The COVID-19 pandemic is disrupting almost every aspect of college and university life. According to New York Times data, there were at least 130,000 cases of COVID-19 reported on more than 1,300 college campuses, as of September 25, and that case number continues to inflate as students progress through the fall semester. The response from academic institutions towards the coronavirus pandemic has been varied. Some started the semester with a fully remote learning strategy, while others welcomed students back on campus with open arms. Many have opted for a hybrid solution, where students attend some classes in person, but only once appropriate health and safety procedures have been implemented.
Whatever their chosen strategy, academic institutions across the United States are contending with an entirely new set of risks and considerations amid the pandemic. One area of risk that is particularly gray, according to Howard Shulman, ARM and assistance vice principal at NFP, is liability. It remains to be seen how future liability claims might be processed now that most classes are being taught online as opposed to in-person and on campus. Shulman pointed out: “With liability, the major instances used to be slip and fall-type situations, but now, nobody’s on campus and yet they’re still involved with college life in a different setting. It’s a very gray area that’s yet to be forecasted.”
When navigating this uncertain playing field, there are certain best practices that colleges can follow to mitigate some of their risks – or at least their known risks on campus. Most have already followed, or are following, CDC guidelines around social distancing, mask wearing, and implementing other health and safety measures (including additional cleaning and providing sanitary stations) to prevent further spread of the virus. One of the most important things they can do, according to Shulman, is document these procedures and make those documents publicly available. That’s important, not only from a liability perspective because it could help colleges fight accusations of negligence should students fall sick and sue the institution, but also from an underwriting and insurance procurement perspective.
“Insurance companies want clients in this space to have [documented evidence] that they’re following CDC guidelines, they’re doing all of the necessary cleaning, they’re taking precautions with social distancing and making sure people are wearing masks, using hand sanitizer and so on,” said Shulman. “Some of the first questions that underwriters ask when considering an academic institution risk today are: ‘What health and safety procedures have they put in place? Is it in writing? Can we see it?”
For insurance brokers with college and university clients, the build-up to the next renewal cycle could be tricky, according to Shulman. That’s because the pandemic is piggybacking a hard market, the likes of which he hasn’t seen before in his 29-year insurance career.
“This is truly the first hard market I’ve experienced, where all carriers are looking for rate, regardless of everything else,” he told Insurance Business. “You could be a best in class insured, doing all the necessary things and having that written documentation, and your premiums are still going to go up just because of the actual marketplace. With that in mind, the advice I give to my team is to pay meticulous attention to detail, and to start the renewal process no less than 120-days out. That gives us more time to understand what current incumbent insurance carriers’ position is and what their intentions are, not just with pricing, but also with policy wording. Brokers are going to need to really fight for their clients in this marketplace, and it’s an uphill battle.
“So, the best practice is to start renewals 120 days out and to let your clients know exactly what the state of the market is - not just specific to their account, but what the market looks like overall. With colleges, for example, if I have a renewal coming up six months from now, I’m already out in front of them and letting them know that pricing is going up, coverages are going to be limited, coverages are going to be excluded, and we’re going to do everything we can to still bring forth the best product for pricing. And then, it’s vitally important to keep in touch with clients to manage their expectations about the marketplace, [and to understand] what their game plan is going forward, so we can bring that forth to the underwriters and have intelligent discussions around coverage options.”