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Students Sue Colleges for Refunds Amid Pandemic

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  • A student at Liberty University has filed a complaint against the school, claiming that students deserve a refund as they learn remotely during the pandemic.
  • The student argues that the school’s assertion that campus is open is just an excuse so it won’t have to give money back, despite only very limited parts of being open or running.
  • The student also criticized the school’s slow response to the pandemic, as well as the school’s president for calling global responses an overreaction.
  • Students at Drexel University and University of Miami are also suing their schools, claiming that they are not getting the educational experience they were promised and paid for. 

Liberty University Complaint

Students at Liberty, Drexel and the University of Miami are demanding refunds on their tuition and boarding as they spend the rest of their semester learning remotely. 

Like many other schools across the country, all classes at Liberty University have moved online. While students receive instruction virtually, the school’s dorms remain open for students in need of housing, with dining hall options limited to takeaway. The vast majority of students have opted to finish the semester from home. Those remaining in the dorms are mainly international students with nowhere else to go. 

Despite major campus functions, like student organizations, sports, and recreation centers shutting down, the school still touts an “open campus.” A complaint filed on Tuesday by a student identified as “Student A” alleges that the school is making this claim in an effort to not be held liable for refunds. 

“The University’s statement that is open is an illusion being put forth to try to keep money that should be returned to students and their families,” Student A claims.

Liberty University is a Virginia-based private evangelical school known for its conservative Christian ideology and its president, vocal Trump-ally Jerry Falwell Jr. In a normal academic year, Liberty hosts 15,000 students on its campus and nearly another 100,000 online. 

“Despite ending on-campus services and activities for the rest of the semester and leaving students with no safe and practical choice other than moving out of their on-campus housing and discontinuing coming to Liberty’s campus, Liberty has refused to refund to students and their families the unused portions of the fees that they each paid to cover the costs of certain on-campus services and activities, which are no longer available to students,”  the complaint continues.

The complaint also states that at one point, when the school was telling students they were allowed to remain on campus, it encouraged students to consider staying home. While the school later claimed this was not meant to be a recommendation, students felt they were being told campus was unsafe and that the school did not want students to take them up on their offer. 

Liberty’s Response to COVID-19

According to the complaint, Liberty offered on-campus students a $1,000 credit to be applied to their Fall 2020 charges. The complaint called this a “mere fraction of what Liberty actually owes.” Dining plans at the school can run as high as $4,450, and housing as high as $8,000.

Student A also states that this credit will not do any good for students not returning to school for the fall semester, or students who do not live in residence halls. The deadline to receive this credit has also long passed. The decision was due March 28.

In addition to being frustrated with Liberty’s failure to take financial responsibility during the pandemic, Student A also criticized the school’s “glacially slow” response to the virus. The complaint notes that on March 13, President Falwell was still calling the global response an overreaction and comparing COVID-19 to the flu. 

Two days after this, he insulted a concerned parent on Twitter. That parent was afraid that once students inevitably return home after the semester, they could give the virus to their grandparents.

“Nope, then they’ll go off to summer jobs or internships dummy,” Falwell wrote back.

The school received more criticism in March after telling students they could return to campus after spring break. Over 1,000 did so, which soon led to several students testing positive for the novel coronavirus. 

Still, Liberty claims that they have not mishandled finances amid the virus. They told BuzzFeed News that the allegations in the complaint are “without legal merit.”

They also said the school has “taken into account the economic impact and legal rights of all the parties involved.”

Lawsuits at Other Schools

Liberty is not the only school getting slapped with legal action. Students at Drexel University and the University of Miami, who are also finishing their semesters online, have filed lawsuits demanding some of their money be refunded. Tuition alone at both of those schools is over $50,000. When you factor in room and board, the total is around $70,000.

Law360 obtained the suits against the schools, which were both filed out of the same firm in South Carolina on April 10. 

“Although [the universities are] still offering some level of academic instruction via online classes, plaintiff and members of the proposed [classes] have been and will be deprived of the benefits of on-campus learning,” both suits say. “Moreover, the value of any degree issued on the basis of online or pass/fail classes will be diminished.”

The students at Drexel and Miami believe that their tuition covers far more than just their academic instruction. They claim it extends towards computer labs, libraries, student unions and extra-curricular activities, art, networking opportunities and other campus resources, all of which are not available as students are forced to learn remotely.

It is unclear if students have a strong enough case for this to be true. While some experts believe that these tools are all promised and essential to higher education, others think the argument will not legally hold up.

