Patrick O'Donnell (copy) (copy)

Assemblyman Patrick O'Donnell (D-Long Beach)

Long Beach state Assemblyman Patrick O'Donnell introduced a bill Monday, June 29, that would limit COVID-19 liability for school districts this fall.

O'Donnell, chairs the Assembly Education Committee and is a high school history teacher, said his bill will help protect districts from COVID-19-related lawsuits as they try to reopen this fall. He said he expects the legislature will pass the bill before the end of the summer session, at the end of August.

"We need to do everything we can to protect the students, and the schools," O'Donnell said Thursday. "My bill will indemnify (protect from lawsuits) school districts as long as they follow all the state and local health directives. We still want school districts to use best practices when it comes to student safety."

Felton Williams, president of the Long Beach Unified School District board, said student and employee safety was the top priority. While he declined to comment specifically on O'Donnell's bill, he said potential liability is an issue in the discussion whether to bring students back to campus this fall.

"Liability weighs pretty heavily on us," Williams said. "We will follow all the state and local guidelines. We rely on them. The safety and health of every student is paramount."

O'Donnell said his bill carves out workers compensation and other employee protections, so teachers and other staff would still have recourse to legal action. He said school superintendents across the state have voiced concern about liability to their own legislative representations, and there was strong support for the bill's passage.

AB 1384 assumes students would return to school for in-person teaching. O'Donnell has supported that approach.

"I advocate in-person learning, but I'm also a realist," he said. "There's going to be three models — in-classroom, online and a combination of both. Different approaches work best in different parts of the state.

"School districts are going to have to be very agile. This bill will help with that."

Williams agreed, saying the recent surge in COVID cases is a good example of the need for flexibility.

"We're having a meeting soon, and we'll be updated on it (on-campus classes) again," he said. "So much relies on the pandemic. It may change week to week. We have to rely on the data and do the best we can." 

O'Donnell said it is important to move quickly on the bill. Some schools, including Long Beach start before the end of August.

“They have to make plans," he said. "Some of them start before Labor Day, although I'd like to see them slide that back. We have to act, so they can have some certainty when making decisions.”

The bill will get its first policy committee hearing when the legislature returns to session on July 13. It has been coauthored in the state Senator Susan Rubio (D-LA), with multiple signees in both houses.

Harry has been executive editor of Gazette Newspapers for more than 26 years. He has been in the newspaper business for more than 35 years, with experience on both weekly and metropolitan daily papers in Colorado and California.

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