School officials tell Pa. Senate panel they need to be shielded from lawsuits to reopen safely

Dr. James Scanlon, superintendent of West Chester Area School District, testifies at a Senate hearing on Tuesday, July 28.

Since Pennsylvania reported its first two cases of COVID-19 in March, lawmakers have tried to protect everyone from business owners to medical equipment manufacturers from lawsuits that hold them liable for spreading the disease.

Healthcare providers got broad immunity from civil lawsuits in May, under an executive order signed by Gov. Tom Wolf.

School leaders told state lawmakers on Tuesday that they need those same protections if students and staff are going to return to classrooms this fall.

“School districts in Pennsylvania are making decisions, in part, [based on] fear of lawsuits,” John Sanville, superintendent of the Unionville-Chadds Ford School District in Chester County, said at a joint hearing of the Senate Majority Policy and Education committees. “I know educators across the state are making good-faith decisions, but that does not preclude the threat of litigation.” 

Sanville was one of a handful of school administrators who asked lawmakers Tuesday to pass legislation protecting superintendents and elected school board directors from legal liability if a student or staff member says they can trace their COVID-19 diagnosis back to school grounds.

Associations representing school administrators and school board directors agree that their members are not covered by sovereign immunity, the legal doctrine that shields most state and local governments from civil lawsuits. 

That’s left school leaders fearful of what could happen if a student or staff member contracts COVID-19 on their campuses. 

“While it may be difficult to prove that a student or staff member got sick at school, it’s only a matter of time before a judge establishes precedent in a court hearing,” said James Scanlon, superintendent of West Chester Area School District, which hosted Tuesday’s hearing at its Bayard Rustin High School.

With just over one month of summer left, schools across Pennsylvania are racing to ready their plans for the fall as the state battles a surge of COVID-19 cases.  

District leaders are already struggling to retrofit facilities and to hire enough teachers, bus drivers and aides to comply with social distancing guidelines, even though the recommendations from state officials have been vague and imprecise and inconsistent, administrators told lawmakers Tuesday.

The threat of litigation is just one more consideration that school leaders shouldn’t have to face as they make difficult decisions about school reopening, they said. 

Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York, said she is drafting legislation with Senate colleagues to shield schools from COVID-19-related lawsuits, telling the panelists that it’s “hard to imagine an area that could be more rich for litigation.”

Members of Pennsylvania’s state Senate have introduced a raft of immunity bills this year, arguing that the specter of civil lawsuits could have a chilling effect on business and healthcare operations during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Sen. Michelle Brooks, R-Mercer, introduced a bill protecting nursing homes from COVID-19 claims, while Sen. Pat Stefano, R-Fayette, moved to grant businesses broad immunity from lawsuits if they took good-faith efforts to follow state and federal public health guidelines.

Both measures are still awaiting votes in Senate committees, the legal news site Law 360 reports.

How will Pennsylvania schools reopen this fall? Your questions, answered