“The students are going to have an uphill battle unless a school has actually shut down and they’re not getting credit,  James Keller, the co-chair of the higher-education practice at Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr LLP in Philadelphia told the Wall Street Journal.

“The basic contractual agreement is, I pay tuition, and if I satisfy academic requirements, you give me credit. That’s still happening.”

See what others are saying: (Wall Street Journal) (BuzzFeed News) (NBC News)

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Thanksgiving Travel Will Lead to COVID-19 Spike, Health Officials Warn

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  • As travel soared for the Thanksgiving holiday, health officials warn of an inevitable spike that will only worsen with Christmas on the way. 
  • Dr. Anthony Fauci urged travelers to isolate and quarantine as a “surge upon a surge” is on the way. Dr. Deborah Birx said that anyone who traveled should assume and act as if they have the virus.
  • The month of November saw 4.2 million cases in the U.S., nearly one-third of the cases the country has seen throughout the pandemic. Deaths are also on the rise again. 
  • But in good news, Moderna is submitting its vaccine for FDA approval. It is the second company to do so behind Pfizer, and says its vaccine is 94% effective.

Cases and Travel on the Rise

After the U.S. saw record-breaking pandemic travel leading up to Thanksgiving, top health officials are urging travelers to quarantine as a surge in cases is likely coming. 

On the day before Thanksgiving over 1,070,000 people traveled through airport security, which is the highest since the pandemic began, according to tallies from CNN Travel. While that is 40% less than the number of people who traveled the same day last year, it comes after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged the nation not to travel for the holiday. Over 6 million people went on to travel after the CDC made that plea. 

The U.S. has seen a total of 13.4 million cases and lost 266,000 lives to the coronavirus. On Friday, the country broke a grim record, reporting over 205,000 new cases in a single day. The month of November has been one of the most consequential when it comes to the spread of COVID-19. At least 4.2 million cases were reported in November alone. This is over double the 1.9 million reported in October, which is the month with the second-highest number of cases. It also accounts for over 30% of the country’s total cases since the pandemic started.

Deaths are also on the rise. Nearly 36,000 lives have been lost in November, the highest that number has been since May. The month with the highest death toll is April when just under 59,000 people died.

Health Officials Warn of Surge

Because a surge in travel came at the same time cases were already on a concerning rise, the nation’s top health officials are urging travelers to isolate and test themselves as another rush of cases is nearly inevitable. 

“We have to be careful now because there almost certainly is going to be an uptick because of what has happened with the travel,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases told ABC News on Sunday. 

“And perhaps two or three weeks down the line, Martha, we may see a surge upon a surge,” Dr. Fauci explained. “You know, we don’t want to frighten people, but that’s just the reality. We said that these things would happen as we got into the cold weather and we began traveling and they’ve happened. It’s gonna happen again.”

Officials believe that those who have traveled need to do everything in their power to prevent their ability to spread the virus as they return home. Dr. Deborah Birx, a top coordinator for the White House Coronavirus Task Force, said that travelers should just assume they have COVID-19.

“We know people may have made mistakes over the Thanksgiving time period. If you’re young and you gathered, you need to be tested about five to 10 days later,” she said on Face the Nation. “But you need to assume that you’re infected and not go near your grandparents and aunts and others without a mask.” 

The impacts of another surge could be severe. Across the country, hospitals are already overwhelmed. If cases skyrocket in the coming weeks, many places will not be equipped to handle the caseload. As Christmas approaches, travel and indoor gatherings will ramp up again, and another surge after that is also sure to come. 

Moderna to Seek FDA Approval

But hope is on the horizon. Pfizer has already announced that it has begun the process of seeking FDA approval for its vaccine. Now, Moderna is on the same track. The Massachusetts-based company plans on submitting its vaccine for FDA authorization on Monday after expanded data showed that it is 94.1% effective overall and 100% effective in preventing severe cases. 

Moderna’s study involved 30,000 people and resulted in 196 cases. The company said 185 of those came from the placebo group and 11 came from the vaccine group. It also said 30 of the reported cases were severe, all of which were from the placebo group. 

So far, Moderna claims the efficacy of the vaccine is consistent across a number of demographics. The company also says that while a safety review is still ongoing, no serious concerns have been identified. The most common reactions included injection site pain, fatigue, muscle and joint pain, and a few other milder side effects. In addition to submtting for approval from the FDA in the U.S., it will also seek authorization in Europe. 

“We believe that our vaccine will provide a new and powerful tool that may change the course of this pandemic and help prevent severe disease, hospitalizations and death.” Stéphane Bancel the Chief Executive Officer of Moderna said in a statement. “I want to thank the thousands of participants in our Phase 1, Phase 2 and Phase 3 studies, as well as the staff at clinical trial sites who have been on the front lines of the fight against the virus.”

