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Seton Hall calls for legal immunity for colleges if COVID-19 comes to campuses in fall

Testifying alongside several other college presidents on Tuesday, Seton Hall President Dr. Joseph Nyre laid bare before the New Jersey State Senate’s Committee on Higher Education what it would take to safely reopen campus in the fall.

Nyre called for New Jersey to provide schools with rapid COVID-19 testing, mechanisms for contact tracing and personal protective equipment, as well as legal protections that would strip students and faculty of legal recourse against institutions if they become sick on campus.

Seton Hall President Dr. Joseph Nyre called on New Jersey to pass legislation that would protect colleges from litigation if faculty or students became sick on campus. (Nicholas Kerr/Editor-in-Chief)

“Legal protections for K-12 and higher education remains a concern,” Nyre said to the committee Tuesday during oral testimony, “So I ask you to consider Safe Harbor legislation to compliment anticipated reopening guidance and regulations.”

Nyre was one of several college presidents to call on the state senate to pass legislation that would protect universities from litigation that may arise from students and employees becoming sick on campus should universities reopen their doors for the fall semester.

“As we look to the fall, the fundamental consideration we are facing is ensuring our community members' safety,” Nyre said. “Students and their families need to feel secure when returning to campus or a classroom environment.”

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The requests  from colleges for immunity has catapulted New Jersey into the national debate over how the country should go about safely reopening society.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told Politico in late April that he and Senate Republicans were exploring options to include liability protections for businesses – a provision congressional Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, have opposed.

“The next pandemic coming will be the lawsuit pandemic in the wake of this one,” McConnell told Politico. “So we need to prevent that now when we have the opportunity to do it.”

New Jersey lawmakers made no commitments on Tuesday to shield colleges from such suits, though it’s still unclear if colleges and universities will be able to reopen at all in the fall.

On Tuesday, N.J. Governor Phil Murphy outlined a five-stage reopening plan for the state, describing the state’s response for each stage and how it impacts daily life.

Murphy said the state is currently in Stage 1 meaning K-12 schools as well as colleges will continue to engage in distance learning. According to the state, by Stage 2 educational facilities will be able to continue in-person instruction, but at reduced capacities – though Murphy declined to say when New Jersey might actually get to that point.

“We purposely have not married ourselves to dates because we don't want to give any false hope,” The Governor said during his Tuesday press conference. “We've purposely married ourselves, however, to the data, so when we make an announcement, we know it can stick.”

Nyre said that Seton Hall is in the midst of wargaming for what the fall may look like, activating multiple planning groups to lay out what a full return in the fall could look like as well as design contingencies for if the University cannot fully reopen.  

“I believe that the more comprehensive our planning, the greater our ability to effectively anticipate and overcome any outcome,” Nyre told the committee. “Keeping a university safe and planning for the future when so much is uncertain is unknowable act and it's around the clock.”

Nicholas Kerr can be reached at Find him on Twitter @nickdotkerr.


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