60% of law schools offered at least some live classes, ABA data shows

When the school year began in fall, school leaders grappled with just how to safely teach students. That’s because the COVID-19 pandemic does not follow any sort of educational schedule.

However, it does seem to ramp up when it gets colder and people are driven inside. Law school? It’s inside. 

Hence the debate …

All schools adjusted in some form or fashion. According to an American Bar Association count, the majority of the nation’s law schools — more than 80 — went online. Seventy offered in-person classes, with safety measures, such as social distancing and mask wearing, in place. 

The rest — about 50 — used a hybrid of the two.

The ABA cautioned that the list is fluid, that it was a snapshot at the time when the accrediting body reached out to schools to give both their primary and contingency plans for the fall semester. It has not been unusual for schools to adjust their teaching method depending on the pandemic’s affect.  

It was not an easy decision to continue online, given it’s hardly what traditional students seek when enrolling in law school. Online offerings have been a welcome addition, but working professions normally seek that method because of its flexibility. Schools had moved to the online format during the previous spring, when the virus began spreading. It was hoped to be a short-term solution. 

For fall, the move was a last resort, deans said. 

“This is not a message I wanted to have to write, but it is also a message that I now have no choice but to share,” said UCLA Law Dean Jennifer Mnookin, in a message to her students, about going online.

She noted how the virus had hit Los Angeles particularly hard last fall and cases and hospitalizations were rising. Plus, California colleges did not have state permission to re-open. 

She wrote: “I didn’t want this to happen. None of us did.”

Another Los Angeles school, the University of Southern California Gould School of Law, also went online, also to follow government safety guidelines. 

“We understand how difficult these times have been on our students, faculty and staff,” the school said in a statement. “They have done a great job coming together and supporting one another. While we look forward to the day when we can all gather together safely on campus, one of our top priorities is to provide virtual career-focused and academic-enrichment opportunities that allow our students to stay connected with faculty, alumni, one another and the community of practice.”

Ave Marie School of Law in Vineyards, Fla., went online for a host of reasons, including concerns over the how the law school experience would be affected if classes were held in-person. Students would have to wear masks for hours at a time; professors would be teaching from behind plexiglass; temperature checks would need to be done routinely …

“This is not what you and I have in our mind when we think about being on campus together,” wrote Kevin Cieply, president and dean, to his law school students. 

Some schools felt the need to solider on, with considerable safeguards in place. At the University of Alabama, they included:

  • High efficiency air filters, known as MERV 13 filters, are being installed in the HVAC systems in all UA buildings. 
  • All drinking water fountains have been shut off, except for those that allow students and employees to fill personal water bottle from the filtered water refill station.
  • All classrooms and restrooms are disinfected daily with an EPA registered disinfectant. 

At the University of South Carolina School of Law, which is using a hybrid method, students couldn’t just sit anywhere they pleased. Nor could they just wander into the classroom. 

“Each classroom contains markings, indicated by a green strip at the front of the desk, for where it is safe to sit. All seats that should not be used have been marked as such. In addition, one-way traffic patterns have been created in classrooms with two doors. All classroom doors now have a doorstop assigned that should be used to expedite entrances and exits while reducing common touchpoints.”

At least two law schools that offered in-person classes saw a COVID outbreak. The University of Wyoming College of Law reported six cases when school resumed in the fall. It had to pivot and move online for a period of time. 

The school did not have another outbreak, it said. For the spring semester, the school is offering a mix of in-person, online and hybrid. 

The University of Virginia School of Law also reported that “a small number” of students tested positive in the fall semester. The school continued with in-person instruction. 

“Our continued ability to offer in-person classes and services is a significant achievement, one that has taken enormous effort from every member of our community, and one that will continue to require vigilance and care,” wrote Stephen T. Parr, senior associate dean for administration, to the law school community. 

When it comes to spring, it appears that most schools are continuing with the model they used in fall. COVID, as noted, doesn’t follow a school schedule. It’s still a force that law schools are reckoning with.     

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