August 6, 2020

Covering COVID-19 is a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas about the coronavirus and other timely topics for journalists, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

College tuition is often nonrefundable, so this year, students and parents are considering whether they should buy tuition insurance.

It’s a little like travel insurance in that it does not pay if a student drops out for just any reason. The insurance mostly only pays if a student withdraws because of health problems which, this year, could include testing positive for COVID-19, being ordered into quarantine or caring for a sick family member.

Forbes warned:

The most glaring exclusion for tuition insurance, given the current situation, are epidemics and pandemics. That said, the situation has been fluid. For example, while GradGuard’s plans excluded epidemics, the insurer issuing the policies, Allianz Global Assistance, announced it would cover students who had to withdraw in the spring due to contracting the coronavirus.

Fear of attending school because of the pandemic would not be covered.

Also, a student’s preexisting conditions might not be covered. Liberty Mutual’s tuition insurance covers preexisting conditions only if the student hasn’t received medical care or treatment or experienced symptoms of the condition within 120 days prior to the insurance purchase date and between the purchase date and first day of classes. reported:

If campuses send students home again, tuition and housing fees won’t be reimbursed by tuition insurance. Nor would you receive a refund because your student is afraid to move to campus or doesn’t like the online instruction delivery.

Policies also might not provide coverage for a student’s withdrawal resulting from participation in amateur sporting competitions, which could mean injuries from college athletics would be excluded. A plan from Atlantic Specialty Insurance Co. excludes alcohol use and pregnancy.

Generally, tuition coverage costs about 1% of the price of tuition, and usually costs less if you buy it through a school. For example, insurance for a $10,000 tuition would be about $100. But if you buy the plan directly from the underwriter, it could cost twice as much.

It would be a good public service for journalists to find out what each university near you says about their tuition refund policy during a pandemic. Forbes said:

Most schools have a refund policy that is similar to federal regulations for the return of federal student aid if a student withdraws from school.

“Typically, this is only a refund of tuition through the first five weeks of classes,” says John Fees, co-founder and CEO of GradGuard, a provider of tuition insurance. And refunds often are prorated, meaning that students will only get a percentage of their tuition payment back if they leave within the first five weeks of school.

A study conducted by HigherEdStudy for GradGuard found that only 6% of schools reported providing a 100% refund of tuition — down from 23% in 2015. None of the public colleges surveyed provide 100% refunds. And 40% of schools don’t provide any refund for student fees and academic fees. added:

Many schools offer a partial refund up to the fourth or fifth week and don’t limit refunds to medical events. Trinity College offers a sliding scale percentage up to the fifth week and then $0 after that. Boston University’s policy is similar. Or, if your student fell ill near the end of term after most coursework was completed, they might negotiate taking an incomplete and making up coursework without formally withdrawing.


There are several companies offering tuition coverage and they all, of course, have different terms and prices. GradGuard works with about 300 schools around the U.S. while Dewar, which has been in the insurance business 90 years, also covers private elementary and secondary school tuitions. Familiar insurance names like Liberty Mutual also are in the tuition insurance business.

A word of advice: Check to be sure you know who the insurance company writes checks to; the policyholder or the school. Some insurers pay the school directly.

Unemployment figures are coming tomorrow. Unemployment checks and a stimulus are still pending

The next couple of days will produce a lot of news that will compete for your attention. July unemployment figures come out tomorrow. Congress now seems closer to reaching some sort of agreement that would extend federal unemployment benefits and send millions of people a second stimulus check. Oh, and there is a pandemic.

The federal unemployment checks may take on a new urgency depending on what the unemployment figures show. ADP, the check processing company, said Wednesday that private-sector employment rose by 167,000 jobs in July. Consider that analysts thought the number might be closer to 1.9 million. That guess was based on big job gains in April, May and June. They did not make up what the economy lost in March, but it was moving along faster than many thought. It could be that the July figures will show the recovery has slowed by a lot.


Four big issues are sticking points in the negotiations for a new stimulus package:

How big will federal unemployment checks be this time? Democrats are stuck on $600 a week, while the White House and Senate Republicans started by offering $200 a week. A couple of Republican senators suggested Wednesday that the government could extend payments through December, but the formula is a lot more complicated than the flat $600 a week that just expired.

Will there be a second round of stimulus checks? Republicans are offering a $1 trillion stimulus package that includes another round of $1,200 direct payments to individuals and families.

It seems fairly certain that a second round of stimulus checks is coming. When Congress acts, taxpayers who earned less than $75,000 according to their 2018-2019 returns can assume their payment will be worth $1,200. (But, of course, there is always the chance that something will stop the passage of a stimulus bill, so don’t spend the money or even count on it until you see it show up in your bank account.)

Will there be a new moratorium on evictions? A moratorium could be welcome news for renters but would be horrific news for landlords who still have to make mortgage and insurance payments. President Donald Trump has signaled that he might try to use an executive order to extend the eviction moratorium and some level of federal unemployment if Congress can’t get it together, but whether he has that authority is uncertain.

