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Sen. J. Rogers Pope, R-Denham Springs, right, chats on the Senate Floor after handling House Bill 59 which passed in the Senate 33-2 Monday June 29, 2020, in Baton Rouge, La. The measure provides relative to limitations of liability for public and private school districts and postsecondary institutions during a declared state of emergency or a public health emergency.

Legislation that would ban most civil lawsuits against school districts and colleges if students or teachers contract the coronavirus will be decided on the final day of the special session.

The Senate on Monday approved an amended version of the House-passed measure.

But the House on Monday evening rejected those changes, sending the proposal to a House-Senate negotiating committee to try to work out differences between the two versions.

State Sen. J. Rogers Pope, R-Denham Springs and former superintendent of the Livingston Parish school district, said school leaders need safeguards spelled out in House Bill 59 to comfortably reopen schools in August. "I think very strongly we need to do this to offer a little bit of protection so we can have school and get kids back into a building," Pope told the Senate Monday morning.

While the bill has won lopsided approval in both chambers, it has sparked arguments behind the scenes.

Critics contend the legislation would cripple the ability of families and teachers to recover if they contract the virus because of sloppy procedures by schools.

Rep. Buddy Mincey Jr., R-Denham Springs, a 13-year veteran of the Livingston Parish school board and chief sponsor of the bill, told a Senate committee on Friday that he too is afraid that public schools will be reluctant to reopen without new legal protections.

Mincey also said the bill was never intended to hurt students or school employees "although that has been implied by others."

Backers have said repeatedly the bill would not change worker's compensation coverage enjoyed by teachers and other schools employees even though those payments are capped.

The special session has to end by Tuesday at 6 p.m.

HB59 is being sought by the Louisiana School Boards Association, which represents board members statewide.

Cynthia Posey, director of legislative and political affairs for the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, one of the state's two teacher unions, told the Senate Education Committee last week that her group was inclined to support the bill, then took a neutral stance amid calls and concerns from teachers.

Posey said some LFT members "are afraid districts will not adopt policies that protect them."

The stance of the other union, the Louisiana Association of Educators, is unclear.

Under HB59, civil lawsuits would be an option only if school districts display gross negligence during the public health emergency.

The Senate approved an amendment offered by Senate Education Committee Chairman Cleo Fields, D-Baton Rouge, aimed at ensuring school employees will be working in a safe environment.

The change would require the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to adopt emergency rules based on guidelines spelled out by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that would serve as minimum standards that schools would be required to adopt.

College governing boards would be required to do the same.

During committee debate last week Fields also added an amendment that would limit the civil liability only to COVID-19, the current strain of the illness caused by the virus.

Mincey's original proposal provided a more expansive list of public health emergencies.


Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.