Friday, December 1, 2023

University denies wrongdoing, but settles lawsuits over 2020 campus shutdown

NewsCampus NewsUniversity denies wrongdoing, but settles lawsuits over 2020 campus shutdown

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Shortly after COVID-19 reached the state of Delaware, classes were moved to Zoom for the remainder of the spring semester. Despite virtual instruction, the cost for students to attend did not decrease over the next year and a half of online learning, resulting in widespread dissatisfaction and even lawsuits filed by students.

On June 14, the university agreed to settle one such lawsuit for $6.3 million, enabling those who were enrolled as undergraduates at the university during March 2020 to receive partial tuition refunds of an estimated $188 each. The plaintiffs in the case – five former students – are entitled to $5,000 each, with the remainder of the settlement – $2.1 million – distributed to attorneys for fees and reimbursement expenses.

“If [the university] got a greater benefit than the students, then it was probably unjust for the school to keep the students’ money, as that enrichment has no basis in a valid agreement,” the case’s federal judge, Stephanos Bibas, wrote in his ruling. “But if an online education in spring 2020 was worth full tuition, then there was no net enrichment.”

During spring 2020, the university earned more than $160 million in tuition and fees, according to Bibas’ ruling.

For Robin Moore, who was a freshman computer science major during the transition to remote learning, it was not just that the format of her classes was altered. She felt that the quality of education she was receiving changed significantly as well. 

With less face-to-face instruction and more time spent behind a screen, her grades dropped and her mental health suffered, plus she found cheating to be commonplace amongst her peers.

“The option was either [online classes] or take a gap year,” Moore said. “It’s a tough spot because you want to graduate on time, but also online classes suck.”

The full undergraduate cost of attendance for a non-Delaware resident like Moore is upwards of $50,000 per year after tuition, fees, room and board.

Moore would “definitely say that” a part of her was thinking, “This isn’t what I paid for.” Because online learning so negatively impacted her, she believes that the time spent doing so should have been less expensive than in-person classes.

Moore’s experience with the online class transition, though non-ideal, was generally similar to other students both at the university and elsewhere. 

Various reports and studies have been published since 2020 concluding that when universities shut down their campuses, recorded incidents of cheating increased, while student engagement, performance and mental health decreased. 

Despite having settled the lawsuit, which prevents further court proceedings, the university denies all wrongdoing regarding their actions during the pandemic.

“The University of Delaware is proud of the integrated efforts of our faculty and staff to successfully transition more than 6,400 class sections from in-person to virtual instruction in spring 2020 in the face of unprecedented challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic,” the university said in a written statement regarding the settlement.

When contacted by The Review, the university did not provide a representative to elaborate on the university’s perspective.

José-Luis Riera, vice president of student life, did not respond to a request to comment on how the transition to online learning impacted student experience. Various professors also declined to discuss the issue on record.

“While we disagree with Plaintiffs’ claims, the university determined that resolving this lawsuit is in the best interest of our students and in order to remain focused on our mission to steer students along a fulfilling educational journey to earn their college degrees,” the university’s statement said.

According to Times Higher Education, there have been about 300 lawsuits of a similar nature filed in the wake of online learning, and the university is not the only institution that recently settled. The University of Colorado settled in April for $5 million, while the University of Minnesota settled in May for an undisclosed amount.

Author’s note: Are you a student or professor with thoughts on how the transition to online classes impacted you? Reach out to Tabitha Reeves at share your story/perspective.




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