A bill meant to shield schools from civil lawsuits related to COVID-19 is now on its way to Gov. John Bel Edwards for final approval, but late changes made by a conference committee raised concerns on the House floor and almost killed the legislation.
After earning 82 votes on its first trip through the House, only 54 state representatives approved of the amended bill. It needed 53 votes to pass.
Throughout the process, lawmakers struggled to balance students’ rights against school liability protections that some argue are necessary for schools to reopen in the fall.
Lawmakers resolved this issue by designating the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) as an oversight body responsible for adopting and enforcing minimum health and safety standards informed by guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Under the bill, BESE will be required to adopt state-wide emergency health rules for all K-12 schools no later than July 15. The boards of several higher education institutions will undergo a similar process to ensure protections are also applied to colleges and universities.
If a school violates the standards or acts in “grossly negligent or wanton or reckless misconduct,” it is still subject to civil liability.
But some argue that rather than reduce liability, the new arrangement instead transfers it from individual schools and districts to state boards instead.
House Education Committee Chairman Ray Garofalo, R-Chalmette, said he originally supported the bill, but due to the new amendments was now opposed.
According to Garofalo, he received a memo from Louisiana’s Department of Education stating that once BESE and other entities are required to set standards based on CDC guidance, they become subject to litigation if school districts fail to comply.
“If we're creating more liability to another state agency, then that's wrong and it should be fixed,” Garofalo said.
He also said that the state will need 500 new employees to enforce regulations, but did not disclose how much it would cost.