Two University of Maine students are seeking tuition refunds in a lawsuit over the university system’s decision to move online during the coronavirus pandemic this past spring.

Hunter Stewart of Chicago and Nehemiah Brown of Orono say they paid tuition and fees for services that could only be delivered in person, despite being forced to take classes at home, according to a legal complaint filed in federal court Thursday. The students are asking for pro-rated tuition refunds and additional damages, arguing that the university system breached a contract by promising services it charged for but didn’t deliver. They are seeking class action status for the lawsuit.

UMaine and other Maine institutions of higher learning joined a push to move instruction fully online in early to mid-March, as the pandemic spread through the United States. The same week, Maine recorded its first case.

That year, Brown paid $4,800 in tuition as an in-state undergraduate student, and Stewart paid $17,586 as an out-of-state undergraduate, the complaint says. There were also fees – for Stewart, about $1,500, including $146 for recreation and $41.83 for student activities. But he couldn’t access those services, the lawsuit says, because the university also canceled or closed off access to health and wellness facilities, fitness facilities, student sports, and an in-person commencement, despite advertising those things in its brochures.

A spokesman for the University of Maine System declined Saturday to directly address the allegations in the lawsuit. The spokesman, Dan Demeritt, said the system’s focus was on protecting community members, and noted that the system refunded millions of dollars in room and board payments last spring.

“The safety of our Maine communities and interests of our students and their families have guided every step the University of Maine System has taken in response to the global pandemic,” UMaine System Chancellor Dannel Malloy said in a statement provided by Demeritt. “We promptly refunded pro-rated student room and board charges and continued delivering quality instruction through the end of the spring semester for the credit hours in which our students were enrolled.”


Malloy added: “We cannot comment further on pending litigation but stand by our record of safely continuing academic instruction for our students through the pandemic.”

The UMaine System officials also said that 98 percent of the students who started the spring semester remained to the end despite having to finish remotely.

Still, the lawsuit alleges, “The Maine System and the Universities have not made any refund of any portion of the tuition Plaintiffs and the members of the Class paid for the semesters affected by COVID-19, and they have offered no discount, rebates, or refunds going forward.”

The lawsuit against UMaine and the University of Maine System is one of at least 100 filed around the country by students objecting to the cost of an education that they say declined in quality when moved online because of the pandemic.

In Maine, a suit against the Council on International Education Exchange is headed to federal appeals court after a lower-court judge dismissed a Harvard College student’s demand for a refund of her study-abroad trip to the Netherlands.

The Portland-based nonprofit canceled the trip but did not refund the students; the judge who ruled to dismiss the complaint in August noted that CIEE had spelled out in its contract what would happen in the event of cancellations, and even mentioned the possibility of an epidemic.

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