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Napa CIA students sue culinary school over tuition during pandemic

If student bakers and cooks can't actually practice baking and cooking at school, should they get their money back?

Adriana Carlin says the answer is yes.

Carlin, a student at the Culinary Institute of America's Copia campus, is the lead plaintiff in a class action lawsuit filed in Napa County Superior Court on March 22 against the CIA.

According to Carlin's attorney, Cheryl Kenner, CIA students enrolled at its multiple locations during the pandemic were short-changed when the school had to shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Even after the school was able to reopen via online instruction, students received "subpar educational instruction," according to the suit.

Instead of "world-class" facilities with "high quality kitchen, bakeshop and dining equipment for use as teaching tools," students were barred from campus and the school imposed "mandatory virtual classes," said the complaint.

"It was prudent to shut down (due to COVID-19), but to continue to charge the same amount of tuition is just unbelievable to us," said Carlin's attorney.

A representative from the CIA could not be immediately reached for comment.

Carlin said she had paid $9,691 for the spring semester tuition. In total, a degree at the CIA can cost as much as $15,540 a semester, plus other fees said the complaint.

According to the suit, the CIA delayed the start of programs in February 2020 until May 26, 2020, when instruction went online.

"Students haven't received what they paid for," wrote Kenner. The CIA shouldn't expect full payment of tuition and fees for services and facilities they have failed to provide.

For that reason, Carlin and attorneys are asking for a prorated refund of tuition and fees.

Kenner said she doesn't yet have a total number of students who would be eligible as members of the class action lawsuit, but "we believe it's at least in the hundreds." The amount or percentage of refund has yet to be determined, she said.

This kind of instruction has to be hands-on, said Kenner. "You want to see the instructor. You want to see the food you are preparing and taste it," she said. "It's just impossible to have remote instruction."

If Carlin completes her classes she would receive a degree, but Carlin still needs to know how to bake, said Kenner. If she can't do that because she didn't have the right kind of instruction, then the degree doesn't help.

"She's really lost out on the hands-on instruction," said Kenner. "That's the crucial element here."

This lawsuit could go on for a number of years after Carlin graduates, acknowledged Kenner.

However, "she's fully invested in doing this," said Kenner of her client.

Carlin could not be immediately reached for comment. Kenner said her client was studying to get her associates degree in baking and pastry. She had been living in Napa but is now learning remotely from Palmdale.

The original Copia — The American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts — closed in 2008 after seven years with $78 million in debt. The CIA, based in Hyde Park, New York, purchased the site in 2015 to convert into an extension of CIA Greystone, the St. Helena branch of the academy. The CIA at Copia opened in 2017.

You can reach reporter Jennifer Huffman at 256-2218 or jhuffman@napanews.com

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