In lawsuits against Emory and other schools, students lament online classes

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Legal actions mount as students target quality and experience of virtual education amid pandemic

Across the country, college students are filing lawsuits and launching petitions alleging their virtual experience was inferior to their in-person classes, and they are entitled to reimbursement of tuition and fees.

Among the colleges facing legal challenges are Emory, University of Miami, Michigan State, Columbia, Purdue, Drexel and Liberty.

While the students understand their campuses had to close in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, they contend, as a lawsuit against the University of Pittsburgh says, that virtual instruction is a “materially deficient and insufficient alternative.”

Students have begun petition drives at dozens of campuses seeking refunds for their Covid-19 quarter.

A petition at UCLA states:

Due to COVID-19 the world has changed drastically. Governments worldwide are taking extreme measures to prevent the virus from spreading. In times like this, the access to a remote-form of education is highly valuable.

Nonetheless, I speak for many that remote-learning does not have the same value as attending classes in person. And thus, we should not have to pay the same amount of tuition for services we are not having.

One of the campuses named in a lawsuit is Emory University in Atlanta.  A class-action lawsuit filed Friday alleges that students deserve a repayment of tuition in light of COVID-19.

The law firm in the case, Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP, has filed similar suits against the University of Southern California, Boston University, Brown University, George Washington University and Vanderbilt University.

“We believe that Emory’s community – the students that regularly fill its campus, and the parents and guardians who afford their enrollment – deserve payback for the tens of thousands of dollars they paid for tuition and other expenses following Emory’s campus closure and lack of accessible resources to its student body,” said attorney Steve Berman in a statement.

In its response statement, Emory said: “When the spring semester was disrupted by COVID-19, Emory University continued to provide our students with an excellent education as they make academic progress toward earning a degree.”

Essentially, the lawsuit argues students signed up for Emory, not the University of Phoenix. The lawsuit contends the shift to online classes limited students access to professors, functional lectures and activities.

"In matriculating at Emory University, Plaintiff, like other students, enrolled at Defendant for in-person classes to obtain a hands-on educational experience, avail herself of top academic instruction, and directly interact with faculty and classmates to increase her knowledge. On top of this, Plaintiff enrolled at Defendant to obtain not only the many benefits of Emory University as a whole but also the small-school, small class size environment promoted by Defendant."

Whereas Plaintiff could previously connect with her professors and classmates, Plaintiff's lecture-based classes immediately decreased in quality. Some of Plaintiff's lectures went from in-person sessions to pre-recorded, asynchronous lectures, or a mix thereof. With such shifts, real opportunities for her professors to adapt the lecture to facilitate student understanding were lost. Preplanned assignments that were part of Plaintiff's coursework and which required interactions with her classmates were cancelled with the shift to online learning. And opportunities to interact with her professors before, during, and/or after classes ended or was restricted to pre-scheduled, email-arranged meetings.

Emory and most other universities issued partial refund for dorms and meals, but the lawsuit contends it was not enough. “While Plaintiff vacated campus at Defendant’s direction on March 17, 2020, Defendant limits its refunds to a prorated period starting March 23, 2020. And Plaintiff’s balance of dining dollars was refunded at a 40% basis,” according to the complaint.

It is not only students already in college who are concerned about the effectiveness and experience of online learning. Newly accepted high school seniors -- some of whom are delaying putting down deposits or considering a gap year -- also don’t want to pay full freight if fall classes stay online.

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