UNION TOWNSHIP (Union) — An appeals court has dismissed a lawsuit from students who claimed they didn't get the on-campus experience they paid for when Kean University switched to total remote learning at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fulltime undergraduate students in the consolidated suit asserted that they should be refunded tuition costs and other fees for the Spring 2020 semester.

According to court documents, the public university with over 16,000 students charges less for its online programs than its on-campus classes which also came with various fees for athletics, gyms, capital improvement, and a student government fee. The students agreed that Kean was required to suspend its in-person courses but that there was "a clear implied contract for in-person learning."

In their lawsuit, the students called the remote option provided to them during the spring semester "subpar." They said the experience suffered from a lack of facilities, materials, and faculty access.

"Students have been deprived of the opportunity for collaborative learning and in-person dialogue, feedback, and critique," they argued in court documents. "The remote learning options [were] in no way the equivalent of the in-person education that [p]laintiff[s] and the putative class members contracted and paid for."

However, Friday's ruling found that Kean was "immunized" and protected by the Emergency Health Powers Act when it moved all its classes online on March 16, 2020. The same day, Gov. Murphy issued an executive order requiring all institutions of higher learning to suspend in-person learning.

"Permitting plaintiffs to recover damages related to those actions would run counter to the Legislature's purpose in granting authority to the executive branch to take such actions to thwart the dangers posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. We find no basis to frustrate the Legislature's intent," the court wrote.

The appeals court agreed with a lower court ruling that found Kean provided educational services and allowed undergraduate students to complete their degrees on time.

Kean also asserted that it had agreed to provide general educational services, not specifically in-person classes, to students. The university further stated that it refunded housing and dining fees to students for the semester.

Rick Rickman is a reporter for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at richard.rickman@townsquaremedia.com

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