Assembly bill would shield California school districts from coronavirus lawsuits

A new education bill — which State Assemblymember Patrick O’Donnell, D-Long Beach — introduced this week seeks to limit liability related to the coronavirus for school districts this fall.

O’Donnell, who chairs the Education Committee in the California Assembly and is a high school history teacher, said his bill will help protect districts from COVID-19-related lawsuits as they try to reopen this fall. Many school districts, under the guidance from the state and their respective counties, will try to enact social distancing, sanitizing and other health polices to minimize the risk of the virus spreading.

In the wake of restaurants and other businesses reopening in recent weeks, Southern California has seen an increase in cases and hospitalizations, particularly in Los Angeles County, showing that enacting safety procedures doesn’t necessarily mean the virus won’t spread. (LA County this week shut down indoor dining for at least another three weeks.)

O’Donnell said he expected the legislature to pass the bill — which has as its coauthor state Sen. Susan Rubio, D-LA — before the summer session wraps up at the end of August.

“We need to do everything we can to protect the students, and the schools,” O’Donnell said Thursday, July 2. “My bill will indemnify (protect from lawsuits) school districts as long as they follow all the state and local health directives. We still want school districts to use best practices when it comes to student safety.”

Felton Williams, president of Long Beach Unified School District’s Board of Education, said student and employee safety was the top priority. While he declined to comment specifically on O’Donnell’s bill, he did say potential liability is an issue when discussing whether to bring students back to campus this fall.

“Liability weighs pretty heavily on us,” Williams said. “We will follow all the state and local guidelines. We rely on them. The safety and health of every student is paramount.”

O’Donnell said his bill, which he introduced to the Assembly on Monday, June 29, carves out workers compensation and other employee protections, so teachers and other staffers would still be able to take legal action. School superintendents across the state, he said, have voiced concern about liability to their own legislators and there was strong support for the bill’s passage.

AB 1384’s assumption, of course, is that students return to school for in-person teaching. O’Donnell has supported that approach.

“I advocate in-person learning, but I’m also a realist,” he said. “There’s going to be three models — in-classroom, online and a combination of both. Different approaches work best in different parts of the state.

“School districts are going to have to be very agile,” he added. “This bill will help with that.”

Williams agreed, saying the recent surge in COVID-19 cases is a good example of the need for flexibility.

“We’re having a meeting soon, and we’ll be updated on it (on-campus classes) again,” he said. “So much relies on the pandemic. It may change week to week. We have to rely on the data and do the best we can.”

O’Donnell said it is important to move quickly on the bill. Some schools, including Long Beach, start before the end of August.

“They have to make plans,” the assemblymember said. “Some of them start before Labor Day, although I’d like to see them slide that back. We have to act, so they can have some certainty when making decisions.”

The bill will get its first policy committee hearing when the legislature returns to session on July 13.

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