TRENTON — State lawmakers are looking at ways to throw a life preserver to colleges left staggered by the coronavirus pandemic.

Last week, a Senate committee endorsed legislation saying colleges that cancel in-person classes because of COVID-19 are not required to issue refunds of tuition and instructional fees so long as the class is offered in a remote format and an effort is made to refund room and board fees.

State Sen. Vin Gopal, D-Monmouth, said he introduced the bill – which would be retroactive to March 9 if enacted in its current form – because of lawsuits that have been filed against Kean University, Ramapo College, Seton Hall University and Fairleigh Dickinson University.

“This bill says that the university has to make every good effort as far as providing the class as similar as possible,” Gopal said. “A lot of universities have reached out having challenges budgeting because of these lawsuits when at no fault of their own, COVID-19 hits, they make every effort to try to move the class online to do Zoom, to do everything else, and they still get hit with lawsuits.”

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Gopal said he will work with people who have concerns about the bill to discuss possible changes.

The bill was advanced in a party-line 3-2 vote by the Senate Higher Education Committee, with one of the three majority Democrats expressing concern but voting to release it.

“I have concerns with this bill,” said state Sen. Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex. “I am apprehensive about codifying practice and leaving out students who then will not have an opportunity to seek back reimbursement.”

A second bill that’s even farther reaching was discussed recently, but not voted on, by the Assembly Higher Education Committee. That bill would grant colleges immunity from liability for damages resulting from the coronavirus, except for “willful, wanton or grossly negligent” acts.

University counsel Mark Fleming said Montclair State University is currently defending a proposed class-action lawsuit seeking recovery of damages “merely because it following Gov. (Phil) Murphy’s order to transition to remote instruction in March.”

“The cost of defending that litigation and others like it is significant,” Fleming said. “At Montclair State, our restart plan spells out extensive procedures for virtually every aspect of the university’s operations, and it was designed to enable our students, faculty and staff to lean, live and work as safely as possible.”

Stephen Nolan, associate vice president and deputy general counsel for Rutgers University, said the university has health-care workers and researchers on the front lines of the pandemic.

“The legislation would ensure that the university, which is already responding to public health and financial challenges resulting from COVID-19, is protected from the costs and burdens of questionable litigation,” Nolan said.

Gene Lepore, executive director of the New Jersey Association of State Colleges and Universities, said higher-education institutions have invested heavily in personal protective equipment and Plexiglas and are abiding by social-distance guidelines.

“At a time when they’re working hard to continue providing high-quality education despite the challenges we’ve heard caused by the pandemic, they really shouldn’t be forced to spend their resources on defending the COVID-19-related lawsuits,” Lepore said.

But the bill has plenty of critics, as well.

Edward Capozzi, president of the New Jersey Association for Justice, said the bill provides “broad, unnecessary and dangerous” COVID-related immunity by ending their responsibility for the safety and welfare of students and employees.

“A-4408 would mean that while asking their students to be responsible, colleges and universities would not be responsible for their own actions. If no one is responsible, then no one is safe,” Capozzi said.

“This bill is both a civil justice rollback and a weakening of public health protection. This is neither a logical nor a responsible thing to do during a pandemic,” said Dena Mottola Jaborska, associate director of New Jersey Citizen Action, who said it gives colleges “permission to cut corners” on safety.

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“We are concerned that if this bill should pass, there could be less of an incentive for our institutions of higher education to follow the rules and plans that are in place,” said Fran Pfeffer, associate director of government relations for the New Jersey Education Association. “And institutions could be more lax in enforcing these plans.”

David Rousseau, vice president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of New Jersey, said every dollar spent defending a lawsuit is a dollar that can’t be spent elsewhere. He said safety is now and will remain colleges’ first concern.

“For them to raise the issue that we would become lax and it would give us an out to have these things is an insult to the higher education community in New Jersey,” Rousseau said.

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