Schools that are returning to in-person learning are busy putting together their back to school lists. At the top of those lists should be measures to ensure the health and safety of teachers, other school staff and students.
State Sen. Paul Schimpf, R-Waterloo, and Regional Superintendent of Schools Kelton Davis in a recent editorial demanded the governor issue liability protections to protect schools from potential lawsuits. However, what they fail to mention is that Illinois schools already enjoy liability protections that shield them from lawsuits.
Under the state’s Tort Immunity Act, schools have liability protections which protect them from potential lawsuits. Under the law, plaintiffs are required to show the school district acted with willful and wanton negligence. We should not be giving them extra cover.
A recent national poll even reveals that a majority of people don’t think shielding wrongdoers from accountability is a good idea. In fact, 69 percent of those polled think that giving sweeping liability protections is a bad idea.
Despite the claims that a potential wave of COVID-related lawsuits may be coming, a new analysis of national court data shows that only a small fraction of total cases filed have been related to COVID injuries and/or deaths, while 59 percent of all the cases involve insurance companies (such as business-to-business lawsuits), civil rights violations (such as people challenging stay-at-home orders) or individuals in prison seeking better pandemic protections.
And, it is worth noting, contrary to those who claim Illinois courts are overrun with civil lawsuits, the number of such filings has dropped 46 percent since 2010.
Parents don’t want to send their kids to schools that may try to cut corners on safety, nor do teachers and support personnel want to work without the confidence districts have done everything reasonably possible to keep students and staff healthy.
Clear, enforceable standards are what will help us get a handle on this worsening pandemic, but instead Senator Schimpf and Superintendent Davis are seeking to remove the only measure of accountability that remains to encourage schools to act reasonably.
Any proposal to give sweeping liability immunity to school districts will increase infection rates, make students and staff less safe and prolong the pandemic because schools will be allowed to act unreasonably knowing they are immune from accountability.
The Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) and the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) have issued their guidelines on safety measures, such as face coverings, hand washing and social distancing, and schools must adhere to these safety guidelines. If they do, they won’t have to worry about needing additional liability protections.
The laws in Illinois provide generous protections against lawsuits against school districts. Providing schools with additional liability protections, should they resume in-person classes, should not be on the back to school list.
Larry R. Rogers, Jr.
President, Illinois Trial Lawyers Association