such as schools present significant risks to both students and their families.
Liability in these cases is difficult to determine
Many schools across the country have required parents to sign COVID-19 liability waivers before they allow their children to attend in-person schooling. However, many legal experts argue that these waivers are not enforceable.
When we turn to Pennsylvania law (35 Pa. Stat. Ann. § 521.3), we can see that the language states “Local boards and departments of health shall be primarily responsible for the prevention and control of communicable and non-communicable disease, including disease control in public and private schools, in accordance with the regulations of the board and subject to the supervision and guidance of the department.”
To be sure, Pennsylvania officials and local school boards have implemented a multitude of policies to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 amongst the student population. Inevitably, though, there will be COVID-19 cases that are linked to students returning to in-person learning.
However, because COVID-19 is so widespread throughout the community, it will be very difficult to pinpoint exactly where a student contracted the virus. Due to this difficulty, it is going to be challenging to hold schools and school districts accountable in the event a student becomes ill.
However, when working to determine the liability of a school or school district, it will need to be examined whether officials took steps to keep children reasonably safe. If a school blatantly disregards recommended safety measures in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19, this could open them up to liability should a child contracted the virus.
It needs to be stated that this is a very fluid legal situation, and there is little precedence they can be used to gain an understanding of how these cases may play out over the coming months and years. What is important right now is to ensure that schools and school districts are following appropriate state and local COVID-19 protocols. If officials are acting reasonably and taking measures to ensure safety, this is a positive step towards preventing the spread of this dangerous virus.