Moderna’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Tal Zaks, told the Associated Press that when he saw how promising the results were, he became emotional.

“I allowed myself to cry for the first time,” he told the outlet. “We have already, just in the trial, have already saved lives. Just imagine the impact then multiplied to the people who can get this vaccine.”

Moderna expects to hold their big meeting with the FDA’s vaccine committee December 17, a week after Pfizer’s meeting. Once approved the vaccine will likely go to frontline workers and vulnerable populations first and both companies are getting ready to dole out vaccines the second they are allowed to do so. According to the AP, Moderna expected to have enough doses for 10 million people by the end of the year. Pfizer plans to have enough for 12.5 million in the United States. 

See what others are saying: (CNN) (Associated Press) (CBS News)

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As Unemployment Claims Rise, CA Officials Report Inmates Collected Millions in Benefits

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  • Unemployment numbers spiked for the second week in a row, marking the highest amount of new claims made since early October with 778,000 people filing. Over 20 million Americans are still collecting some kind of joblessness aid.
  • Experts say this will only get worse as COVID cases continue to rise and states impose more restrictions. However, unlike during the spring shutdowns, struggling Americans and small businesses will likely not have any help from the federal government.
  • Meanwhile, law enforcement officials in California reported that tens of thousands of inmates received upwards of $1 billion in unemployment benefits as part of a scam that officials described as “the most significant fraud on taxpayer funds in California history.”

Unemployment Numbers Spike

Another 778,000 Americans filed for unemployment this week, the Department of Labor reported Wednesday, marking the highest spike since early October and the second week in a row that new claims have risen.

According to experts, this data signals that the massive coronavirus spikes the U.S. has seen in recent weeks are slowing the economy once again. On Wednesday, the country reported a record 2 million new cases in the same two weeks that joblessness claims also went up, bringing the official case count to more than 12.6 million Americans infected and over 260,000 dead.

As the COVID-19 spikes continue, and with more state and local governments imposing new restrictions on public gatherings, limiting hours and operations for restaurants and bars, and temporarily closing down some businesses entirely, economists say this situation will get worse before it gets better.

Unlike the first wave of shutdowns this past spring, it seems almost certain that struggling Americans will have to weather these latest closures without any help from the government.

Already, many of the programs that gave trillions of dollars to unemployed Americans and small businesses under the CARES Act have expired, and most of the few remaining programs will run out soon.

That is especially concerning when it comes to unemployment benefits. According to a recent report from the progressive think tank The Century Foundation, unless Congress and the White House sign off on a deal to extend key programs, roughly 12 million Americans will lose these benefits entirely the day after Christmas.

But after months of deadlock, any hopes for a new stimulus package petered out when the election came around. Democratic leadership is reportedly attempting to restart those talks, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said he wants to approve some kind of bill before the end of the year. 

However, it remains unclear how all the problems that had deadlocked the lawmakers for months during the earlier negotiations will be resolved in time.

Inmate Unemployment Fraud

Meanwhile, states are still continuing to struggle with distributing unemployment benefits to jobless Americans.

On Tuesday, a task force lead by nine district attorneys across the state of California reported in a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) that tens of thousands of prison and jail inmates — including more than 100 people on death row — have collected hundreds of millions of dollars in unemployment benefits as part of a scam that the officials say “appears to be the most significant fraud on taxpayer funds in California history,”

According to the task force, between March and August, inmates housed in every single California prison and in jails throughout the state filed 35,000 claims totaling at least $140 million in benefits, though the alleged crimes could total as much as $1 billion.

In most cases, officials said that the payments were given out in the form of prepaid debit cards sent to friends or family on the outside who would then later deposit the proceeds to inmate accounts.

In some cases, the joblessness benefits were sent directly to the jails and prisons. Sometimes the inmates used their real names, but other times, they used fake names and fake Social Security numbers.

In fact, prosecutors were tipped off to some of the cases by listening to inmates recorded phone calls, where they bragged about how easy it was the game the system.

As far as how such widespread fraud could happen, law enforcement officials blamed California’s Employment Development Department, which has been swamped with processing more than 16.4 million unemployment claims since March, resulting in a massive backlog of unfilled claims that, according to reports, has totaled upwards of more than 1.6 million people at times.

However, the task force also said that part of the problem was due to the fact that unlike at least 35 other states, California does not have the technology to crosscheck inmate rosters against unemployment claims.

