Risk trends in higher education are stacking up
Amid emerging liabilities, institutions face steep learning curve
Educational institutions from primary and secondary schools, to colleges and universities, are beset by a broad variety of risks. With traditional liability risks increasing and new ones emerging following the global pandemic, many institutions face a steep learning curve in how to mitigate their risks.
As schools continue to recover from the impact of the pandemic, many are seeing a rise in COVID-19 lawsuits. An initial wave of litigation after many campuses resorted to lockdowns and shifted to remote learning involved claims from students seeking refunds of tuition and fees. While many of those cases have been dismissed, institutions still bear the costs of defending legal actions. Now, more institutions are seeing employment practices liability claims from faculty and staff alleging wrongful termination during the pandemic.
Litigation risk arising from the pandemic is not the only concern, however. Across the board, educational institutions are having difficulty finding qualified employees to replace those lost during the Great Resignation. This demographic shift accelerated during the pandemic, leading to early retirements and fewer teachers, nurses, administrators and other staff at primary, secondary and postsecondary schools. For example, in some K-12 districts, office secretaries are dispensing medicines, and school principals are acting as substitute teachers in classrooms. With faculty and staffs stretched thin, adherence to school risk management and safety procedures can become inconsistent.
Risks on the rise
Other risks that are on the rise for educational institutions include:
- Automobile liability. Bus services and fleet vehicles on school campuses have always presented risks for schools. Auto liability risks are growing again post-pandemic as students return to in-person learning and other programs requiring transportation resume.
- Traumatic brain injuries. With athletes back on the fields, contact sports at the high school and collegiate levels are seeing more incidents of traumatic brain injury (TBI). These are typically costly claims to defend and expensive to settle. Helmet sports such as football and lacrosse have long recognized a risk of TBI, but schools are now seeing these claims in other, non-helmet sports as well, as such as soccer and basketball.
- Sexual Abuse. States across the country have enacted “reviver” statutes with additional ones being added. These reviver statutes allow survivors of childhood sexual abuse to bring civil claims after the statute of limitations has passed. Past sexual abuse claims that were investigated, dropped, settled, or dismissed may return and new ones will most likely arise.
- Wrongful termination. Wrongful terminations claims are increasing, and not only related to the pandemic. Accusations of retaliation, age discrimination, racial bias, and disability modifications are some of the types of wrongful termination suits being brought against educational institutions. Defense costs are mounting, pressuring institutions to settle cases. As a result, settlement amounts are increasing.
- Cyber. Remote learning during the pandemic expanded cyber exposures for virtually all educational institutions, as schools and students scrambled to complete coursework. As higher education institution employees continue to teach or work remote, it appears online education is not going away any time soon. This causes an increase in Cyber Liability and the need to insure their complex, virtual networks are properly secure to reduce the risk of ransomware attacks and breaches. Ransomware attacks, which are skyrocketing for many industries, have been a particular problem for schools.
- School safety. Crime on campus has been a concern for many years, but an increasing worry for institutions everywhere is active-shooter incidents. The traditional openness of schools as a place for community learning, particularly for public institutions, creates significant security challenges.
With so many different risks, it can be bewildering for risk professionals at educational institutions and their risk advisers to know where to start mitigation efforts. Some of the risk mitigation strategies that institutions should consider are:
- Continuous training. Faculty, staff and students come and go frequently, which means knowledge and awareness of risk and safety issues are constantly needed. Continuous training programs can help institutions maintain effective risk management policies.
- Up-to-date risk management policies and procedures. Every institution’s risks differ, depending on their location, operations, and the programs they offer. Risk management policies and procedures should take into account all of these elements, and institutions should revisit these periodically to update them as circumstances evolve.
- Crisis management planning. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take much today for a seemingly isolated incident to become a public crisis. A cyberattack, an accident involving students, an active-shooter incident – these and other events can catapult institutions into chaos, strain institutions’ relations with their communities and damage their reputations. Crisis management planning is a critical task for institutions, before, during, and after a crisis happens.
- Munich Re Specialty Insurance has been serving public entities and educational institutions for more than 30 years. Working with strong partners in insurance and risk management – an insurance company with extensive knowledge of educational risks, and an experienced agent or broker – is a smart move for institutions of all sizes.
For more information on Munich Re Specialty Insurance’s Public Entity Risk Solutions, please visit https://www.munichre.com/us-non-life/en/solutions/specialty-insurance/public-entity-risk-solutions.html.
Bob Duffner is Senior Vice President and Public Entity Underwriter, Public Entity Risk Solutions, at Munich Re Specialty Insurance. The Public Entity Risk Solutions team has supported public and non-profit entities, self-insureds and pools for more than 30 years with custom products and services that help manage risk with forward-thinking strategies.