Court denies tuition refunds to students who sued over pandemic rules

by Nikita Biryukov, New Jersey Monitor

An appellate panel last week ruled that public university students whose in-person instruction was upturned by school pandemic rules aren’t entitled to a refund.

The Dec. 30 decision affirms a trial court ruling that found the two universities in question did not have to partially refund tuition to students because in-person instruction went remote in March 2020. The judges ruled that New Jersey’s Emergency Health Powers Act insulates the schools from liability and does not violate the state or federal constitutions.

“Immunizing public entities from liability related to their actions in a statewide public health emergency is a key part of the legislative scheme, as it allows these entities to act quickly, efficiently, and fully to prepare for and react to such circumstances without fear of litigation consequences,” the decision reads.

In separate cases, students from Kean University and Montclair State University alleged the move to remote schooling constituted a breach of contract, claiming they were denied the education their tuition paid for.

They said the online classes provided them with a worse education and, in some cases, deprived students of access to necessary equipment.

The plaintiffs noted that online classes both universities offered pre-pandemic carried lower tuition.

Both universities issued refunds for housing and dining fees after going remote but kept tuition payments and other fees, including some related to on-campus facilities.

“Notably, plaintiffs do not contend the actions taken by Kean or Montclair in transitioning to total online instruction were unreasonable or unnecessary,” the ruling reads.

Gov. Phil Murphy directed universities to stop in-person instruction in an executive order issued on March 16, 2020. Both universities resumed offering in-person classes in the fall 2021 semester.

It’s not clear whether the plaintiffs will petition the New Jersey Supreme Court for an appeal.

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