Student sues University of Missouri over online classes

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — A student is suing the University of Missouri System, claiming that the four campuses did not offer sufficient refunds to students when classes were moved online because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The student, who filed the lawsuit anonymously in Boone County on Friday, is seeking class-action status to sue on behalf of all students.

The plaintiff's attorney, Richard Cornfeld, of St. Louis, said the university did the right thing when it closed in response to the coronavirus pandemic. But he argues that students do not receive the same value from their education through online courses and no longer have access to campus facilities, student organizations and other in-person activities.

The anonymous student and others "did not choose to attend an institution that only offered an online education," Cornfeld wrote in the lawsuit. "Instead, they chose and paid or the complete in-person university experience."

The lawsuit does not suggest an exact amount that students should be refunded. Cornfeld said attorneys and a jury likely would have to determine that number.

Spokesman Christian Basi said in a statement that the university "vigorously" denies the claims in the lawsuit. He noted that the system has already returned some student fees, such as providing prorated room and board, moving remaining meal plan balances to the fall semester or refunding them to students who won't be returning, and refunding a portion of recreation center fees.

The lawsuit if one of dozens filed at colleges across the country by students unhappy with the switch to online learning.

Meanwhile, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Missouri rose by 108 on Thursday, raising the statewide total since the start of the pandemic to 11,340. Another 30 people died, bringing the state's death toll 661.

The state Social Services Department said Thursday that it received a federal waiver to extend emergency food stamp benefits through June. The waiver will allow Missouri to continue offering the maximum food stamp benefits to everyone on the program.

Jennifer Tidball, the director of the Department of Social Services, warned in a news release that families should be prepared for their benefits to drop back to normal in July.

Elsewhere, the state health department said it was dropping an emergency rule that gave the health director the authority to ban large gatherings and gave local health officials the authority to close schools and bar other gatherings during designated statewide pandemics.

The agency wrote that it needed the change "to ensure that the director of the Department of Health and Senior Services has the clear and immediate authority to limit the size of public gatherings to limit the spreads" of the coronavirus.

"This emergency amendment provides for the isolation or quarantine of persons and animals with a communicable disease and their contacts," the agency wrote May 1 in the Missouri Register. "It also authorizes the closing of schools and places of public and private assembly as well as the issuance of gathering orders."

Nineteen Republican state senators wrote a letter urging the department to nix the rule. Republican Sen. Bob Onder claimed it would give local health officials permanent authority to close schools, churches and other gatherings.

But health department spokeswoman Lisa Cox said in an email that the rule "did not increase the power of the Department or local health authorities."

"Bottom line, the considerable amount of confusion and misunderstanding regarding what the amendment does outweighed the benefits of the rule," she said.

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Associated Press writer Margaret Stafford reported from Liberty, Missouri.