COVID-19 Closures Are Leading Students to Sue Local Colleges

Acressotti Wikimedia Commons

A Westchester college is one of several class action lawsuits filed against universities physically shuttered by the coronavirus pandemic, making legal waves as students seek refunds on everything from meal plans to housing.

One of the first sectors to voluntarily close its doors at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, education has moved entirely online over the last several weeks. While primary and secondary school students are learning to make do, college students are some of the hardest hit, as entire campuses close — dining halls, gyms, libraries, and service offices included.

Arguing the current circumstances do not equate with the tuition, room, and board they prepaid, students throughout the U.S. have filed class action lawsuits in an effort to recoup some of these costs, one of them right here in Westchester.

Along with similar claims against Columbia and Long Island University, Pace University student Xaviera Marbury has filed suit in the State of New York against the school, alleging that the partial housing refunds promised by the school for on-campus students during the spring 2020 semester are “arbitrary and wholly inadequate.”

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Moreover, the suit seeks additional compensation for things like meal plans and the promise of in-person educational and student life benefits that are no longer available as classes occur solely online.

“These cases are about basic fairness. Colleges and universities are not unlike any other business in America,” says Roy T. Willey IV, the class action lawyer representing Marbury at the South Carolina-based Anastopoulo Law Firm. “They are not any more entitled to keep money for services they are not delivering than the mom-and-pop bakery on Main Street.”

Read More: Coronavirus Cancelled My Senior Year of College

Pace University’s spring semester began January 27 and was slated to run through May 16, however campuses have remained closed since students left for spring break on March 11. So far, the school has promised to issue partial housing refunds of $2,000 for Manhattan campus residents and $1,600 for Pleasantville campus residents.

“Students and their families have pre-paid tuition and fees for services, access to facilities and experiential education and the universities and colleges are not delivering those services, access, or experiences,” Willey says. “It’s not fair for universities with multi-million-dollar endowments to keep all of the money that students and their families have paid.”

The lawsuit estimates Pace’s current endowment at approximately $182 million.

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Though the lawsuit has been filed, the school has not yet been served and Pace University Director of Public Affairs (Westchester) Jerry McKinstry points out that transitional policies including student refunds are a new and developing process.

“Pace University, like other colleges and universities across the globe, was forced to quickly adjust to the effect of a pandemic on our institution. The faculty, staff and leaders of Pace continue to work tirelessly to support our students during this challenging time,” he says. “Since transitioning to remote learning, as mandated by the State of New York, academic programs and services have continued.”

According to Pace’s website, unused meal plan funds are carried over into a student’s next semester, or in the case of graduating seniors, refunded.

The school has also implemented a pass/fail option for most students to ease the stressful switch to e-learning and transitioned many campus services like the learning center and campus health services (including mental health counseling) away from in-person methods “to provide personalized, interactive support.”

“Housing fee adjustments for students who had to leave the residence halls are being issued,” McKinstry says, adding, “We are planning to use CARES Act funding to support our students when it is available.”

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