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Weighing in for the first time on the push by colleges to be protected from coronavirus-related lawsuits should they reopen, Senator Patty Murray said she opposes granting a “liability shield” because it would essentially say, “it’s okay if students or employees get sick.”

The comments by the top Democrat on the Senate education committee in a statement to Inside Higher Ed contrast with those of the committee’s Republican chairman, Senator Lamar Alexander, who backs liability protection. They also come as associations representing colleges and universities earlier in the day called for Congress to provide the protection.

Nearly 80 education groups, including associations representing colleges and universities, wrote Congress asking for “temporary” protections from COVID-19-related lawsuits should they reopen campuses.

As first reported by Inside Higher Ed, colleges pushed for protection from pandemic-related lawsuits in a meeting with Vice President Mike Pence and before the Senate Judiciary Committee two weeks ago. The effort is part of a broader push by groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and supported by Republican congressional leaders, to block lawsuits should students, customers or workers contract the coronavirus.

In the letter to congressional leaders, the president of the American Council on Education, Ted Mitchell, wrote that “as colleges and universities assess how quickly and completely campuses can resume full operations, they are facing enormous uncertainty about COVID-19-related standards of care and corresponding fears of huge transactional costs associated with defending against COVID-19 spread lawsuits, even when they have done everything within their power to keep students, employees, and visitors safe.”

A shield is needed, Mitchell wrote, “to blunt the chilling effect this will have on otherwise reasonable decision-making leading to our nation’s campuses resuming operations in a safe and sensible manner.”

He wrote the protections should be given for colleges “following applicable public health standards, and they should preserve recourse for those harmed by truly bad actors who engage in egregious misconduct.”

Republican leaders in the Senate, including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the majority whip, John Cornyn, are working on a proposal to provide the protection for a range of entities. McConnell has said liability protection has to be part of any future coronavirus relief package. It’s unclear when Senate Republicans might release their liability protection proposal, but McConnell said Tuesday he expects Congress to take up another coronavirus package in about a month.

But Murray said there are other priorities. “Students and parents across the country are depending on colleges and universities to prioritize students’ health and safety. Many colleges are working hard to do the right thing -- but they need clear, enforceable standards and guidance from the federal government,” Murray said in the statement.

“Instead of just saying it’s okay if students or employees get sick, which is what a liability shield would do, we need to prioritize ensuring that -- when the time comes -- colleges can reopen safely and in accordance with the advice of public health experts. And as our coronavirus response continues, I’ll continue to ensure that colleges and universities have the resources they need to serve their students,” she said.

The issue is expected to be debated next Thursday, when the presidents of Purdue and Brown Universities and Lane College are scheduled to testify before the U.S. Senate's health and education committee on safely reopening campuses this fall.