Lawmakers put liability issue on a fast track

Some lawmakers want to act — and act quickly — to protect schools from lawsuits amidst the coronavirus pandemic.

And they will meet again Thursday morning to talk about wording, in hopes of passing a bill before the start of the school year.

Rep. Greg Chaney, R-Caldwell

“We at least want to leave open the Hail Mary pass on that,” said House Judiciary, Rules and Administration Committee Chairman Greg Chaney, R-Caldwell, at the close of a three-hour legislative meeting Tuesday morning.

The working group of House and Senate judiciary committee members took no votes during Tuesday’s virtual hearing, and considered no concrete proposals. But lawmakers heard from several lobbyists who urged them to address liability issues, before the 2021 session convenes in January. They want lawmakers to pass liability protections during a special legislative session sometime this calendar year.

Schools are a driving factor in the discussion, and in the accelerated timetable. Some public schools are scheduled to reopen within the next couple of weeks. Under state law, school trustees are charged with protecting the health of their students. But some school leaders are worried about legal exposure, even if they put safety precautions in place. That’s because insurance carriers have said liability coverage does not extend to coronavirus cases that are tied to a campus.

And if school buildings reopen for face-to-face learning in the fall — as Gov. Brad Little, state superintendent Sherri Ybarra and the State Board of Education want — new coronavirus cases appear inevitable.

“There’s likely no way to prevent the transmission of the virus,” State Board executive director Matt Freeman told legislators.

Idaho School Boards Association executive director Karen Echeverria was among the lobbyist pushing for a special session. Public schools probably cannot require parents to sign a blanket waiver in order to send their kids to a taxpayer-funded institution. That means the schools could face legal exposure while dealing with myriad health risks — from maintaining social distancing on buses and in cafeterias to making sure young children wear a face mask, instead of treating it like a slingshot or using it like a handkerchief.

But education groups aren’t all on the same page.

While Echeverria and Idaho Association of School Administrators head Andy Grover urged lawmakers to move quickly, Idaho Education Association attorney Paul Stark questioned the need for legislation at all. He said existing tort claim law provides schools the legal immunity they need.

Meanwhile, the State Board has taken no formal position on liability protection legislation, Freeman said.

Sen. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise

The State Board’s neutral stance wasn’t lost on Sen. Grant Burgoyne of Boise, one of several Democrats who pushed back on the accelerated timeframe.

“I don’t see the urgency here,” Burgoyne said.

Nonetheless, working group members plan to work on language before they reconvene Thursday morning — once again, via Zoom.

One key question is scope, and whether a bill addresses only schools. Alex LaBeau — lobbyist for the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry, a powerful business group — opened Tuesday’s hearing by urging lawmakers to protect the companies that deliver needed goods and “essential infrastructure” to all Idahoans.

Rep. Caroline Nilsson Troy, R-Genesee

“(Businesses) have as much uncertainty as the schools do,” Rep. Caroline Nilsson Troy, R-Genesee, told colleagues. “Everybody needs to be important right now.”

If the working group can agree on some language — no sure thing, especially within the 48-hour window established Tuesday — lawmakers don’t have the final say on convening a special session. Gov. Brad Little will decide whether to bring lawmakers back, in person or virtually, for a special session.

Little has said he’s open to holding a special session to address liability issues. But there’s no guarantee he would sign off on the working group’s suggested bill, and convene a session, Chaney said.

 

Kevin Richert

About Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on KIVI 6 On Your Side; "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television; and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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