Looking Forward

In their letter, the officials called on Newsom to crack down on the rampant fraud and provide “significant resources” to do so. 

Newsom, for his part, responded in a statement by calling the fraud “absolutely unacceptable,” and ordering the Office of Emergency Services to create a task force to help the prosecutors with their investigation.

However, as The New York Times pointed out, Newsom had already formed a “strike team” a few months ago to help the state’s employment department speed up claims and address other issues, including fraud at correctional facilities.

The district attorneys were still forced to form their own task force with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation after the reports of fraud in the employment department continued and the “strike team” failed to uncover the large amounts of fraud the other groups had seen.

Currently, it is unclear how Newsom’s new task force is different from the largely unsuccessful “strike team.” 

California, of course, is not the only state having these issues with unemployment insurance fraud. There have also been similar reports of fraud in Massachusetts, Illinois, Kansas, and other states.

These problems also go beyond unemployment. There have been frequent reports of CARES Act funding being misused, including by people using small business loans to buy luxury cars, as well as large companies or businesses connected to President Donald Trump Trump and members of Congress improperly receiving funding.

As Congress considers another much-needed stimulus package, these issues of transparency and accountability have now become paramount. 

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (NBC News) (USA Today

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COVID-19 Cases Expected To Surge After Thanksgiving

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  • With coronavirus cases already on a steep rise in the U.S, experts are warning that Thanksgiving travel and gatherings will likely make things worse. Canada, for example, saw a jump in cases after its citizens celebrated the holiday last month.
  • Surgeon General Jerome Adams said that Americans should hold out for a vaccine, which is on the horizon, and be safe this Thanksgiving.
  • A family in Texas is also waring against gathering, saying they learned how dangerous it is the hard way. After celebrating a birthday together, all 15 people who attended the party tested positive for the virus.
  • On top of this experts are also warning against thinking a negative test clears you for socialization. In reality, you can test negative for the virus and still have and transmit it.

Warning From Surgeon General 

As Thanksgiving looms closer, warnings against family gatherings are being echoed by experts and everyday people alike. 

Health officials have been vocal about the threat the Thanksgiving holiday poses when it comes to the coronavirus. The U.S. has seen 12.4 million cases and lost 257,000 lives to the virus, and cases have been on a steep increase this month. The CDC has already warned against travel and experts have said that based on the spike Canada saw after its October Thanksgiving, America is set to go down a similar, or even worse path. 

“I want the American people to know that we are at a dire point in our fight with this virus by any measure,”  U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams said Monday on Good Morning America.Cases, positivity, hospitalizations, deaths. We’re seeing more Americans negatively impacted than ever before.” 

Adams said that with a vaccine on the horizon, Americans should just wait out this homestretch and stay put for the holiday.

“I’m asking Americans, begging you, hold on just a little bit longer,” he said. “Keep Thanksgiving and the celebration small and smart this year.” 

Family in Texas Urges Caution

Health officials are not the only ones preaching this advice. In Arlington, Texas, a family that has lived the consequences of gathering without regard for public health is urging people to not make the same mistake as them. The Aragonez family celebrated a birthday earlier this month indoors without masks or distancing. Now, all 15 people who attended tested positive for the virus. 

“We feel guilty for gathering,” members of the family said in a video encouraging caution. “All this pain that my family is feeling, this loneliness, this sickness, this longing to be healthy could have been prevented.” 

“Please don’t be like my family and ignore the CDC guidelines,” one person said. “By staying apart we can fight this virus together.” 

While most cases in the family were mild, one person was hospitalized for over a week.

“One moment of carelessness has cost us a month of peace, has cost us sleep, has cost us laughs, has cost us a lot of money,” one family member told the Washington Post. 

Testing Negative is Not Enough

Many have still forged on with their gathering plans under the false idea that if everyone tests negative before attending, they are in the clear to socialize. However, experts warn this is far from the case.

Just because a person tests negative does not necessarily mean they do not have the virus. Tests are not 100% accurate and it can take days or even a week to test positive for the virus after exposure. Not to mention, people could come into contract with the virus between their test and the family event. 

“A negative result is a snapshot in time,”  Dr. Paige Larkin, a clinical microbiologist at NorthShore University HealthSystem in Chicago explaining to the New York Times. “It’s telling you that, at that exact second you are tested, the virus was not detected. It does not mean you’re not infected.”

While it might slightly minimize the risk of spread, it certainly does not eliminate it. More than anything, it gives people a false sense of security that they have a free pass to go wherever and see whoever they want, despite the fact that it still poses a large health threat.

See what others are saying: (New York Times) (Washington Post) (Associated Press)

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