‘Huge Concern’: Arizona Schools At Risk of COVID-19 Lawsuits When Reopening

woman wearing face masks cleans a desk in a classroom

By Jessica Swarner

July 30, 2020

“Not only are teachers and staff being forced to risk their lives but now also their livelihoods.” 

The Arizona School Risk Retention Trust (ASRRT), the state’s largest insurer for schools, has said it can’t provide liability coverage for coronavirus-related claims. 

This means if a lawsuit is filed against a school over COVID-19 — for example, a parent sues because they believe their child contracted the disease there — the insurer can’t guarantee it will cover the claim. 

A member of ASRRT’s board told KTAR News that it wasn’t really up to them — because their reinsurance partners (organizations that insure insurance companies) don’t provide liability coverage for COVID-19, they can’t either. 

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But the trust, which works with 249 public school and community college districts across the state, has apparently found another path forward. 

“Since [last week], a coverage option has been developed,” Jeanine L’Ecuyer, a spokeswoman for the trust, told The Copper Courier on Tuesday. “It will be presented to the board at its meeting on Aug. 4 and we expect this solution will be approved.”

The ASRRT last week had sent out waivers to school districts to pass along to their parents as a precautionary measure before the coverage alternative had been found.

The waivers detailed warnings and rules for parents, including that they would not be allowed on campus and they would be expected to take their children’s temperatures every morning.

“The optional waiver included in those documents was intended as a tool to help districts make the fiscally prudent decisions necessary to bring students and teachers back to school safely,” L’Ecuyer explained.

She said no matter what happens at the upcoming meeting, nothing will be sent out to replace the waiver.

“It will remain available as an option for districts,” L’Ecuyer said.

Risk to Schools

While the situation regarding COVID-19 coverage is still up in the air, educators are concerned Arizona school districts will be hit with lawsuits over COVID-19 and the resulting costs if something isn’t done. 

Dawn Penich-Thacker, co-founder of Save Our Schools Arizona and a mom of two elementary school students, said it’s inevitable that the disease will spread when classrooms reopen. 

“This is a huge additional concern, because not only are teachers and staff being forced to risk their lives but now also their livelihoods,” she said. “Every school in the state is now wide open to lawsuits when – not if – someone gets sick or dies from COVID,” she said. 

Educators have also expressed concern over how lawsuits could affect Arizona’s already low funding for schools. 

“The financial toll this will take on our already starved public schools is unimaginable,” Penich-Thacker said. “This is yet another reason our state and school leaders need to make sure no one goes back to campus until it’s truly safe.” 

If the trust’s coverage solution is approved in August, it could make the waivers obsolete.

RELATED: Hoffman Sides With Educators, Suggests Pushing Back In-Person Learning Start Date

While plans for schools are still in the works – the Arizona Department of Health Services said it could release benchmarks to help schools decide on reopening as late as Aug. 7 – it’s unclear how many children will be back in classrooms in the coming months. 

Mark Joraanstad, executive director of the Arizona School Administrators, said the lack of coverage further complicates reopening plans.

“It is disappointing to school districts that the trust’s underwriters have determined that coverage for organic pathogens is not available to Arizona school districts,” said Joraanstad. “This adds a considerable level of uncertainty to governing boards as they make decisions regarding the reopening of schools to in-person learning given the litigious nature of today’s society. ”

Some school districts are planning to conduct remote learning until further notice, while others are planning to bring at least some kids in as early as Aug. 17 as part of a hybrid model. 

While children typically don’t develop serious cases of COVID-19, for some it can still be fatal. And kids are still able to spread the disease to others. 

In Arizona, about 12% of cases are people less than 20 years old. The state doesn’t break down the numbers further than that age group, so it’s unclear how many small children are part of that share. 

Possible Solutions

If the Arizona School Risk Retention Trust’s solution doesn’t pull through or leaves gaps, the state could decide to pursue an alternate route to protecting schools from this risk. 

The state House passed a bill this spring that would have protected schools and other places from COVID-19 claims, but the Legislature adjourned in May before the Senate passed it. 

Gov. Ducey or state lawmakers could call a special session to return to the bill, but Ducey has said he wants to see what Congress decides to include in its next relief bill first. 

RELATED: Arizona Parents, Teachers Stress Need to Open Schools Safely, Not Quickly

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he believes the next bill must address liability protections for not only K-12 schools, but also colleges, businesses, nonprofits, and more. 

As Republicans and Democratic lawmakers work to come up with a plan, it’s unclear when Congress will be ready for a vote.

Joraanstad said school administrators are hoping this could happen but they aren’t relying on it.

“We have a ray of hope in the newly introduced Senate legislation (HEALS Act) which provides liability protection for schools,” he said. “However, its passage is by no means certain.”

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  • Jessica Swarner

    Jessica Swarner is the community editor for The Copper Courier. She is an ASU alumna and previously worked at KTAR News 92.3 FM in Phoenix.

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