Will an agreement include money to save the U.S. Postal Service from cuts? This is a complicated issue with so many thorns. The HEROES Act, passed by the House, includes $25 billion over 3 years for the USPS. A key question is whether the postal service will be up to the task to deliver election ballots in November.

Look at what happened in one community where schools reopened

Gwinnett County Public Schools, near Atlanta, are to reopen for virtual teaching next week. Teachers and staff reported to work to get ready for the fall semester and already, 260 school employees have been excluded from work because of COVID-19 concerns, which include either a positive test or having come in contact with positive cases.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution said:

Since Friday afternoon, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has received hundreds of phone calls, texts, emails and instant messages from Gwinnett teachers who asked to remain anonymous.

In-person training and meetings are taking place without areas being wiped down or disinfected in between and masks aren’t being worn at all times, said several teachers who didn’t disclose their names when contacting the AJC. Others added that their school still hadn’t received any hand sanitizer.

In nearby Cherokee County, Georgia, school had been open two days when a second-grader tested positive for COVID-19, which sent home that student, plus all of their classmates and the teacher, for a two-week quarantine. The teacher is not showing any symptoms and plans to continue teaching virtually throughout the quarantine.

And in Marietta, Georgia, school reopened with the news that at least five school workers tested positive for COVID-19.

Then there was the widely circulated photo taken inside a Georgia high school that shows mostly unmasked students crowded shoulder to shoulder in school hallways between classes. The school superintendent told parents the photo “does not look good” but the school is complying with state regulations.

He said schools can’t compel students to wear masks and he reminded parents that they chose to send their kids to school rather than take virtual classes. Oh, and he also blamed “the media” for making too much of all of this. One health expert wondered how it is that schools can send a kid to detention for not tucking in a shirt but can’t compel a kid to wear a mask.

I point to these few days in communities around Atlanta to say this is the kind of chaos that will become common in the next few weeks. It is difficult to imagine how parents will make plans for child care with such uncertainty. Which brings us to our next item in today’s newsletter.

Child care is key to workers returning

A survey by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce found that 40% of employers have ponied up for additional child care assistance or benefits to help parents during the pandemic.

Even before the pandemic, the Chamber found that a significant number of workers turned down promotions or even left the workforce because of child care troubles. And now the employers worry that a shortage of open child care spots caused by COVID-19 limiting centers’ operating capacities will cause even more pressures on working parents.

The pandemic also makes it more difficult for friends and family to care for children while parents work.

But when you look at what “benefits” and help employers offer, most of it is non-monetary.

(Survey and graphic from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation)

In a press release, the Chamber said:

40% of employers have offered additional child care assistance, benefits, or accommodations in response to the effects of COVID-19. This number is only slightly higher for essential businesses, at 42%. When asked what types of assistance they offered, the majority of employers identified remote work and flexible working hours or days. Only 1% of employers offered direct child care assistance such as onsite child care, back-up child care, or a partnership with an offsite/nearby child care provider in response to COVID-19.

Not only are employers worried about how to help workers come back to work, but there is a growing worry that a lot of workers simply will not return. The Chamber’s survey found:

40% of employers are concerned that some employees will not fully return to work (e.g., they will need or want to work less hours or work from home).

Employers believe this is mainly due to both health and safety concerns (81%) and child care concerns (79%).

Additionally, nearly one-quarter of employers are concerned that some employees will leave the workforce entirely.

Employers also believe this is largely due to health and safety concerns (78%) and child care concerns (63%). Employers in the health care and social assistance industries are more likely to have these concerns than employers in the education, financial services, or professional services industries.

Will COVID-19 patients regain their sense of smell?

Lots of people who had COVID-19 have said that one of the symptoms they noticed first was the loss of their sense of smell. National Geographic reported doctors are not certain if the loss of the sense will be permanent in some patients:

Case reports suggest that anywhere between 34 and 98% of hospitalized patients with COVID-19 will experience anosmia. One study found that COVID-19 patients are 27 times more likely than others to lose their sense of smell, making anosmia a better predictor of the illness than fever.

For most COVID-19 patients who suffer anosmia, the sense returns within a few weeks, and doctors don’t yet know if the virus causes long-term smell loss. While not being able to smell may sound like a small side effect, the results can be devastating. The sense is intricately tied up in self-preservation — the ability to smell fire, chemical leaks, or spoiled food — and in our ability to pick up on complex tastes and enjoy food.

Clorox wipes will be in short supply for another year

Linda Rendle, president of Clorox and soon to be its next CEO, told analysts on a Tuesday earnings call that Clorox wipes will be in short supply into 2021 because just as it is running factories 24/7, the flu season will increase demand. Clorox said last quarter’s revenue was up 22%.

Interestingly, the company said that even with record sales, it is going to keep advertising full-throttle, pointing out that the time to build your brand reputation is when people need you the most.

We’ll be back tomorrow with a new edition of Covering COVID-19. Sign up here to get it delivered right to your inbox.

Al Tompkins is senior faculty at Poynter. He can be reached at or on Twitter, @atompkins.

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
Al Tompkins

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